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Promises of Change: Reconciling Reality and Expectations in Fragile States

This post originally appeared on the World Development Report 2011 blog on August 16, 2010.

I was listening to a report on the radio last week about winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. You know, all the stuff about moving from the number of insurgents killed and hectares of poppy fields destroyed to how many miles of roads can be travelled in safety and the number of people benefiting from agricultural extension projects.

The journalist ended the dispatch by saying that these new ways of looking at progress are all very well, but what matters most are people's perceptions of what the future holds.

Afghanistan has many problems and skepticism over the war continues to grow. But there are also some objective reasons for hope. There has been an explosion in cell phone use and measures of maternal health and child mortality show progress. More girls are in school and more women in parliament. But to the average man and woman, these incremental changes have not been enough to overcome a pervasive sense that prospects for improvement are dim.

As governments in Afghanistan and other fragile states pursue the tortuous business of reform, they cannot rely on promises of better security, improved livelihoods and more social justice to impose their own logic on people's minds. The rationale of reform will not spontaneously emerge for war torn citizens without the connections made through consistent, disciplined communication.

After years of insecurity and hopelessness, you have to actively persuade people to suspend their disbelief and invest themselves in the future. Evidence shows that purveying raw information and data is not enough. Rather, it is about changing perceptions through carefully crafted and targeted messages that address people's concerns directly.

2010-08-16-AfghanMan.jpg

Go ahead, make your case.

Copyright: Nick van Praag

Finding ways to communicate persuasively is not a silver bullet. It takes more than smart communications to challenge vested interests or deter insurgents bent on resisting changes in the status quo. But communication can play a powerful role in consolidating support from allies, winning over the doubters, and reassuring the fearful--as well as undermining the credibility of opponents.

So what are some of the lessons for leaders in fragile states who want to turn the tide on public mistrust and build support for a better future?

First, openness and dialogue are crucial. Without them, the facts are obscured, valuable feedback is lost, and the trust necessary to make a credible pitch to the public is missing.

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