As I was reading a case study about the prevention and treatment of diarrhea in children in Egypt in the late 1970s, I had an epiphany. I was just finishing up a course about diarrheal disease in developing country contexts, and being quite conversant in all the major causes, dangerous signs and symptoms, and basic treatment options available when… the power of media and technology to impact health and development struck me.
In the late 1970s, the Egyptian government implemented the National Control of Diarrheal Disease Project (NCDD) with assistance from USAID to combat a widespread problem of severe-dehydration in the country. Severe dehydration associated with diarrhea was responsible for at least half of all infant deaths in Egypt at the time, and the program aimed to combat this problem through oral rehydration therapy (ORT). The NCDD program was extensive, thorough, and well-implemented. The program covered everything from the production and distribution of the oral rehydration salts, the education and training of physicians and mothers, and resulted in the documentation of radical reductions of infant and child mortality rates in the country over a 10 year period.
But as one person in the case study stated,“the most pivotal component of the program was the social marketing and mass media campaign.” Now that really stopped me in my tracks. I’ve taken classes on program development and implementation, and while challenging and fascinating… I had judged the social marketing components “soft” in comparison with the clinical rationale or intervention itself. But the more I read, the more I realized I was incredibly mistaken. The case study went on to tell that the launch of the NCDD program coincided with an important new phenomenon in Egypt - television!
In 1980, the share of households in Egypt with a television was just 38 percent. You can imagine the grand majority of those households were in urban centers, and very few were in the homes of the poorest Egyptians. But by 1984, the share had skyrocketed to 90 percent! That’s quite a jump in just four years. The program organizers leveraged this new technology and its widespread coverage as its primary media outlet. Television proved to be a “powerful vehicle to spread the program’s core messages and to reach even rural, illiterate households that would have been inaccessible to print media.”
Television allows people to watch and listen to messages without being able to read them. In countries where educational coverage is low and illiteracy is high, what a powerful tool! Especially since the key audience was mothers of children under three years old (who were more likely to be at home), the combination of television and simple messages about the preparation and use of ORT was quite potent.
After I recovered from my epiphany, I began to think about all the widespread technologies we can access now. I asked myself, “What is the ‘television’ of today? What new technologies can we leverage for national development, economic growth and education?”
The answer, I believe, is multi-faceted. Social media networks and new technologies have connected the world in a way that they have never been before. Our current ability to develop and instantly share ideas as well as news and information via the Internet and internet-based applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, is unprecedented. In addition to television, we now have widespread access to cell phones, computers, tablets, internet telephony and video streaming.
If we were trying to implement the same program in Egypt to solve the same problems today, we would aim to leverage the most relevant and accessible technologies for that population. This might include television, but would most likely rely heavily upon mobile technology and social networking capabilities that the original program developers in the 1970s could scarcely have imagined.
This is something I will to continue to ponder, but one thing’s for sure, the possibilities for the synergy between technology and development are endless!