The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the leading agency on international development, working in 170 countries and territories to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality. Working across such a large geographical area and with different countries, cultures, and development areas, clear and effective communications is critical for building trust with partners and communities, raising awareness of development challenges, and increasing the visibility of the work of the UNDP globally.
Commonwealth Alumnus Madalitso Mlava Mbendera is the Communications and Resource Mobilisation Analyst for the UNDP in Malawi. Here, she shares her insights on the importance of communications and media to the UNDP’s work in Malawi and her role in developing an effective communications strategy to raise awareness of the UNDPs work at the country level.
Delivering communications at scale
As a global organisation, the UNDP works with a range of implementing partners in each country to ensure its work meets the needs of local communities and country contexts. In Malawi, the UNDP is currently delivering 28 projects which each require a tailored communications strategy to demonstrate the progress and impact of the work.
Madalitso leads a small team of young communications professionals and interns tasked with developing and implementing each of these strategies. At the outset, she begins by designing an overarching communications strategy to complement the UNDPs five-year country plan for Malawi which includes all high-level communications activities for the period. From there, she develops smaller communications plans for each of the 28 projects delivered in Malawi, ensuring that they meet the needs and messaging of the partner and donor organisations delivering the work, as well as the overall communications messages of the UNDP.
This is no small feat, and requires Madalitso to work across different media, including writing press releases, event organisation, social media, and writing stories, articles, and blogs. Some of these tasks require significantly more time than others, such as documenting stories of change, which involves gathering on-location success stories to create online content and factsheets on individual projects. This content is written up to be published on multiple channels, for internal and external audiences, to increase UNDP visibility and brand promotion globally, but also raise awareness of the issues that UNDP is addressing in Malawi.
“It’s interesting, but it can be a bit overwhelming because you never stop moving. Everything is communications.”
With a small, junior team, this can be challenging work, and requires Madalitso to be constantly providing on-the-job training, whilst ensuring she is up to speed with the ever-evolving ways of communicating information for digital, print, and radio audiences.
One way that Madalitso manages the broad array of communications projects is to group them thematically and develop overarching communications messages that encompass the work delivered. This has included topics ranging from girls’ education, climate change, and disaster risk reduction (DRR).
“There’s a lot of planning to try to understand all the different projects that are there. It’s become easier for me not to put them as projects, but to put them as thematic areas. You can have five different projects, but really, what they’re trying to achieve is the same.”
Informing communities about disaster preparedness
A communications strategy that Madalitso is particularly proud of developing addressed Malawi’s DDR planning and forms part of a bigger Inclusive Disaster Recovery initiative led by the UNDP.
Over the years, Malawi has faced frequent and intense flooding, droughts, and other extreme weather conditions which have endangered communities and negatively impacted agricultural activities and infrastructure, causing significant risk to people’s livelihoods and the local economy.
Almost half of Malawi’s 28 districts are deemed disaster prone, but many of these districts remain unable to prepare for and manage disasters when they happen. Typically, this is seem in a lack of recovery capacity of key services and the failure to execute of early warning systems.
As the Head of Communications, Madalitso led the implementation of a multimedia campaign aimed to help scale up DRR and disaster management. The main objective of the campaign was to enhance awareness of DRR during the rainy season in Malawi’s flood prone districts.
As part of the campaign, Madalitso and her team created various multimedia content to communicate key information. Given the existing lack of awareness and critical importance of the messaging, the team put together a range of interactive, creative, and compelling pieces which communicated information related to mitigating, preventing, and preparing for disasters, with a focus on heavy rains and flooding. This included guidance encouraging people in disaster-prone areas to improve their housing and infrastructure and develop efficient waste management systems to prevent blockages.
Following the campaign and the wider initiative, Madalitso highlights some of the significant outcomes.
“Some of the key achievements and impact included the construction of 200 weather and flood resilient houses for the most vulnerable flood affected communities; restoration of two irrigation structures, two community markets two community water points in a bid to help the livelihoods of the affected communities, with infrastructures that can withstand future shocks; and the training of government officials and community members on inclusive disaster recovery.”
As well as the physical and environmental changes achieved through the campaign, Madalitso also cites the behavioural change achieved. Although this is harder to measure, Madalitso shares that seeing people change their housing and infrastructure demonstrates a change in attitudes and beliefs regarding DRR and preparedness as a result of the campaign information.
