West African Countries Build Strategic Communications Programs to Help Meet MDGs

Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger want to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to improve access to water and sanitation services by 2015. But they still have a long way to go. Each country needs to connect an average of 7 million more people to new or safer water and sanitation services.
These three West African governments realize that technical and financial solutions are only part of the answer for improving and expanding services. Creative and sustainable solutions are also deeply rooted within communities. Finding what citizens are concerned about day-to-day and then building awareness around the options for reform is critical to encourage public debate and discussion.
All three countries are decentralizing their water and sanitation services. These new service mandates come with financial challenges, but also with opportunities for bringing local governments and municipal providers closer to people where citizens are better empowered to be part of the process and demand accountability.
To support the decentralization process and to assess the political and social environment for reform, the governments asked the Water and Sanitation Program for technical assistance and expertise to help them build strategic public communication programs.
In Niger, the focus is on urban sector reform. In Benin the government will focus on rural sector reform, and in Burkina Faso the communications program will support both urban and rural communities.
The communications programs were launched early in 2009 and will support the governments’ broader National Water and Sanitation Reform Programs as they work towards meeting their MDGs.
In each country, a national committee was set up to oversee the development of the strategic communications program, including opinion research, as well as the development and implementation of the strategy.
“We’re excited about helping these governments increase the dialogue between the government and its citizens,” said Serigne Mbaye Seye, Communications Specialist, Water and Sanitation Program. They are all very committed to finding local solutions and building up demand for services.”
In Niger, the government is hosting a two-day ‘public information day’ in September 2009 in the country’s capital, Niamey, so that various stakeholders can display information and engage with the public as they all work towards figuring out the best options for moving forward.
“This public fair is open to everyone and provides an opportunity for all stakeholders to share their experiences, ideas, and solutions,” said Malan Youssouf, National Director of Rural Water Supply in Niger. The exchange will help stakeholders promote their initiatives, share experiences, and learn from each other.
Building capacity
Each program will also help build capacity for strategic communications planning at the municipal level through training and encouraging the hiring of new staff specifically charged with implementing the communications programs. For example in Benin they have started developing training modules for managers on how to use the internet, improve their public speaking and writing skills, and engage with the media.

In only 3-4 months, the governments were able to position new agents in charge of communication for water and sanitation, including the recruitment of a communications focal point at the Ministry of Hydraulics in all three countries. And, in Burkina Faso, two more staff were hired to manage media relations.

Opinion Research
Public onion research carried out early in the process revealed that overall citizens support reform in all three countries: nearly 75 percent of citizens think that hygiene and sanitation costs are reasonable and more than 90 percent of citizens expressed a willingness to support government initiatives aimed at creating a healthy environment, whether by paying taxes, or participating in purchasing cleaning equipment.
All three countries face similar social and political issues that hinder efforts to build awareness around the dire need for better water and sanitation services.  These include high illiteracy, particularly in rural areas, and a general lack of knowledge about diseases related to drinking non-potable water or bad hygiene and sanitation habits.
Each country held an average of 50 focus groups with 10-12 people. The focus groups were followed by at least 50 individual interviews with NGOs, water specialists, journalists, and representatives from the private sector.
The cost of water is also controversial as people move from urban to rural areas. “People are used to getting water out of rivers and streams for free, but in the city water has a cost because utilities have to build networks and lay pipes to deliver water. But people are willing to pay if they get good quality services,” said the President of the women association of Bobo Dioulasso (Burkina Faso’s second largest city). Opinion research found that nearly 70 percent of the people were willing to pay for water services, particularly people going from rural to urban areas who said they were willing to pay for water 24 hours a day, seven days per week.
In Benin, much of the focus was on women, since it is they who collect the water for their families. Research showed that both women and men are willing to pay for water if they can get a connection in their home.
Stakeholder Meetings
Each country has finalized a communications strategy and presented the findings at national stakeholder workshops that were open to the public. The workshops provided an opportunity to create a common vision between the governments and stakeholders who were able to provide feedback on the proposed communications strategies. It also helped demonstrate the value and transparency of communications programs in supporting the overall reform program.
In Benin, participants formed working groups to obtain detailed feedback on the strategy and to brainstorm about ideas on how best reach to out to citizens. They also invited officials from other countries to participate in the meetings to share lessons learned. 
Considering the requirements for achieving immediately measurable objectives (in terms of infrastructure and access rate) communications is often not a priority, participants concluded. Yet, many experiences have proven that in water related development projects, communications programs are not a luxury but rather a powerful lever for change and progress.
Participants also learned that difficulties in implementing communications plans often result from over ambition that cannot be met with the sponsor’s institutional capacity. It is often necessary to readjust objectives and priorities around two or three major themes while taking into account expectations of the various players. The plan becomes simpler, its scope lines up with the sponsor’s institutional capacity, and the necessary technical and financial resources may be accordingly reduced.
The national workshops were followed in each country by a roundtable with the technical and financial partners such as donors, NGOs, Cooperating Agencies, and municipalities on clarifying roles and responsibilities and how they can support the overall communications objectives.
As the governments implement their strategies, they will continue to coordinate and share lessons learned and best practices.
In Benin, the government will take their message to the streets and villages using mini- buses fully equipped with television screens that will run educational videos on health education and the relation between health and use of clean water. The buses and equipment were funded by the Japanese government.
In a demonstration of support from its chief executive, Burkina Faso’s President acknowledged the communications strategy, suggesting it should serve as a pilot for other sectors.