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A Personal Account on

The Use of Film Animation in Development

By George McBean

Former Head of Design and Animation at UNICEF.

From 1982 till 2003 UNICEF researched and pioneered the use of film animation as a communication tool to tackle the most important health and development issues of the day.

Everett Roger’s classic thesis Diffusion of Innovation, 1962 describes the way innovative ideas spread through a society i.e. slowly and carefully by being adopted in ever increasing numbers by individuals, beginning with the ‘risk takers’ before reaching larger groups of ‘the curious’ and then spreading until ‘the indifferent’ and ‘the objectors’ become a minority. In much the same way the idea of using animation as a communication tool in development was slow in spreading through the corridors of power in UNICEF and its various Government counterparts.

In the 1970’s, steeped in the traditional funding routes for health; education and water supply programmes, many humanitarian staff members in both the local and the international civil service, viewed animation as an expensive distraction, irrelevant to the real goals of development. However in almost every country, the people charged with development were surrounded by the spread of mass media, occurring at a rate few anticipated and reaching out into rural homes at a pace that could not be ignored. It was also evident that many of the traditional development programmes were failing because of the lack of communication support among recipients. Some water systems were installed in villages without adequate explanation of the need for house hygiene or how to maintain these new facilities and as a result many were breaking down within a few years of their installation. Vast numbers of the recipients of ‘development’ were poor and non-literate and although there were breakthroughs in using photos and illustrations to explain things, the vast majority of support materials were text based and difficult for villagers to fully understand. (Examples in Bruce L Cook -Understanding Pictures in Papua New Guinea 1981)

Understanding how much visual communication support could add to improving results and sustainability in almost every aspect of development, took many government officials a painfully long time to accept through the 1980’s. (The media often seen as being something to fear.) It is perhaps mostly in this respect that UNICEF can be seen as pioneering… in the organisation’s capacity to encourage governments around the world to utilise a nation’s artistic and creative talent for social messages and to embrace new communication tools such as animation for development. (The fight to inform people of what was most important in health and social matters had to be fought on the editorial pages as well as the advertising pages.)

Under the leadership of James Grant, from 1980-1995 UNICEF moved away from being a ‘supply’ oriented organisation towards becoming the first United Nation’s organisation to fully embrace the role of communication in responding to development problems. From a world of only 2 billion people when UNICEF began in 1946, there was a realisation that as the world accelerated towards a 6 billion mark UNICEF needed more skills to articulate all the issues affecting children, if for no other reason than to bring more organisations, partners and funds to bear on these problems. It also needed to help governments better communicate with their own increasing populations on vital messages for children’s health and protection.

In support of staff with skills in management: in Education, Health and the Water supply sectors of development, a new set of recruits from the world of journalism, film-making and graphic arts began to find work in UNICEF. The organisation had always employed staff as ‘information’ officers who were mostly engaged in publicity and fund raising. It also had a very good reputation for using Celebrities such as Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn in its fund raising work and had on occasion used the services of Oscar winning animators like Faith Hubley to design shorts for these fund raising efforts. Walt Disney himself in the early days of the organisation dedicated the feature “It’s a small world” at Disneyland LA to UNICEF. But James Grant, also saw and supported the need for these kind of communication activities and skills, not just for UNICEF’s fundraising in rich countries, but as a way of spreading awareness of social issues in remote areas of poorer countries.

The use of UNICEF’s funds to help train local artists in poorer countries on how to do animation came first in Nepal in 1987 after it was discovered that access to TV and video parlours in some rural communities was spreading faster than access to toilets. Suddenly there were people in the hills of Nepal and other remote communities who could see on a TV screen what a kitchen looked like in India or the USA while they cooked over an open fire in their living room.

In the months surrounding the establishment of Nepal’s first National TV station, UNICEF conducted informal research into Visual Literacy and the sort of TV formats that were popular with new viewers. It was based on the research done by Edward L. Palmer for Children’s Television Workshop’s Sesame Street in the USA, and Ed Palmer helped in its design. UNICEF looked at three different TV formats that might best present the issues of hygiene and sanitation to a rural audience. A documentary TV format; a soap opera: and an animated short were prepared and shown in remote areas across Nepal. At that time statistics indicated that only 12% of women and just over half of the men were literate. Few had any experience of looking at visuals of any kind for the purpose of learning. (Rethinking Visual Literacy UNICEF,Nepal.

What was strikingly clear in this research was the fact that the documentary format was the least popular. Somehow the “voice of god” talking over unrelated footage was something that new viewers turned away from. It was concluded that a certain level of education and exposure to TV was necessary to appreciate the documentary format. The soap opera format seemed to engage the audience much more than the documentary format. When a rural non-literate mother watched a woman berate her husband on his lack of hygiene… she seemed to consider this as something she could say to her own husband! The audiences were observed as much more involved in the viewing of a soap opera format.


