The agency sharing NGO research as comics + Bollywood films

The homepage of this children’s rights NGO begins with weighty and overused phrases: they are ‘inclusive, sustainable and equitable’. The text is strewn with jargon – ‘ecological footprint’, ‘scalable models’, and ‘poorest of the poor’. But this NGO is not alone. Social change organisations everywhere are prone to dry explanations and meaningless platitudes.

Pradip Saha, co-founder and CEO of communication consultancy DamageControl (DC), has strong views on the need for lucid and direct communication, believing that good research can be lost to its tedious presentation: “The low rate of meaningful and permanent change in India may be attributed to this absence of the right social marketing,” he says.

DC has offices in Delhi and Mumbai. They run a tight ship with five people on one-off projects and retainers with clients such as the GIZ (the German government’s international development agency), Oxfam India, Actionaid, ICLEI (South Asia) and Change Alliance.

NGOs come to Saha to convert reams of their unwieldy research into more attention-grabbing, aesthetic and accessible packets of information. DC tries to deliver this through short films, exhibitions, graphic novels, and recently on social media. Here are their top suggestions on bringing social impact campaigns to life.

Say it clear, not just loud

His company took NGO Chintan’s research on how electronic waste is recycled, retelling it in the form of a comic book using photos, computer images, and text, trying not to miss the relevant social context. They based the comic in a far-flung east Delhi slum which is the city’s largest dump for pre-loved electronics, and toxic e-waste. This scrap is harvested for usable parts by an informally engaged and poorly-paid workforce consisting of many children.

For the comic book, E-Waste Sutra, DC and Chintan’s director, Bharati Chaturvedi, imagined three kinds of phones: smart phones, dumb phones, and the rarest of them all, wise phones. The protagonist is discarded Wisephone, on its journey to be reassembled through the bowels of the informal electronic waste depots of Seelampur. “Our challenge was to avoid preaching to young adults, among the most adept users of gadgets,” says Saha. (Read the comic here.)

Participation, not just facilitation

DC’s aim is to enable and aid, and open doors to what plain language and clear communication can do. And Chintan’s Chaturvedi is happy with the work. “We like their thinking and politics — it is aligned with ours. We like that they have both empathy and are very critical of our communications, but also understand our capacity and want to support our mission.”

It has participated in Chintan’s new campaign with Safai Sena, an association of waste collectors based in Seelampur. This programme, Pickmytrash, will help women and children – usually boys, but including girls – who work and live near these dumps. The children separate and sell toxic acid-washed trash to recyclers, living unhealthy but entrepreneurial lives, and do not attend school – something Chintan is trying to change.

The new project looks to eliminate manual scavenging and invest the traditionally lowly job of waste collection with a new, and well-deserved dignity. It will be much more geared to social media as it will focus on the rich and middle classes who produce the most rubbish.

“Chintan’s model is almost like an art project trying to change the thinking around garbage,” says Saha. Uniformed waste collectors will drive vans with publicity on the side of their vehicles. They will offer a free cleaning up service after parties at people’s homes, and set up food waste composters in offices.

Substance over style

Like Chintan, when the MIT-backed Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) wanted to sell iron and iodine-fortified salt (double-fortified salt or DFS) to villagers in Bhojpur in the region of Ara, they came to them.

Ara is an area with the worst nutrition figures in the country and ranks high for malnutrition markers such as anaemia. Given that the staple diet in this poor region is a salty rice-gruel, the NGO knew villagers could ill-afford balanced diets, so they invented DFS.

DC made a 26-minute film about iron-fortified salt with all the Bollywood trimmings of song and dance to talk about the research-approved shortcut to better health.

Following the film, J-PAL commissioned more research to ascertain whether their efforts had any impact. So, of 400 of Ara’s village shops, half were offered the option to sell the new salt at 50% or higher retailer margins, and Damage Control’s film screened for the potential customers. The report found screenings and economic incentives to shopkeepers significantly increased usage.

The opening spread of the EWASTE comic book

Communication, not marketing

Damage Control skip business corporations altogether, “I can’t be called a marketer. We just communicate ideas and refashion content,” says Saha.

He says unlike many design/communication consultancies they are unembarrassed about making crappy-looking flyers or a lowbrow comedy film, if those will get the message across effectively. DC strictly discourages the too cool for school attitude of some of its design peers in its own designers.

“NGOs shape our thinking about issues; they have access to the media, politicians, policymakers, and this is especially true for environmental organisations. Without meaning to, they use obfuscation and jargon, and though the media has changed, the language hasn’t. Even in 30-word social media posts they use six difficult words. Not everybody does it but it’s a habit that refuses to die,” says Saha. He is so keen on social impact because he is a development sector old timer — he worked for 18 years at the well-established NGO, Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Change, not hype

Saha loves to hate the likes-driven influencer marketing-relationships brands or institutions like to establish with users of social media. He thinks, and most NGOs in the business of change-making agree, that very little public service content on the social media results in any deep or meaningful change. And the causes they are unpacking at times drive towards people whose social media usage is minimal — bureaucrats or policy makers, or the poor and barely literate.

Every piece of work they do for a client is thought up from scratch. Their eye-catching Instagram debut 36 Days of Type, for which they played with typefaces, iconography and fonts was a pilot to see how Instagram reacted to their design work and fix the accent of their social media content in preparation for Chintan’s PickMyTrash campaign.

Saha has his doubts about the efficacy of social media in creating awareness or lasting change: “Trending is a 24/7 cycle and the most important discussions are forgotten rapidly. It sure can start a conversation, but beyond the short-lived hype can it do more? The changes we want are real. For e.g. if we want forest rights implemented, what can social media do? And I dread this business of buying likes,” he says, referring to Facebook’s facilities for ‘boosting content’.”

See Damage Control on Instagram

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