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Artistic Expression and Communication for Development


By Prosper Kompaoré

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 26-36]

[Translated by Kamal Salhi]

For a long time artistic expression and communication for development have been perceived as secondary activities. Either because it suggests the expression of fantasies and the individual sensibility, or because it has connotations of leisure, artifice and the ludic, artistic expression is not regarded as a serious activity of fundamental importance that deserves priority treatment. Compared with the challenges and vital imperatives of development, artistic expression is perceived as lacking fundamental importance.

As far as communication for development and activities relating to communication and awareness-raising are concerned, many in the field say they are tired of raising awareness and that it is really necessary to take concrete action. Some even claim that there is no need to raise awareness because people simply have objective needs. Consequently, communicative approaches appear to be a waste of time.

Time is the big problem. People are jostled, pulled and pushed by their lack of time, people want the activities that are proposed to translate into concrete results, and if they do not do this, they are regarded as having no significant impact. If ten million African Francs are invested in sinking a well, people feel a significant result has been achieved, but if they invest the same sum in an awareness-raising campaign, some feel they have squandered their resources. This desire for immediate returns leads to superficial activities and loss-making investments. We all know today that sustainable development requires participation, and participation presupposes complete and total support for development activities among the population. Without this communicative effort, the population would not be able to take charge of development programmes and activities. To a great extent the weariness of some partners is explained by the fact that awareness-raising activities never seem to come to an end. People have been raising awareness for years and still they carry on. It is a Sisyphean task. And yet a new mental attitude is becoming apparent, a new social dynamic is becoming established that facilitates collective identification with development initiatives.

Development workers and some funding providers are sceptical about the effectiveness of the arts because their impact is not immediately measurable in terms of real results, visible changes of behaviour or even a tiny bit of progress. Consequently, arts projects have to overcome legitimate doubts. Once again, the tyranny of urgency and time exert a degree of pressure. Some forget the preamble to the UNESCO Constitution, which states that, ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.’ This action on the mind, on ways of thinking, on habits and received ideas needs time, sometimes a great deal of time. The intellectual progress that takes people from awareness to action, then qualitative change, is slow and unique to each individual and each socio-cultural milieu. There are no absolute, clearly defined standards that allow us to declare a project a success or a failure over the short term.

The problem of development is intimately linked with that of communication. Development policies conceived, executed and assessed solely by development workers and agencies have become unthinkable. The failures recorded in many areas have buried ‘turnkey’ development concepts once and for all. The concepts that guide development policy today are human sustainable development, participative development and grassroots development. Communication for development is part of a number of approaches to participative, sustainable development.

It is generally accepted that development projects never succeed if they fail to take account of the wishes of the populations concerned. The participation of the recipient populations is a precondition for the success of development policies. Again, it is necessary to reach agreement on how participation should be defined. The difference between Information, Education, Communication (IEC) and Communicative for Development (CFD) is the difference between the provision of information and interactive communication. The IEC approach involves the target population by keeping it informed about the choices that have been made and asking for its input in terms of suggestions, criticism or follow-up evaluation. It starts from the fundamental idea of providing the populations concerned with useful information to improve their know-how, educating them to take appropriate and more effective action and ensuring that there is a constant vertical flow of communication in both directions.

Without repudiating the IEC approach, CFD is more ambitious in that it is intended to make the beneficiaries of the development project the real initiators and driving forces of the development process. To this end, they take on the following responsibilities:
• Identifying development needs, and the problems and constraints to
be addressed
• Setting objectives and defining the methods used to achieve the
expected results
• Defining appropriate means of communication and arrangements
for their implementation
• Implementing communicative projects and monitoring their results
• Evaluating communicative policies following their implementation

CFD does not consist of distributing messages but of creating dialogic situations that allow the populations concerned to articulate their concerns. Unlike the vertical approach to information, communication for development allows for the horizontal circulation of information, in this way creating a social dynamic that mobilises different strata of society. Furthermore, communication for development is generated by the need to consult recipients in order to identify, analyse and find solutions for the development problems unique to a particular group or locality. The CFD approach can be applied successfully to a village community, a segment of that community, a voluntary organisation, the women in a particular population, all the young people in the same population, etc. The horizontal axis is privileged in CFD, but it does not exclude the vertical axis carrying certain external inputs, such as those from funding providers and major institutional decision-makers with whom recipient populations have to cooperate. Nevertheless, this vertical axis does not replace the horizontal axis, but is complementary to it.