It was the power of the animated short to focus and explain culturally sensitive issues of hygiene and sanitation, which drew it to the forefront of UNICEF’s attention. The way that an animated cartoon figure could be seen as detached from reality and yet when set in a familiar surrounding, seemed to give the viewer more to think and talk about. Animation it seems could achieve a link with the viewer’s attention that even live action could not. On sensitive issues such as toilet habits live action made viewers either uncomfortable or indifferent to view in public and also later on with matters relating to HIV/AIDS, animation helped explain, and helped viewers remember messages better.

To turn anything that you see from being purely entertaining into something that is educational… you need only show a flash of something of relevance to the viewer

We have known since the origins of animation that it has a unique capacity to engage and enthral the viewer, and in terms of imparting information it can be illustrative and precise. From the earliest days of Disney animation it has been used in education and propaganda programmes to great effect. By the mid eighties however we had examples of animation to show how the stages of a space rocket takes off and separates… but we had nothing that showed an illiterate mother how to rehydrate her child when it suffered from diarrhoea. So UNICEF’s contribution to the animation industry was not so much how to do things… but to offer it an insight into this unique set of communication challenges from the world’s poorest countries. It was the subject that needed to be illustrated that was spotlighted. It also provided some evidence from research to show that despite the lack of education, this medium could work well with audiences who were new to television screens.

However…tt should never be assumed that what the creators of animation think they are illustrating clearly in a short piece - will actually be interpreted as such by remote rural audiences. Even local artists would often fail to realise the messages they were trying to communicate through their illustrations could be mistaken for something else. Especially when it came to new threats such as HIV/AIDS, the need to watch and listen to how messages were being understood and taken on was crucial to any success. The stigmatisation that people suffered from AIDS awareness messages in the early initial phase of publicity about the pandemic is now perhaps obvious and yet in some countries is continues to be a problem. (As recently as 2000, Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, identified stigma as a “continuing challenge” that prevents concerted action at community, national, and global levels (Piot 2000).

The first global meeting on ‘Animation for Development’ Prague 1990.

James Grant opened the first global meeting on the subject of Animation for Development in the then Czechoslovakian capital Prague, shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1990. The Czechs had a long history of producing animation with social messages and Kratky Film had helped UNICEF in the training of Nepali artists on how to do animation in 1987. In fact the Czech animators from Kratky had been so impressed by the skills of the Nepali artists they volunteered to train six of them back in Prague for six months at their own expense.

At this meeting in Prague, Bill Hanna along with representative from Disney Feature Animation, Max Howard, came together with a host of other animators and representatives of the industry from around the world, to see and hear how their skills could be utilised in what UNICEF was now calling a Child Survival Revolution. The response from the animation industry representatives was overwhelming. Bill Hanna agreed to make the Hanna Barbera studios in the Philippines a central part of a plan to produce a cartoon series for South Asia, called Meena. Along with Indian animator Ram Mohan and UNICEF’s communication chief in Bangladesh Neil McKee, this series was produced and distributed to several countries in the region. The series portrayed the adventures of a young village girl, and dealt with a host of social issues around equality and education for girls. It was remarkable because the character design of Meena enabled her to be viewed as a village girl in a wide range of cultures in the sub-continent, and indeed among countries that were sometimes at war with each other. The Meena series still runs to this day and is perhaps the most ‘researched’ series of animated stories ever produced.

Meantime Disney Feature Animation under the supervision of Max Howard in Florida, helped UNICEF to train artists from Africa and the Caribbean in Jamaica in 1992. Several other collaborations occurred at the Prague meeting with Sesame Street expanding its pre-school educational work into Mexico and Latin America with UNICEF’s help. Maximo, an animated Toucan bird character, developed in Ecuador, was supported by Disney Feature Animation and helped UNICEF spread awareness on Immunization. Walbercy Ribas at Start films Brazil helped to produce a series of short films on pregnancy and early childhood for the Caribbean area. ASIFA became involved in spreading the idea of Animation for Development among its members and several leading Animation festivals, most notably Annecy, awarded a UNICEF prize for best animation prepared in support of UNICEF’s work. UNICEF’s Broadcast Unit in New York, run by Bill Hetzer supported all these global animation initiatives.

With over 90 percent of the world’s children dying because of preventable illness the issue was seen, not as a medical problem… but as a communication problem. The animator’s skill to visually explain how things work therefore became as important as the skills of a doctor in UNICEF’s efforts to save children’s lives.

In 1994 Roy Disney agreed to host the second Animation for Development meeting in Disneyworld, Orlando Florida. At this stage representatives from an industry that was concentrated mainly in North America and highly competitive came together to share ideas on how to help UNICEF with its communication challenges. 150 delegates attended the meeting from 45 different countries. There is a booklet entitled ‘Drawing Insight’ 1996 (Southbound, that describes the main participants and some of the projects that were considered at this meeting. The forward is written by Roy Disney and there are contributions from Charles Solomon, Geraldine Laybourne and John Canemaker among others.

After the Orlando meeting a follow on from the success of Meena in South Asia called Sara was launched for teenagers in Africa. Sara is a girl character dealing with issues of a young teenager growing up in Africa. The threat of HIV/AIDS and FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) were covered in this series and it was researched and designed for pan-African distribution. Neil McKee was able to secure funding for this production from donors who normally only contributed to more traditional development projects. (i.e. Education, Health and Immunization etc) It was Neil and his teams research skills and guile that enabled the Sara series to be completed.

