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Theatre for Policy Advocacy – guaranteeing community participation and inclusion

Despite the noble intentions of most development interventions, meaningful or sustainable progress remains a fleeting illusion, with some of Africa’s rural communities hardly changed after years of intervention by government, civil society and private sector. The sustenance of development interventions, to be registered as tangible impact, are nowhere to be seen. In the case of agriculture, the challenges faced by rural communities remain as stubborn as they were before the various developmental expeditions began. This absence of tangible and measurable impact has emboldening the sceptics whose notion is that agriculture is a poverty trap for Africa’s rural populations and farming families. The question is why have the various developmental interventions failed to deliver Africa’s rural populations from poverty? One would want to understand why the gains registered during development interventions have not been sustained. 

Whilst many reasons are given, the least talked about is the failure of developmental initiatives to ‘take the people along’ with them in order to effect lasting economic, social and cultural change. Ownership of the developmental intervention by the beneficiaries is a major determining factor of the project’s impacts to be sustained. However, most development efforts are decided in offices by highly experienced and qualified practitioners, including defining the problems that smallholder farmers experience; suggesting and designing solutions; setting implementation dynamics; and ensuring monitoring and evaluation. Despite the purported participatory and bottom-up approaches, all this is done under the guise that the deemed beneficiaries of the planned development initiative – members of rural communities – lack the capacity to articulate their own challenges, as well as explore potential solutions. Whilst there may be an element of truth in these assertions, this somewhat condescending attitude results in developmental interventions that are disconnected from the targeted communities.

How then should a development practitioner harness the inherent potential and capacity in the communities where they target to intervene? Admittedly, it is a major challenge, but one that requires research and development practitioners to search for creative approaches to soliciting the input of community members at every stage of the project, from problem identification, establishment and prioritisation of possible solutions, implementation dynamics, monitoring and evaluation, as well as determining the role sort between the beneficiaries and project implementers. For years, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) has been exploring approaches to addressing this challenge, to ensure that development initiatives take the beneficiaries on board.  To that end, FANRPAN successfully managed to combine research and theatre to create a unique experiential tool – Theatre for Policy Advocacy (TPA).

What is TPA?

TPA is a tool that encourages the participation and involvement of ordinary people and communities in evidence-based policy advocacy with their leaders, service providers, policymakers; and other relevant stakeholders – using research findings and recommendations from FANRPAN and other research institutions. Essentially, theatre is used to package and explain research findings and recommendations for behaviour change, and development practice and policy change to ordinary people and rural communities, as well as amplifying their voices to policy and decision-makers. The suitability of TPA to address the communications challenges in development stems from Africa’s rich traditions. Africans are a people of story, be it oral, literal or otherwise. The continent is rich in oral tradition, with Africans singing and dancing throughout their daily engagements, be it labouring in the fields, happy weddings, sad funerals, and any other community functions. Because of its flexibility and connection with the key characteristics of Africa’s people, TPA has been used to communicate, advocate, educate, inform and serve as a trigger for soliciting responses on issues otherwise considered taboo. Examples of TPA application by FANRPAN include the following:

What steps should development practitioners take to utilise TPA? 

From the onset, development practitioners need to appreciate that TPA is an effective tool for delivering messages between and amongst stakeholders focused on development. The key components of a TPA process are the communicator, the messenger, the message, and the recipient. The communicator is the community constituents with the issues of concern, for instance, smallholder farmers with market access challenges, failure to secure inputs, or need for financial literacy training. The messengers are the selected few community members who will enact the community’s challenges to reach a wider audience. The message is the packaging of the identified issues of concern that need to be addressed. The recipients are constituents of the audience, for instance, policy makers, elected and traditional leadership, and other key community leaders.

Whilst FANRPAN is available to provide technical assistance to aspiring users of the TPA tool, there a number of steps to ensuring a successful process.

To ensure that the TPA process is about the communities as opposed to development practitioners, the first step is to conduct Scoping Studies to understand the community’s issues and problems, and how they are prioritized and perceived. Only a good understanding of the community’s issues gives birth to an accurate message and enables the practitioner to answer questions such as “What is the problem to be addressed? Who is it affecting? What interventions are required to address the problem? What is the expected outcome when problem is solved? 

The second step is Script Development, and here, artistic experience is a requisite because the conversion of findings from the Scoping Phase into a theatrical product has to be captivating enough for the targeted audience. The script must be sensitive in terms of the time it will take to produce, to perform, and the basic skills set required from local people, who must take the message forward. Further, the script must be sensitive to the traditions and norms of the targeted communities and audiences, as well as ensuring its translation to accurate vernacular.

Having developed a script that is guided by the community’s issues, the third step involves the development of archetypical actors/roles that do not only lay out the message and issues identified in the Scoping Studies, but also attends to the gender aspects that would have been apparent. For instance, a particular message may require male and female actors/roles for it to surface, whilst another may require youth as opposed to adults. Accurate archetypical actors and roles connect better with audiences, and convert theatre performances into mirrors through which community members and other stakeholders can reflect. Parallel to this identification of the cast is the selection and training of community members to serve as masters of ceremonies, facilitators and rapporteurs. A special group, identified for their eloquence and basic understanding of issues is also identified for training as community policy champions. It is important to ensure that processes are led by members of the community.

The fourth step focuses on the production of the play. The first activity is to conduct auditions for actors for the different archetypical roles from the community members. As opposed to a professional production where there are pools of professional actors from which to select a cast, TPA auditions are restricted to the community members willing to participate. It is therefore crucial that one identifies the right actors and contextualizes the scenes. Training of the community members covers the very basic attributes of acting such as confidence, voice projection, and positioning on the stage, up until a convincing production is ready to be presented to an audience.

Community performance for the Agriculture to Nutrition project

The fifth step is the TPA performance and dialogue. For the community, this serves as the climax of their efforts. The performance is conducted after a thorough mobilization effort to ensure attendance by all key stakeholders. The event starts with speeches from local and invited leaders to secure their blessing and endorsement of the proceedings, as well as ensuring that local protocol requirements are not flouted. The TPA performance is a 20 to 30 minute packaging of key issues presented in a theatrical fashion punctuated with captivating songs and dance. After the performance, delegates are organised into groups for post-performance dialogues. Local members of the community with prior training accompany the process as masters of ceremonies, facilitators and rapporteurs. On conclusion of the break-away dialogue sessions, selected community members present the recommendations to the community plenary, involving the local and invited policy makers. At this stage, the community policy champions assume the mantle of continued engagement with the policy makers to advocate for the necessary changes. 

TPA performance in community

Who can use TPA?

In South Africa, TPA is ideal for any institution that seeks to further the objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP). The NDP aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030, and by interpretation, implies addressing the challenges faced by the country’s rural communities. TPA can enable South Africa to harness the energies of its people, growing an inclusive economy, building capabilities, enhancing the capacity of the state, and promoting leadership and partnerships throughout society. South Africa’s rural communities are grappling with numerous challenges, including a disproportionate burden of chronic disease relative to the general public, lack of public transportation, poor infrastructure, low literacy on key issues such as finance and commerce, poverty and unemployment, and inhibitions stemming from cultural and social differences. Addressing these and other challenges calls for inclusive approaches that TPA guarantees.

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