In their daily lives, the recipient populations need to consult with others in order to identify their needs, their problems, their aspirations, their resources, what they lack and the means by which they wish to realise projects. Throughout this journey, they can benefit from various external contributions in the form of expertise, advice and human, material or financial inputs. If these things seem evident, we all know from experience that this is not always the case in practice. Multiple malfunctions can intervene at various levels of decision-making, implementation, control and evaluation. Very often, the question of communication lies at the heart of the difficulties experienced. Hence the significance of the subject discussed in this paper: the arts and communication for development.

The Role of the Arts in Communicative Strategies

Some may ask what kind of role the arts can play in the implementation of a communicative strategy. This is an obvious question since for many people communication means the modern mass media, such as radio, television, the printed press and audiovisual media, or traditional means of communication, such as discussions and visual aids. Other artistic media are cited less frequently: the performance arts, the visual arts and literature. Yet it is recognised that while the major media allow larger, undifferentiated audiences to be addressed, more direct means of communication, particularly the performance arts, succeed in functioning as social catalysts due to the deep impact they can make on audiences.

The Power of Artistic Expression

The power of artistic expression resides in the power of suggestion, in the emotional or connotative charge of the artistic sign. A beautiful piece of music, a beautiful dance performance, a well performed piece of drama, a literary work, a recited poem, a beautiful painting work, all through the sublimation of our feelings or the affective resonance they awaken in us. Furthermore, live artistic performances focus the attention of the community around a collective emotion, encouraging collective and communal emotions that are favourable to social cohesion. Aesthetics can therefore reveal a social ethic and promote a social dynamic.

Communication for development opens the door to social dialogue. Dialogue has become a rare commodity in a good number of development approaches. It is monopolised by intermediaries and elected, designated or self-proclaimed representatives who either usurp or arrogate in good faith the power to act as interlocutors on behalf of the wider population on account of their inside knowledge or ability to get things done. From the moment these representatives establish themselves between the leading bodies concerned with development policy and local populations, the dialogue between the parties may be biased, curtailed or falsified. They know the realities on the ground, they have a way with words, they are tacitly encouraged by the whole of the population, they learn the language and the expectations of the leading agencies, funding providers and NGOs. They are the masters of dialogue by proxy. In a good number of cases, people are satisfied with these representatives, particularly because they make it possible to gain time and avoid the pitfalls of long sterile discussions. In other cases, by contrast, outside actors seek direct contact either with the entire target population or a representative segment of it.

The Arts Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

The communication for development approach privileges as far as possible the involvement of the target population. All those responsible in development organisations wish to understand the point of view of the target population, yet when people are brought together and told to express themselves, what is the response? Silence, embarrassment; an inability to say what they would like to say, to say what they feel, to say what Africans need.

This silence does not indicate any absence of thought or lack of things to say! It may be that the language in which it is necessary to say these things lets people down, that the social context in which the group is placed does not permit it to express itself freely or that the subject of the discussion does not authorise some to express themselves in the presence of others: in short, the preconditions for the establishment of social dialogue are multiple and variable from one place to another, from one time to another. On account of difficulties that prevent people from expressing themselves rooted in the wider context or particular situation, the question of language and modes of communication is essential. And it is here that the performance arts, particularly dramatic forms, can have a role to play.

Unlike other forms of artistic expression, a theatrical performance is a place where people come together, the dramatic act is only completed in its performance before an audience. By contrast with conventional assumptions, theatrical expression is the language best adapted to African cultures and African socio-cultural contexts characterised by, among other things, illiteracy. The theatre is a universal language that takes varying forms from one culture to another and from one time to another. It is based on enactment, re-presentation in front of an audience, the semiosis of the text and the spoken word, the body and its gestures, the object, space and time. Drama roots itself in people's lived experience to express the ludic, the profane and the sacred, the aesthetic and the affective. It is transmitted by cultural channels of transmission, it is a language used by all the strata of the population to varying degrees and in varying forms. It is the privileged channel for the expression of our strongest and deepest thoughts and emotions.

