By Clarissa Perkins, Communications Specialist, mSTAR
Funded by USAID and led by FHI 360, mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,904 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. This post is part of a blog series on mSTAR/Liberia: what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future.
“What! Three months now and I can’t get my salary? This thing is getting really serious ooo.”
On a dimly lit stage at the closeout event for mSTAR’s Liberia project, staff member, Florence Gbondo, plays the part of “Teacher Peppeh,” a teacher who struggles to get her salary. On stage, Florence walks back and forth shaking her head. The audience, leans in, rapt.
Florence acts out Teacher Peppeh’s bumpy motorbike ride from her small village in River Gee to the capital city of Monrovia. Through the five-minute “drama,” as they’re called in Liberia, the audience, encompassing high-level leaders across the Government of Liberia and USAID, at times laughs, at other times shakes their heads in commiseration, their eyes constantly trained on the actors.
Context and culture are paramount when sharing information. In office settings in the United States, people might share information at a closeout event through pie charts in PowerPoint presentations. In Liberia, it turns out, dramas are a major key.
The skit wove the benefits of the mSTAR activity into a witty, relatable story acted with gusto, large gestures and enthusiastic expressions. It ended with the value of mobile money salary payments and the systems mSTAR set up in Liberia evident as Teacher Peppeh resolves her salary issues. “Thank you, yaaaa!” she and the other actors exclaimed on stage as they throw their arms in the air.
In Liberia, a country rebuilding from two civil wars and the Ebola epidemic, the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project, funded by USAID and led by FHI 360, worked with the Government of Liberia to enroll civil servants into mobile money salary payments. For years, it has been typical for civil servants to spend a significant amount of time and money to pick up their salaries. Mobile money salary payments, however, have proven to reduce the time and money civil servants spend receiving their salaries.
At the beginning of the activity, it was clear that mSTAR’s mission would not be easy. Roads are few in Liberia and often untraversable during the rainy season. Cell coverage is spotty. Mobile money, while common in the capital city, is just taking off in rural areas, and trust in mobile money service providers is low.
With the obstacles apparent, mSTAR had to cleverly demonstrate the value of mobile salary payments to civil servants. To do this, mSTAR got to the heart of how information is relayed in Liberia. Senegalese President Leopold Sedar Senghor’s classic reframed version of “I think therefore I am,” to “I dance therefore I am,” only begins to shine a light on how European and North American cultures receive and express information differently than other cultures such as those in West Africa.
mSTAR worked with the Government of Liberia to build a communications plan with dramas at the core. From radio ads and cartoon posters to a training video and a map showing where civil servants enrolled, mSTAR worked the story of two rural teachers, Nyemah and Kebbeh, who struggle to get their salaries and then sign up for mobile salary payments, into a host of materials targeted to the Liberian audience. Each piece mSTAR created aimed to tell a story.
And it seemed to work. Whether projected on a sheet at a training in a rural community center or on a TV in a government hall, each time the training video is shown, the audience leans in, laughing and relating to the struggles of Kebbeh and Nyemah. When surveyed by mSTAR, attendees overwhelmingly testified that they understood the program.
When communicating to donors and American audiences, mSTAR pivoted its communications, creating infographics and blogs which Americans gravitate towards: explanations of processes, pie charts and bar graphs.
In the end, mSTAR enrolled nearly 5,000 education and health workers in the mobile money salary program, reaching every county in Liberia. Through mobile salary payments, workers were able to spend 12 more hours per month at their job and save 60% in costs when retrieving their salaries. Mobile money salary payments are beginning to normalize mobile money in rural Liberia and build the mobile money ecosystem, setting the ground work for greater financial inclusion and economic development.
The development community knows that understanding local contexts and cultures is key for a successful project. mSTAR took that to heart, bringing all stakeholders into the creation of products to see it through authentically. When the activity ended, because mSTAR had worked with the government on each material, the government partners had the tools to continue to promote the program, using the story of Kebbeh and Nyemah. Paying attention to and incorporating local customs helped mSTAR succeed in Liberia, laying a foundation for buy-in by the government and trust with beneficiaries.
Clarissa Perkins is the Communications Specialist for the mSTAR project at FHI 360. She has experience conducting communications for a host of causes including economic empowerment and innovation, the protection of migrants and refugees, and uses of technology to increase food security, gender equality and economic growth. Clarissa has developed relationships and worked with foreign and local governments. She has experience communicating to audiences of various backgrounds using blogs, events, social media, digital, radio and print ads, infographics, videos, podcasts, op-eds and traditional press.