USAID: Changing Conversations

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Published in Aurora Magazine

By Ayesha Hoda

In an attempt at transparency and rebuttal of myths about US assistance, an ad campaign ‘Roshan Pakistan’ (Brighter Pakistan) was launched by USAID in May this year.

The campaign apprised us of the role of USAID, a US government agency which provides development assistance to countries around the world, including Pakistan. Over the years, USAID has been active in various sectors and socio-economic programs designed to impact hundreds of communities across the country.

The organization has only recently started focusing on directly and heavily advertising its assistance in Pakistan. USAID spends less than 0.5% of its annual budget on public communications efforts. It was only in early 2011 that it conducted the first large-scale ad campaign although it has been advertising for several years in other countries like Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia and Egypt. In Pakistan, USAID has previously advertised causes such as enrolment in modern teacher education programs, tourism revival in Swat and energy efficiency efforts.

Roshan Pakistan is the largest USAID ad campaign, not only in Pakistan but all over the world. Communications Specialist at USAID Pakistan, Virginija Morgan says that this is an effort to increase transparency and accountability.

“I am sure you have heard people of this country questioning how exactly US assistance is being used,” she says. “Advertising campaigns such as these help answer this question. Since the start of the campaign, we have heard many of our counterparts, and even people we meet in various communities, thank us for explaining what assistance is being provided to their country on behalf of the American people.”

Only a handful of people in Pakistan – government organizations, NGOs and teams of experts – deal with USAID directly. Hence, a need to utilize mass media tools was identified to reach out to the people who are experiencing the benefits of US funded programs in their lives. The primary target audience is thus SEC C, D and E, while A and B are secondary.

The campaign, whose concept was born in early 2012, was created by Interflow. The agency has been engaged with USAID indirectly for many years for other projects such as Key Social Marketing, PAIMAN, Abt. Associates etc. For Roshan Pakistan, Interflow was however contracted as a partner under the banner of the Public Communications Project (PCP).

Syed Atif Saeed, Group Account Director (Designated Director Operations for PCP) at Interflow, reveals that the umbrella concept/strategy of the campaign was “Roshan Pakistan”, selected on evidence based procedures through research.

“The rationale behind this is that everyone wants a ‘Roshan Pakistan’. The three areas USAID spends immensely on are education, poverty alleviation and energy. All these focused areas synergize with the umbrella concept aptly,” he says.

The campaign was run in three phases. According to Interflow, Phase I (May and June) consisted of information and education communication component (IEC), that is, it familiarized people with the development initiatives USAID has taken in Pakistan. The introductory print ad tells us how USAID is trying to achieve a Brighter Pakistan. The other print ads focus directly on education, energy and poverty alleviation, with detailed copy which sheds light on the areas and projects USAID has invested in. The second phase (August and September) ads are a combination of IEC and Behavioral Change Communication (BCC). This is a thematic campaign which was geared towards building an emotional connection between Americans and Pakistanis, by depicting friendship, tolerance and highlighting the contributions of USAID employees.

For Phase three (October – November), the agency tweaked and made some adjustments in the earlier communications based on feedback received. For example, research revealed that people often watch television by switching off/lowering the volume so written text in the form of pop-ups was introduced on the screen. The print ads in this phase were not too different except for some changes in copy.

Roshan Pakistan stands apart from other social development campaigns of NGOs and youth groups as it does not ask for donations or volunteering support or talk about patriotism or any cause in detail. It merely talks about USAID activities in certain sectors, what positive changes these can bring and Pak-American friendship. This serves the purpose of the campaign since the objective here is not to market any particular cause or program.

The TVCs and radio spots are in the same vein as the print ads but they tell a story: the story of making a difference through assistance and joint efforts. Three of the ads are based on common Pakistanis and their daily issues, which can be resolved by improving literacy, providing energy and employment opportunities to the less privileged. The main thematic ad shows USAID workers mingling with local citizens. Whether this has generated a wave of positive sentiment or not is debatable.

Unlike other local and international social sector campaigns, Roshan Pakistan also does not present anyone as a victim in need of assistance – no images of extreme poverty, dismal living conditions, children out of school etc. – and neither portrays development as a simple process by promising instant change. Watching it for the first time, you might think it is an ad for a telco or an FMCG brand. But the TVCs have the ability to draw you in. What works for the print ads are the examples of the large projects USAID has undertaken or invested in over the years.

The campaign was run on a 360 degree basis, including outdoor, TV, cable, cinema, print, radio and digital mediums. It was a nationwide initiative. The first year’s KPI was to raise the awareness level from 8 to 12 percent. The second year’s objective is to take it to 24 percent.

However, against the volatile political backdrop and anti-US sentiments of the public, the campaign, its entire look and feel, can seem highly optimistic, especially with regard to relations between common citizens and their American counterparts.

“In general terms the campaign was launched with a lot of apprehension and fear of backlash,” shares Atif. “But no noteable negative feedback has reached us. In terms of statistics, key performance indicator of raising awareness by 50 percent has been achieved.”

Virginija Morgan adds to this by mentioning that they are already witnessing the impact of Roshan Pakistan as dinner table conversations in many households have moved towards the importance of education, job training and energy efforts; people are showing an interest in replicating some of the initiatives.

The campaign is still at a nascent stage and as with any such awareness/image building campaign, significant impact can only be visible after subsequent reinforcements of the messages. Therefore, USAID plans to continue the campaign in the future.

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