The Targets of Theatrical Communication

Theatrical communication makes it possible to reach four strategic zones: the head, the heart, the belly and the limbs.

Aiming at the head

The head is the symbol of knowledge. Aiming at the head means helping the population to gain greater knowledge and understanding and enabling them to better express that knowledge and understanding. Since the purposes of communication also include evaluating a population's level of information, local knowledge, know-how and accumulated experience, the head is an essential target in CFD. What IEC pursues through the dissemination of information is achieved in CFD through exchanges of experience, awareness-raising and the awakening of consciousness.

It is important to affirm that introducing people to new ideas through drama has a capacity to suggest new approaches far stronger than other non-experiential approaches, notably when it is aimed at adults. In other words, theatrical expression is particularly adapted for the purposes of adult education. We retain what we see better than what we hear, and we are more likely to be convinced by what we have experimented with ourselves than by what we have been shown. This fundamental constant explains the advantage of the theatrical approach, and more singularly of forum theatre, which allows audience members to experiment with change by joining in the performance on stage.

Aiming at the heart

The heart is emotion, feeling. Development workers are well aware that there is an abyss between knowing what ought to be done and really wanting to take action or initiate change. Aiming at the head is useful, but insufficient. Knowledge without passion is sterile. People will not get involved unless they are emotionally engaged. It is true that an uncontrolled emotion can also induce error, which is why the theatrical act must not become a form of hypnosis or a narcotic that makes people lose touch with reality. But it is also true that nothing great is accomplished without passion.

This emotional, affective dimension has its place in the process of communication for development. And what better way than with the arts to touch people's hearts and make even the hardest of the hardened tremble and shiver? It is not just women who cry during powerful dramas, it is not just young people who get excited when they hear great singers perform, it is not just the uncultivated who rave about works of art. When it masters the rules of art, artistic expression pleads with us, fills us with wonder, gives a pleasure that liberates, brings about catharsis. The spectator identifies himself with the characters and takes sides in his heart of hearts. He determines to imitate his idol or avoid the erratic behaviour of the anti-hero. Here, as in other contexts, emotion can become the precursor of action.

Aiming at the belly

If the heart makes an appeal to the emotions, the belly refers to vital needs, to the essential: we talk in this context of gut feelings. It is these feelings that make an issue crucial to us, something that touches our instincts, our interests and our fundamental needs. It is necessary for the act of communication to have a relation with that which is essential to the human. If it seems to be superfluous and superficial, it will fall like water on a dry leaf. Like the dew on the leaf, emotion will evaporate in the first rays of the sun. It is in this sense that theatre for development must provide healthy entertainment, and not escapism that avoids real, concrete problems.

The communicative act must relate to the most profound aspects of humanity, not just fleeting emotions. This vital need may also encompass enthusiasms of a spiritual order, the problems of life and death, the here and now and what is beyond it, and political or ideological convictions and commitments. In some cases, the artistic act can half-open a shutter that allows the spiritual to be seen. If it is to focus on the essential in life, fundamental needs or a philosophical or spiritual quest, artistic communication must touch on the fibre that transforms play into an important issue, the ludic into the vital.

Aiming at the limbs

Knowing is good, wanting change is better, but acting and initiating change are even more desirable in the framework of communication for development. The limbs are the arms, the hands, the feet. They will transform the communicative act into something that results in real action. How do we pass from knowing to the desire for change, then to changes of behaviour? The great challenge of theatrical expression is to support the desire for change with such force that the target audience decides to go over to action.

The Place of Theatre among the Means of Communication

These, it appears to me, are the key issues in communication for development. How can the theatre and the arts in general contribute to the process of communication? But let us not get above ourselves. I do not know of a theatrical performance that has ever changed the world on its own! Theatre reinforces other aspects of communication for development. Drama is very often used to support a strategy of communication that includes a variety of approaches, media and forms of communication. The process of communication is a chain that implies other media, other modes of communication upstream and downstream from the theatrical performance. It is necessary to bring about an efficient convergence of approaches: the use of the mass media (radio, television, cinema, audiovisual media), direct or indirect interpersonal methods (talks, targeted written messages, performances, telephone appeals, interactive media), the use of supporting media to reinforce or personalise the message (texts, brochures, various posters) and other complementary methods.

