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Sara Communication Initiative: Applying VIPP in the African Region

One application of VIPP which brings together overall communication strategy planning, storyline planning, and putting research into action, is the Sara Communication Initiative (SCI) for the African adolescent girl. The SCI was first designed in 1994, primarily for delaying the age of sexual debut of African girls and empowering them to handle sexual advances from boys and men, including “sugar daddies,” and other forms of sexual exploitation as the continent faced a growing HIV/AIDS crisis. The project was conceptualized by the Regional Office for UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESARO) and was researched, developed and implemented in 12 African countries between 1995 and 1999, initially. Sara is still used by many partners as a behaviour development tool to combat HIV and AIDS.

VIPP was extensively used as a participatory tool in the development of the SCI, to build consensus regarding issues which are common across sub-Sharan African countries. As a first step, UNICEF-ESARO began by bringing together over 50 experts in gender, child rights, including protection, health and development – researchers, programmers, trainers, communication specialists and artists. A five-day VIPP workshop was held to map out the priority problem areas and probable themes of the SCI, as well as to chart the research process, capacity building needed for personnel to be involved, and the production schedule. A plethora of VIPP techniques and methods were used to introduce relevant issues and agree on possible approaches. The methods employed were icebreakers and energizers, card collection and clustering, brainstorming, pro-contra debates, single and multi-dot question, fish bowl, mini-dramas and role plays, expert interviews, field visits, communication, drawing and perception games, team-building exercises, and exercises in gender analysis and sensitization.

This was the first time the participants experienced the structured application of so many participatory methods applied to arriving at a consensus on a development programme. Through democratic processes, VIPP engaged participants to analyze and understand that the problems of the adolescent girl were very similar in all the countries involved. Through VIPP methods, they came to agree on the most likely themes for the SCI, as well as the complexity of factors that would have to be addressed to bring about behavior development of young people, and behavior and social change in communities. VIPP methods enabled everyone to voice their fears and concerns and collectively identify the possible ways of addressing those issues, some of which were later validated through field research undertaken with various communities. In their previous experience, regional workshops tended to accentuate differences between countries and it was usually difficult to move people away from “expert position taking” and “one-upmanship” on issues.

Following the initial planning workshop, training workshops were held for character and storyline research in Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. VIPP methods were used to train researchers on the qualitative research methods to be employed. It was found that the VIPP card and chart methods were important for presenting and revising research steps and objectives and in synthesizing results from practice research sessions. Then the research teams returned to their home countries to carry out focus group discussions and in-depth interviews on the Sara characters and initial storylines. For the pilot phase during 1994-1995, 572 focus group discussions were conducted with over 5,000 respondents in 10 Eastern and Southern African countries. Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana were added later.

VIPP workshops were held in-country to synthesize the results of national research which were then brought to regional research synthesis workshops with writers and artists. Stories were written or revised in these events using card and chart methods, mini-drama and many other VIPP techniques. Over the next five years (1996 to 2001), seven more Sara stories were completed, involving the same artists, writers, and communication researchers from the region, bringing the results of their national work together through regional VIPP workshops. In addition, approximately 120 VIPP facilitators were trained and VIPP methods were employed as the backbone of the following SCI activities:

National life skills training workshops for the implementation of Sara materials;
Development of local Sara materials;
Formation of core Sara groups for dissemination and utilization;
Advocacy meetings and workshops for integration of Sara in cross-sectoral programmes;
Planning on a wide use of Sara materials by government partners and NGOs;
Training of facilitators for effective utilization;
Establishment of Sara clubs and/or peer educator programmes;
Training of local artists and writers and training of trainers on life skills.
The independent evaluation of the SCI found that Sara was most successful in countries where there was an enabling environment within UNICEF country offices, with strong leadership providing support for the SCI and where the people responsible for Sara did effective internal marketing to gain support across different UNICEF programme sections. However, perhaps one of the most important findings of this evaluation was that Sara's success greatly depended on a sense of ownership. The factor most responsible for this sense of ownership was, in-fact, the wide-scale application of VIPP methods in the research, design, planning and implementation of the SCI, allowing the introduction of many different talents and perspectives.

It should be noted that it is often very difficult to engender ownership in initiatives which extend across national boundaries and across cultures. However, the wide-scale participation in the development of Sara through VIPP methods appears to have been responsible for fostering partnership among countries in the development and integration of the SCI in their own programmes. Furthermore, this ownership led to UNICEF's priority in developing Sara as a commercial programme which can be sustained as long as the educational materials are needed.

What is VIPP?
How was VIPP developed?
How is VIPP used?
List of applications
Planning and revising projects and programmes
Communication materials development and storyline planning
Putting research into action
Community-level development work, including PRA/PLA
Training workshops
Training of facilitators and trainers
Curricula development
Running conferences and information markets
Management, human resource planning and team building
Business meetings
Getting started
Clients or organizers
Inaugurals and closings
Difficult participants
Diversity (gender, cultural, racial, socio-economic)
Inexperienced Co-facilitators
Documentation and Reporting

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