Wash Your Hands – yes, UNICEF, but only if you ask us nicely!

Global Handwashing Day logo

Global Handwashing Day logo

October 15 was marked as the first Global Handwashing Day (GHD). It’s simple yet important mission was to promote the practice of handwashing with soap.

Washing hands can save lives. Washing hands with soap can save more lives. This is the simple message reinforced on this day with public campaigns focusing on schools and school children.

In this UN-declared International Year of Sanitation 2008, the GHD will echo and reinforce its call for improved hygiene practices.

GHD is a Unicef-led initiative involving governments, civil society, volunteers and others around the world.

“Turning handwashing with soap before eating and after using the toilet into an ingrained habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter,” says the GHD official website, explaining the background.

IYS 2008 logo

IYS 2008 logo

Trying saying that aloud in one breath – I can’t. Evidently, the crusty technocrat who wrote that text wanted to pack all the rationale into one long, clumsy sentence.

But this message is too important to be spoilt by an inarticulate official. Washing hands with soap can prevent diahrroeal diseases and pneumonia, which together kill more than 3.5 million children under five every year. That’s 400 needless deaths every hour, round the clock.

Fortunately, the campaigning material that went out using moving images were better produced. Here are two good examples (and a bad one).

The popular Australian children’s musical entertainers, The Wiggles, produced and donated a song to mark the Global Handwashing Day. This simple and catchy tune “seeks to motivate millions of children around the world, to transform the simple act of handwashing with soap from an abstract and seldom practiced behaviour into an automatic and enjoyable habit”.

Meanwhile, in India, cricket star Sachin Tendulkar joined forces with UNICEF to get Indian children to improve their health and hygiene as part of GHD. Tendulkar features in a public service announcement (PSA) being broadcast this month in 14 languages across India. It will target students in more than 6 million schools.

And finally, here’s Unicef’s own news story posted this week on its YouTube channel telling us more on GHD. It’s technically well made, but absolutely lacks passion. The narrator delivers her script in such an indifferent, detached tone, and UNICEF Senior Adviser for Sanitation and Hygiene pontificates also in a tone that will not win her many followers. Scenes of senior UN officials washing their hands in a demonstration are laughable. The only saving grace in this story is when we see Hayley Westenra, the well known singer from New Zealand and youngest UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, visiting water and sanitation projects in Ghana.

If only the rest of GHD promoters had the enthusiasm and passion that Hayley Westenra exudes! Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.

Alas, large UN agencies like UNICEF have little or no institutional memory for more than just a few years. Because if they did, GHD campaigns could have effectively used, at least in South Asia (where nearly half of all people lack access to toilets) an episode of the hugely popular Meena cartoon animation series.

Meena is the enchanting heroine of an animated film series produced by UNICEF in South Asia. The films are part of a package of communication materials promoting the status of the girl child in this region. UNICEF co-produced the series a decade ago with leading animators in the US and South Asia.

Meena's Three Wishes

Meena's Three Wishes

In Meena’s Three Wishes, Meena dreams of a magic genie that will grant her three wishes so that everyone would be healthy and never again get sick from poor sanitation and unsafe water. When Meena wakes up, she realizes that she must make her dream come true. With the help of her brother Raju, other children in the village, and Mithu, her pet parrot, Meena convinces people to build and use latrines, to use safe water and to wash their hands to stop the spread of germs and disease.

I don’t particularly enjoy it when UN agencies try to play nanny to the whole world, especially if they talk to us in such jargon-ridden, dispassionate terms. Their messages are tremendously important, and deserve wider dissemination — they can literally save lives.

That’s why public campaigns should be left in the hands of communication professionals who know how to reach out beyond the charmed development circle. For the rest of UNICEF, they should perhaps take a lesson or two in passionate communication from Hayley Westenra, The Wiggles – and their own little Meena!