The arts provide something unique. Beyond their didactic or educational dimension, the arts appeal to the language of the sign, the language of the symbol. They inscribe themselves in an intuitive approach that is suggestive, ludic and aesthetic. The use of song, dance, gesture, mimicry, the art of oratory, costumes and symbolic objects is common in traditional African societies. When a woman wants to express something to her husband, particularly if it is of an intimate or sentimental nature, she will of preference use the language of performance; the songs of women grinding flour or washing clothes and other symbolic vehicles reach the heart more surely than interminable discourses. The laments sung during funerals have the power described by Alfred de Vigny: ‘The most desperate songs are the most beautiful, and I know some that are pure sobbing.’ Art has the contagious force of emotion.

During all the situations encountered in social life we see people in interaction. We have the feeling that the only way they can communicate is through the word; but we know that we communicate before the word and after the word. We communicate with our bodies, we communicate with our facial expressions, we communicate with our clothes, we communicate with our posture and bearing. If you respect someone, this will be expressed in a particular physical relationship towards this person. If on the contrary you have hostile relations with someone, this can be felt before you have even opened your mouth! These physical expressions of the body are essentially dramatic; and they can be exploited in drama to make people see and feel the realities that are there for those who use their eyes and ears. There is good reason to take account of artistic expression's capacity to move people deeply and permit a better transmission of emotion.

ATB’s Experience of Forum Theatre

The theatre group Atelier-theatre Burkinabé (ATB) has been involved for decades in the form of theatre that is known today as forum theatre. Since its establishment in 1978, ATB has defined its mission as practicing and promoting theatre in the service of development: theatre rooted in the Burkinan and African cultural context. Over this period, the group has moved towards an aesthetic of participation that draws on the characteristics of traditional African performance.

Today forum theatre is practiced by more than a hundred artistic groups throughout Burkina Faso. In principle, this type of theatre tends to reconcile artistic quality and the social finality of performance. It is a question of informing, educating, raising awareness, enabling people to speak and bringing forward proposals for change. Of course, the effectiveness of forum theatre is largely a function of the aesthetic quality of the performance and the consistency of the visual representation of the messages conveyed. This presupposes a good training in the techniques of forum theatre. Without this training and a concern for quality, forum theatre can tend to reinforce feelings of powerlessness and sometimes degenerates into a sterile, demotivating gesture of rebellion. It is therefore necessary to act with discernment and competence when it comes to awareness-raising through theatre.

Today there are two practical forms of theatre for development. On the one hand, there are theatre groups like the ATB specialising in this type of theatre that strengthens the technical and artistic capacities of their members and particularly monitors the aesthetic quality of their performances. On the other hand, there are NGOs and various organisations that encourage local groups of peasants, women and young people, etc. to make use of theatre as a tool to accompany their awareness-raising activities. These groups often do not last long after the NGOs or organisations that helped them move on, although some do seek ways to improve their skills and become permanent theatre groups. These two varieties of forum theatre could be termed endogenous theatre and exogenous theatre.

Exogenous theatre is conceived and performed according to the rules of art by an artistic group to convey a message with the aim of raising awareness and helping audiences articulate their concerns. These are social interventions using the arts. This intervention is often useful when it comes as the leaven in the dough that makes it rise, heightening awareness, provoking action where there had been passivity and provoking questions where there had been certainty or a feeling of inevitability. This type of theatre can become a support for CFD when it inscribes itself in a process wanted and wished for by the target population. Because to a certain extent it plays the role of the external eye, the exogenous group is regarded favourably for its impartiality. Its fresh perspectives bring out new and unexpected ideas.

Endogenous theatre is produced by the target population. No one comes in from outside to say or show something that creates awareness. Rather, the population appropriates artistic forms, such as song and dance, as a way of expressing their experience and hopes. This practice is not alien to the populations concerned because, as discussed above, theatrical expression is one of the main characteristics of African culture.

Endogenous theatre offers an element of representation in which the community is enabled to see itself through its own representatives. These representatives perform in order to highlight failings, individual errors and flaws in the system before urging the whole group to look for responses and solutions. Endogenous or community theatre of this kind can be implemented while respecting the CFD approach. From the identification of needs and problems to the choice of communicative strategies and the search for solutions, the actors are the first target population. The population itself knows what its problems are and it is the people themselves who decide autonomously to communicate among themselves through plays, songs, live performances, stories and the graphic arts in order to convey their vision of the present and the future.

