The COVID 19 pandemic and resultant lockdowns have thrown up an array of challenges for all of us. Those of us working directly in communities, facilitating change, advocating for rights and providing services, are having to rethink our models of engagement. One such project for us at StratComm was with Aga Khan Foundation where we were designing a phased SBCC package for a nurturing care intervention in Uttar Pradesh. We (Aga Khan Foundation and StratComm) had followed an intensive design thinking process, initiating design phase by phase, with insights from each one feeding into the other. The package included a set of group sessions and home visit plans, including games and exercises, that the outreach staff could use with parents of children aged 0 to 6 years. Just as we were completing the last phase of the package, the pandemic and lockdown brought to a standstill our on-site plans.
Parallelly, households across communities were forced to figure out how to keep children engaged at home in the absence of school and in the face of social distancing. Nurturing care became an even more important theme for work now. The question at hand was: How can a programme designed for in-person interactions and communication, adapt itself to digital means? What are the considerations to keep in mind while repurposing communication aids for digital transmission?
Here are some steps that helped us ensure that digital content was relevant and accessible for the communities it was designed for.
Selecting the channel: Digital communication holds within it a myriad of formats and can be disseminated through a variety of channels. What was most appropriate for the communities that AKF was working with? From conversations with the state and outreach teams, WhatsApp was identified as a channel that reached a majority of parents. Using WhatsApp for dissemination meant that the user did not need to invest in additional skills or get familiar with new apps.
Selection of format: The losses in wages, income and livelihood owing to the lockdown have been well discussed. This was observed to have a direct bearing on spending on data plans and phone recharges as families reduce spending beyond essentials. This immediately ruled-out data taxing formats such as videos and we narrowed in on static cards with text and image as the most feasible format for this intervention.
Selection of messages: Meeting some of the project objectives called for normative change. Based on the understanding that normative change takes time and a series of sustained interactions, the digital repurposing focused only on the most doable actions keeping in mind the COVID 19 linked restrictions and safety. Uptake and familiarity with these small actions would make it easier for discussions on more complex themes like social norms at a later stage. The AKF national and state teams arrived at a set of priority parenting tips and early childhood development activities to support caregivers to engage with young children at home.
Testing: Most parents linked to the programme had access to WhatsApp and multimedia messages through their feature phones. However, either most designs in the development sector are targeted for print or if digital, they are designed for smartphone users with advanced resolution contrast and colour displays. We tested each product on Jio phones (popular in the project areas) and revised designs to make them clearer and more appealing on feature phones.
Training the frontline workers: Anganwadi Workers, CDPOs, and ICDS supervisors were trained on using these cards. These included online training through video calls as well as physical training in small groups following distancing. The training included the development of a weekly schedule that could be followed.
Enhancing uptake by adding interaction with frontline workers: The messages were categorized into phases and cards for each phase were colour-coded and sent out by Anganwadi Workers. The Anganwadi Workers also sent in specific voice notes with each message and followed up with households over calls. Soon many households sent in images of children playing and parents engaging in recommended activities. The home visits by the Anganwadi Workers further corroborated this.
Continuing with feasible offline platforms: Where caregivers do not have access to phones, Anganwadi Workers are leveraging contact points with parents during home visits, distribution of take-home ration and vaccination drive to talk about nurturing care in parenting and activities they can do with children during the lockdown.
As we journey through this lockdown and pandemic, many organizations are switching to digital communications and we are taking this journey along with them. However, context appropriateness and testing remain paramount, irrespective of the formats.