Community Engagement through Social Mobilization

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Red Cross volunteers in the village of Kolebengo, one of the most resistant villages in Guéckédou, on August 23, 2014. Photograph by Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

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On September 16, 2014, 150 adolescent girls trained by UNICEF and partners marched across the West Point community in Monrovia to launch Adolescents Leading the Intensive Fight against Ebola, or “A-LIFE.” Photograph by Ahmed Jallanzo, UNICEF

Community engagement was a key factor in the decline of Ebola transmission rates.  Throughout the Ebola epidemic, social mobilizers—NGO staff, community members, volunteers, students—were on the ground to provide information and support, and engage community members in strategic dialogues. These efforts ranged from large, coordinated campaigns to local district initiatives. In some communities, where resources were late arriving, communities organized their own responses.

The most effective mobilizers were trusted people already living in the community, with outside mobilizers—such as the Social Mobilization Action Consortium (SMAC) in Sierra Leone—providing support. Community engagement worked best when community leaders were consulted as experts in their own culture, tradition and practices, and community members were empowered to analyze and take ownership of their own situations, and then take action.

To help stop the spread of Ebola, Red Cross volunteers in Guinea visited communities to meet with residents face-to-face. They spoke about changing attitudes and practices that could spread the virus. 

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A social mobilizer distributes soap to a woman in Freetown, the capital on September 21, 2014. Photograph by Tanya Bindra, UNICEF

The Ose-to-Ose Tok (House-to-House Talk) campaign

From September 12–21, 2014, in Sierra Leone, social mobilizers, youths, and volunteers in teams of four went door-to-door to reach 1.5 million households to share information on ways families could protect themselves against Ebola virus disease and prevent its spread. Each group consisted of a health worker, community volunteer, youth leader, and teacher. They knocked on every door to dispel rumors and misconceptions about Ebola and promote good practices such as handwashing. Each household received information, education and communication materials on Ebola prevention, and a bar of soap for handwashing. Soap, when used as part of proper handwashing techniques, helps to half the spread of diseases, including Ebola.

Jernigan, Daniel

Dr. Daniel Jernigan

Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division in CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, discusses the importance of social mobilization.

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U-Reporter Michelle Abika inputs information into a cellphone in the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia on January 14, 2015. Photograph by Mark Naftalin, UNICEF

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A Red Cross staff member uses a megaphone to provide health advice to people on the street in Conakry, Guinea, April 19, 2014. Photograph by Marie Agnès Heine, WHO

From Cellphones to Megaphones to Motorcycles: Tools to Engage Citizens

In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, social mobilizers had many tools at their disposals to assist in spreading awareness about Ebola, including the use of Short Message Service (SMS)/text messages. For example, in Liberia, UNICEF developed a text-based communication platform—U-Report—that allowed individual subscribers to ask questions about issues, get real time answers, and share information with other users. CDC partnered with telecommunication companies throughout the region on similar initiatives.

The use of town criers or traditional communicators is common in both rural and urban West Africa. Megaphones, frequently used to gather crowds and make announcements, became recurrent tools in the Ebola communication toolbox. And mobilizers traveling among villages made sure that their vehicles included Ebola prevention messages.   

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A social mobilizer in Sierra Leone. Photograph by David Snyder, CDC Foundation

Social Mobilization Action Consortium (SMAC), Sierra Leone

In mid-2014, the Social Mobilization Action Consortium (SMAC) was formed to organize intensified village-level efforts, with CDC serving as a technical consultant. In addition to CDC, partners included GOAL, Focus 1000, BBC Media Action, and Restless Development. SMAC aimed to reach communities and villages with critical life-saving and behavioral change messages through over 2,000 community mobilizers organized in teams of two. An estimated 70% of Sierra Leone communities were reached, and information flowed down to the villages and back up again to the organizers, so that they could adjust their messages. 

Throughout the response, T-shirts or polo shirts identified social mobilizers. This one was worn by a member of a local NGO in Bo district, Sierra Leone.

Below you can watch a video of Bye Bye Ebola, a song produced by SMAC to celebrate the end of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone on November 7, 2015 (although there was a later flare-up). Throughout the Ebola response, social mobilizers frequently used popular music as a communication tool.

 

Bye Bye Ebola song, courtesy of SMAC

Citizen-Driven Response

The citizens of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—with so much to gain and so much to lose—were the true first responders to the epidemic. Time and time again, they took responsibility for their destiny. In an act of citizen engagement, street artist Stephen Doe took two months, starting in September 2014, to complete this large Symptoms of Ebola mural in Monrovia.

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Symptoms of Ebola mural in Monrovia. Photograph by Dominique Faget/AFP, Getty Images