Endogenous theatre is much more effective if it respects the rules of art. The mere fact of coming from within the community does not guarantee quality and effectiveness. Too often, NGOs and other organisations reach bitter conclusions about the advantages or disadvantages of theatre after amateur endogenous groups have been given a free hand to lead awareness-raising activities. The results include terrible performances by actors who can hardly act, performers who laugh unthinkingly on stage, and crude or caricatured simulations of serious theatre that give the public the impression they are watching clowning rather than scenes of relevance to serious issues. The credibility of theatre for development depends fundamentally on its artistic quality.


Why can art in general and theatre in particular be so effective? Theatre is a form of communication characterised by physical proximity. A piece of drama is an immediate act of the flesh that unfolds in the here and now. The watcher is there before the actor, he sees the actor sweating and breathing, he understands the least inflections of his voice. He knows that the man who is in front of him is a real man, a real woman; and when he suffers, when he represents sadness, this sadness reaches the heart directly. A scene in a film can also move the viewer very strongly, but the viewer in the cinema can withdraw at any moment. He knows that what he sees is merely an image on the white wall or screen of the cinema. Between him and the reality behind the image extends the distance of time and space.

As Denis Diderot remarked in The Paradox of the Actor, the theatrical space is paradoxical: a space that is both real and fictive, a place where an event is experienced, concrete action involving real actors who invest their physical energy and emotions in it, but also a place of enactment, a place of imitation more or less distanced from reality, a more or less distorting mirror of men's lives, dreams and fears. The magic of theatre functions to a large part because the theatrical space benefits from a kind of extraterritoriality or ‘diplomatic immunity’ recognised by society.

Thanks to this tacit licence, theatrical performances can address all sorts of more or less delicate, more or less sensitive questions (sexuality, power, social conflicts) without the whole social structure feeling threatened with destabilisation. Of course, there are cases in which the powers use various forms of direct or indirect censorship to obstruct the liberty of art, but for the most part the arts manage to translate a certain vision of the world into their own languages in an acceptable manner.

The cathartic force of theatre is based on play, the ludic and laughter. By making people laugh, the actor in the theatre is like a court fool or traditional griot defusing tense situations. Laughter is very often the sign that reason is regaining its hold over passion, it is the expression of a capacity for self-observation and objectification. Laughter encourages consciousness throughout society. The Romans talked of castigare mores ridendo, correcting manners by ridicule. The theatrical act is there before me; it takes hold of my heart, my body, my guts. This physical presence makes the theatrical act an event in which the watcher is present. The actor who is before us shares our space. If I get up I can touch him. If I climb up on to the stage to perform with him I interact directly with him. This presence, this testimony, this present and immediate character of the theatrical performance and its fragility are also linked with its relationship to passing time, the unpredictability and danger of the situation. They explain to a large extent the force of theatre by comparison with other forms of artistic expression.

Furthermore, a performance is a moment of communal, collective sharing; the group experiences an event together. The individual drama is transmuted by the magic of the performance into an objective social problem. The feeling of individual oppression gives way a little to collective consciousness. A sorrow shared is a sorrow diminished, and the solitary worry dissipates to make way for the will to resolve it! When the mechanics of dramatic staging expose the underlying process, feelings of fatalism dissolve. The watcher can better understand the points where errors have been made, the mechanisms of oppression, the traps of sorrow.

For the whole of the community, the performance becomes an occasion for catharsis, for social catalysis in which expression is given to that which is not normally uttered. Having taken a critical distance from itself, the community can gain ascendancy over destiny. The problems of development are not sanctions of some kind of fate. In objectifying the real, the community gives itself the means to take control of reality. And this is what forum theatre, for example, is all about. In forum theatre a play is performed that provides a model of a situation, then in the second half of the show members of the audience are asked to help change the situation. This automatically gives them the capacity to negate the fate of oppression and the power to invent the means of liberation. The social catharsis provoked by the theatre is one of the means of liberating the languages of minorities, of the marginalised, of the oppressed. In restoring to populations in developing countries the initiative of play and artistic expression, theatre for development performs one of its essential functions: promoting communication for development.


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