“Some people decided and have agreed to relocate, and they’re building stronger houses, and can actually see they now have a stronger house that will withstand the flooding.”
Campaigning for girls’ education
Prior to her work at the UNDP, in 2017 whilst working at Save the Children as Project and Communications and Advocacy Manager, Madalitso led the implementation of a ‘Keeping Girls in School’ campaign.
The campaign was designed to increase the number of girls that complete primary school education, and focused on school retention by encouraging a community-supported school environment to meet girls’ emotional and psychological needs. The campaign included lobbying activities targeting the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Gender, political legislators, community members, such as traditional and religious leaders, school leaders, and child protection committees.
Madalitso was tasked with developing and implementing the advocacy strategy, which involved coordinating Girls Advocacy Weekends for key stakeholders, delivering a media campaign to increase awareness on the minimum age of marriage of girls, and producing a Child Friendly Teachers’ Code of Conduct. At the government level, she identified key policymakers and organised lobbying meetings to push for the implementation of policies aimed at improving girls’ socio-economic development and life chances. The campaign led to the full implementation and awareness of the 1993 Malawi Re-admission Policy which provided a legal basis for the re-enrolment of teen mothers, furthering access to education for those whose learning had been disrupted.
Reflecting on this significant achievement, Madalitso acknowledges that it was not only a job but a personal passion to see better educational opportunities for girls.
“There are a lot of girls who may get pregnant and not be able to go back to school. But to make sure that a policy is in place and re-enforced. The teachers are aware of it, mothers are aware of it, and the communities are aware of it and, actually, support it.
“Going back to the community and seeing a young girl who’s being supported as a result of that policy. I think that’s why it still stands out up until now.”
Understanding the development landscape
Currently, Madalitso plays a critical role in identifying some of the projects and partner organisations UNDP in Malawi works with. She stays abreast of publications from other multilateral organisations and governments on their development focus and projects, as well as available funding and opportunities. This enables her to identify potential development partners and highlight development issues that other governments and partners may be willing to fund in Malawi. Her findings support the work of the Country Programme Team, who in turn develop the projects and establish working relationships with funders.
“When it comes to sniffing out what’s currently out there, we ask, what are some of the new development partners out there, what are some of the new bigger-picture strategy papers, what are they focusing on next year, how much are they willing to invest. And then you put it to the group – these are some of the specific areas that we can consider. These are the pipelines.”
The communications strategies for each project also seek to ensure ongoing support and funding. In a climate where development funding and grants are becoming more difficult to secure, this is an essential part of a communications strategy and by presenting the success and impact of the UNDP’s work, Madalitso hopes to ensure long-term funding and partnerships in Malawi.
Why effective communication matters in development
Prior to her Commonwealth Scholarship, Madalitso completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and worked in small NGOs undertaking administrative and communications tasks. At that time, communications was not seen as a core part of the work of charities and NGOs, and was often incorporated in other roles as a side job. Even now, with the growth of social media, not all organisations see communications as an important and strategic part of their work, and Madalitso has learned to stay firm and highlight the importance of her work.
“When it comes to communication, everyone feels that they can make really good ideas, they can input, they can control what you do. You always have to put your foot down and say, ‘I’ve had to do a postgraduate for this, I know what I’m doing’.”
Completing her MA in Media and Development at the University of Westminster provided Madalitso an opportunity to enhance her journalism skills and understand the importance of communications to development organisations. In particular, she highlights gaining critical analysis skills to understand the work of the agencies and how to use this to design appropriate and effective campaigns. Learning from teachers who had worked and developed campaigns in developing countries was particularly important for Madalitso, as the examples used in her classes were relevant and applicable to Malawi.
She also had the opportunity to practise the skills learned in a real-life environment.
“They attached us to a certain organisation to practise. For someone like me who’d worked within the NGO sector, it was a good to see how all the resource mobilisation, or the fundraising efforts are done and how organisations are set up.”
Madalitso is proud of all she has achieved so far in her career and her last five years at UNDP. She plans to continue her work leading, developing, and improving communications strategies at development organisations.
“If I look back five years ago and where communications is for UNDP Malawi [now], even if I was to leave now, I’d be able to say, okay, I’ve put a stamp to how many things I’ve changed.”
Madalitso Mlava Mbendera is a 2013 Commonwealth Scholar from Malawi. She completed an MA in Media and Development at the University of Westminster.