I was recently in Sierra Leone and Liberia to record a series of podcasts for AGI. The things I saw ranged from the jaw-dropping beauty of dawn on the road out of Freetown to the gut-wrenching destitution of the poorest residents of Monrovia. Yet it was something much more ordinary that provoked a range of bewilderment and disbelief in me as the towns and villages went by. I can’t be the only one who has laughed and almost cried at some of the ludicrous signs erected by development agencies on roadsides around the world. Call me a communications geek but some of these signs are physical embodiments of the worst gobbledegook tendencies of the aid industry.
But why do a few pointless or ineffective signs matter? Well in rural Montserrado one group of locals refer to their hometown as ‘low cost village’ named after an otherwise long forgotten UN-led agriculture project. Jargon has taken root in the real world.
It’s easy to laugh and often we should – but behind the humour lies wasted money and wasted opportunities to address real problems.
I saw four types of signs on my trip but I’m willing to bet there are more.
First are the development partner public information efforts. Many of these are rusty and outdated but by no means all. One sign sporting a Christian Aid logo (among others) features a picture of a parrot, a crab and a tilapia and exhorts Sierra Leoneans to ‘stop destroying our lives’ but offers no clue as to how. A UN Women billboard warns against under-age sex and tries to make use of imagery as well as text to get its point across but largely fails. Text is after all a questionable communications tactic in a country where over a third of adults can’t read.
Second is the project recognition sign, usually stationed beside a piece of infrastructure and emblazoned with a donor logo or national flag. Ok so these signs are not really for the benefit of the local population, they probably exist more the benefit of development partners but still, they are a waste of money. I’ve heard tell of significant five figure sums being spent on consultants drafted in by donors to brand public infrastructure projects. Ok, there’s also a serious purpose to some of these signs, one associate wishes we had more of them here in the UK to point out the contribution of the EU coffers to the UK’s infrastructure but we’re probably some way off a referendum on the future of aid flows to any developing country.
Third is the government commissioned public information sign. These are often really bad. Some
look like development project bid documents painted freehand onto a sheet of a metal, others extol the virtue of ‘capacity building’ and other such development clichés.
Fourth and final were the more recent public health adverts aimed at stopping the spread of Ebola. Many of these are much better, making strong use of images and conveying concrete messages not abstract ideas about corruption or climate change.
I haven’t worked for the sort of organisation that would get involved in public information projects like these but I’d be interested to hear from people who have. It’s possible these signs don’t cost much money, or all the examples that piqued my curiosity are out of date. Perhaps they’re proven to work and I’m just being cantankerous or maybe those communications-savvy staff attempting to address the issue are downtrodden and overruled. There’s lots to be learned from advertising agencies and other communication experts about how to get messages across. Surely we can do better than this?
Over to you: send me [dgreen[at]oxfam.org.uk] your photos of terrible aid signs, and a line on why you hate it, and we’ll have a vote. I suspect there are a lot worse than these ones sitting out there by the roadsides.