Another idea from the Orlando Summit came from C.J. Kettler who at that time was President of Sunbow Entertainment, that a collection of Cartoons for Children’s Rights should be produced. Studios and individual animators were invited to contribute short non-verbal animated spots to help UNICEF popularize ‘The Convention on the Rights of the Child’. More than 80 studios from 25 countries signed up to help.

Much has been written on this initiative and there are links on UNICEF’s website to see some of the results. Over a period of four years 100 short animated spots were created… each one conveying a non-verbal message relating to an article in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

At the peak of the Cartoons for Children Rights project, not all of the spots were of a high enough standard for international distribution, but most all were shown locally wherever they were made. UNICEF distributed over 60 of these spots to every government TV station it worked with around the world, as well as a number of private channels and cable networks. These spots could be screened instantly because they were non-verbal and were used during children’s television programming or regularly broadcast as Public Service Announcements.

UNICEF estimated that this set of spots, if shown at commercial rates around the world, were earning the organisation the equivalent of around US$30 million per month in free publicity. Not only was UNICEF’s logo and name attached to these spots but they were helping to popularize a convention and set of laws that each country had ratified but that the general public knew very little about. (In many local languages in poorer countries there was not even a word for ‘rights’.) In addition was the contribution from the individual animators and animation studios that also amounted to millions of dollars in materials and time.

In retrospect, one of the biggest problems facing animators in the 1980’s and 1990’s was that they often did not know what to animate in support of social development. Children’s Rights were a clear cut global message but when it came to helping with other causes many animators were confused by the scientists. There seemed to be endless disagreement among experts as to what was the correct message (for example, health experts arguing over minute details in explaining the best solution for rehydrating a child) and this created bottlenecks that hampered the creative flow of information. Nowadays at least some of these bottlenecks have been cleared. The top ten messages on what every parent needs to know have been identified; tested and agreed on by hundreds of organisations and knowledge-based agencies. They are published as “Facts for Life” and may be downloaded from the UNICEF website.

“Facts for Life” was the inspiration of Peter Adamson and published over 15 years ago and is still as relevant today. As Ev Rogers and Ed Palmer might have said, they are slowing being absorbed into rural communities who stand to gain the most from understanding and practicing these facts.

These days the animation industry has grown so much it is now a truly global enterprise. There are now as many genres of animation products as there are genres of writing. In terms of animation for development the early work of UNICEF has now been carried on by institutions such as Ted-animation and a number of animation colleges now include the application of animation skills to social messages as part of their course work. Many internships are also available for artists from developing countries to improve their skills in places such as the Animation Workshop in Viborg Denmark.

However searching out and harvesting the small pieces of relevant information that can be illustrated visually and absorbed to benefit a viewer in the world’s poorest communities, is still an art in itself. Information technology is allowing us to know our audiences, their problems and their interest/capacities on a scale never before available. More and more in today’s production of animation we have the ability to deliver it into the public’s hands on a visual hand held device such as a phone or a tablet. It is ironic in some ways that large supermarkets are handing out simple tablets to guide shoppers to bargains in their stores with animated ads (advertising many products that in excess are harmful to the consumer) yet meanwhile we are still in a struggle to inform many new parents in developing countries how best to protect their children from dying before they are five years old.

Given all the challenges ahead there should be some consolation from what we already know. That images can carry a message across language and cultural barriers and that the meaning of a visual depends a lot on the cultural and educational background of the viewer. As young people today in cities across the world share visuals of their daily experiences of life on facebook or watch international children programmes on TV or can see the soothing effects of a drink on the interior of their stomach in an animated advert; there are also still parts of the world where the poor in rural areas could also be shown an animated feature on how to repair or maintain an India Mark 2 hand pump, since over 1 billion people rely on this type of hand pump for water every day. Their priority status for useful information seems self evident.

For the millions on our planet that are still pre-literate and who live in relative isolation we know now that despite their unique cultures and their traditional customs, no mother wants to lose a child needlessly and no father wants to lose a wife in childbirth. We also know also that in our attempts to better manage human activity one fact stands out: when death rates are high among children, so too are the birth rates. The more children parents lose, the more they will want to have. There is no country in the world that has brought down its population growth without first reducing its infant and child mortality rates.

If we consider that animated film is the most effective tool available to communicators to deliver short bursts of important information and longer instruction on how things are made or deeds done, then the challenge becomes- a more effective use of the tool. The type of scientific observation and the art skills necessary for Animation for Development is definitely spreading, but the question is can it keep up with the population growth rates predicted in the next 20 years and can it be targeted to have a positive effect on society. It is clear that alliances between the animation industry and the entertainment; the games and advertising sectors of society have been made stronger. We still need more alliances to be made between the animation industry and the medical; social and educational sectors of our society, where knowledge exists but populations are unaware of it.

George McBean August 2015

George McBean 2012