Home > Blogs > Water and Food Blog > On Awareness and Its Raising

Photo credit: Merkur Berqiri

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of having my awareness raised. It seems every other paper, report or project proposal I pick up is invoking “awareness raising” as rationale, output, outcome or impact and sometimes all four at the same time. Can awareness raising really be all those things, or is it just another buzz term that sounds good?

Consider these examples from published papers I found in 20 minutes of searching websites:

  1. Research agencies should team up with interested public and private stakeholders in order to redress the observed lack of knowledge and awareness on ecosystem services. Communication and information flow on the benefits of ES has to be directed at the general public, rice producers and the other main actors involved in the rice market chain in the Central Plain.
  2. FAN provided conventional written materials on community forestry and sought to increase community leaders’ awareness about the Forests Bill 2004.
  3. There is a need for cheap, affordable, and rapid systems to detect maize with aflatoxin levels above the legal limit and to build awareness among stakeholders on the causes and effects of aflatoxin contamination.

These statements are a bit like the sign on the coconut tree in the photo above. The sign tells me what I should be aware of but not why or what to do. That sign struck me as slightly humorous until I did a bit of research. What the sign does not say is that coconut palms may have a height of 24 to 35 meters and an unhusked coconut may weigh 1 to 4 kg. Blows to the head of a force exceeding 1 metric ton are possible. Therefore, it’s probably not a good idea to sit in the shade of a coconut tree to read a book or take a nap.

A definition

The term “awareness raising” has a specific meaning. According to Wikipedia:

…awareness raising is a term that advocacy groups commonly use when promoting a particular issue, organization, or event. It refers to alerting the general public that a certain issue exists and should be approached the way the group desires (emphasis mine). Common subjects include certain diseases like breast cancer or AIDS, civil or social conflicts, movements (e.g. Occupy Wall Street) and issues (e.g. global warming, obesity).

Since informing people about a particular concern is considered the first step in changing how people and institutions deal with it, awareness raising is often the first activity an advocacy group takes up. Notice that bit about “the first step”.  Awareness raising is not (repeat not) an objective or goal, nor is it rationale, output, outcome or impact. It is always and never anything other than an activity. Here is a working definition of awareness raising:

To raise awareness is to inform and educate people about a topic or issue with the intention of influencing their attitudes, behaviors and beliefs towards the achievement of a defined purpose or goal. (Adapted from http://www.slideshare.net/adhdarabia/communication-and-awareness-raising)

The examples above are missing some or all of the requirements of this definition. But they sound good. Unfortunately, these examples are not anomalies; they are typical of statements you can find throughout most literatures and project proposals.

Apply Rigor

If you are going to invoke “awareness raising” in your research or project proposal, do it with scientific rigor. Consider each of the points below:

What is the goal? What is it you want people to do or believe?

Example: We want fertilizer manufacturers to provide local language translations of Instructions for Use on their websites. We want retailers to download those instructions and include a printed copy with every sale. We want smallholder farmers to read and follow those instructions. 

Identify the audience. Who exactly are you informing or educating? Be specific. “The public” is not specific. “Decision makers” is not specific. “Urban consumers who purchase live fowl in city markets” is specific. “Middle and senior managers (Grade C5-C9) in government ministries, departments and bureaus with a mandate for any aspect of water management” is specific.

Specify the attitudes, behaviors or beliefs you want to influence. Example: We want city residents to see urban wetlands not as “waste areas” but as valuable ecosystems that provide useful services (clean water, flood mitigation) and need to be protected.

Provide supporting evidence for your claims. Example: In a survey of 231 city residents, 73 percent chose the terms “swamp” or “wasteland” from a list of descriptors for the That Luang Marsh. Five percent chose “urban wetland”.

Describe how you are going to monitor evaluate the outcomes of your activity.

Like any good monitoring and evaluation program, you need to think in about what you can measure, how you will measure it and what it will cost to measure.

How, for example, can I know that farmers are reading and following local language instructions for use? Among a number of ways would be: interviews, observations in the field, reports from local hospitals on cases of pesticide poisoning, and measuring pesticide levels in runoff and groundwater. Which measures are practical at what cost?

Are we aware of what is possible?

In agricultural and natural resources management research and development, we tend to see communications as a public information exercise rather than using communications as a tool to effect attitudinal and behavioral change. There is much we could learn from other sectors, particularly public health.

There is a huge literature on awareness raising. You will find most of it under “behavior change communication” and “social marketing”. Both these disciplines are widely applied in public health but largely unknown or ignored in agriculture and natural resources management. For those who would like to raise their awareness, here are some starting points:


Terry Clayton is Managing Director and Senior Science Writer at Red Plough International. Red Plough works mainly with development professionals in health, agricultural and natural resources management and offers writing and editing services and Workshops for Writers. For more information on Red Plough services and more articles on development communications, visit www.redplough.com.




  1. Kim Geheb says:

    Thank you, Terry, for raising my awareness about awareness raising. I’ll let you know a little secret: as I review proposals or papers, I find ‘awareness raising’ one of the most uninspiring of goals; particularly when it is framed as something momentous: ‘they shall be made aware!!’ and the masses howl with gratitude, the awareness raised, and shafts of enlightenment descend from small crack in the clouds.

    The use of the word ‘crack’ (unpleasant though it may be) is, in my mind, necessary. I am of the Leonard Cohen school of awareness-raising: there’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. It meshes rather well with my views on communications NOT being giving out, but getting through. It is, in other words, cracks that we need to create, rather than making people aware.

    Hang on. ‘Making them aware’? I see that one a lot as well. It belongs to the same family (in my mind) as ‘ve have vays of making you talk’. How do you ‘make’ someone aware, not least because of the difficulties of setting aside a creeping sense of authoritarianism.

    In my mind, a Power Point presentation is about as imaginative as we can be in awareness raising. Assuming some of one’s audience listens to your presentation, they are doubtless now aware of what it is you have told them. It’s a change, but it isn’t a very interesting change. They were once unaware. Now they are aware. They were blind, and now they can see? Hardly.

    I see awareness raising as a fairly minor step between evidence and change. Clearly, people do need to be aware of the evidence we have before they decide whether or not they are going to change their Knowledge, Attitude and Skills. But awareness raising needs to be part of a much larger package, which I see you refer to in explaining rigorous awareness raising. What it cannot represent is a goal – a most significant change – as we plan our projects and theorise change.

  2. Kim,
    Thank you for your comment. Indeed there is a significant difference between ‘change’ and ‘interesting change’. If can open more cracks in a discourse there is more room for other voices and the potential for more creative ways of doing things.

  3. Faith says:

    Excellent food for thought. I am just beginning involvement in awareness creation and the article is thought provoking

  4. Sudipto Chatterjee says:

    An essential ingredient of all our conservation programmes, but, we often find it difficult to measure the impact of raising awareness. What are the right indicators to measure the same

  5. Terry says:

    Sudipto, Start with the link in the article Public Communication Campaign Evaluation: An Environmental Scan of Challenges, Criticisms, Practice, and Opportunities. Prepared for the Communications Consortium Media Center, By Julia Coffman, Harvard Family Research Project, May 2002

    then try a google search using “measuring awareness in convservation”