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10 Best Practices to Reach Communities in Complex Emergencies

By Guest Writer on December 2, 2015


You arrive at Bangui airport in the Central African Republic (CAR) from headquarters, you switch on your smartphone to tell your family and colleagues that you’ve arrived and nothing happens: “there is no network”, said Jean-Luc Mootoosamy, Programme Manager for CAR for the media development organisation Foundation Hirondelle. “One of the closest elements to us here, our phones, doesn’t work. It is the first reality check.”

Mootoosamy was speaking at the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network’s first Annual Forum last July, where ‘reality checks’ were a key theme. Since it was established in 2009, members of the CDAC Network have made significant progress in setting up two-way communications with communities affected by natural disasters, “but do we really know what to do in conflict environments like Yemen, CAR or South Sudan?”, asked the chair of the panel, Gregory Barrow, Head of the World Food Programme (WFP) in London.

“When we talk about communicating in conflict environments, this is a very tough reality check” said Ana de Vega, Emergency Community-Based Protection Officer for UNHCR. “There is also an important element of uncertainty that makes the planning for any kind of communication much more complex” highlighted Philippe Stoll, Deputy Head of Public Communication at the ICRC. “In a natural disaster we know that things will improve, here [in conflict situations], we really don’t know.”

Here are ten take-away lessons from this discussion on how to address this critical gap:

  1. Understand the local context: Conflict situations present particular challenges, such as insecurity and limited physical access to communities, disrupted energy and telecommunications infrastructure, communities’ limited access and skills to use communication technologies, data protection and, of course, misinformation and propaganda. Understanding local actors, local capabilities and local ways of doing things, as well as political, economic, social and community dynamics, is key, as Nigel Fisher, former Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti and the Syria region, stressed during his keynote address.
  2. Get to grips with the local information ecosystem – meet your audience where they are: Improving aid agencies’ understanding of how local people access information and communicate was a recurrent theme during the two-day forum. “We need to understand the local information ecosystem, we need to know who’s owning what and who’s speaking in which channel. We can find radios but if they belong to one party or the other party to the conflict, we need to be very cautious in the way we approach them and see how we may be perceived”, said Stoll from the ICRC. Understanding local information ecosystems includes understanding what people want to know about, what communication channels they currently use and trust, how they use them and how information flows. It also requires understanding how the local media and telecommunications infrastructure are coping. How are women or the elderly accessing information? How much access to technology do they have?
  3. The information space is increasingly contested: Rumours, misinformation and propaganda have always been a feature of conflict situations. In the digital world, this happens faster, both at a global and local scale, and can be much slicker, making it more difficult for people to perceive propaganda for what it is. As we see in eastern Ukraine, Iraq or Syria, the ‘new normal’ may be hyper-connected environments where the volume and spread of rumours, misinformation and propaganda have a direct impact on how aid agencies operate, how they are perceived – “in these contexts information is a tool or a weapon of war” said Stoll – and how people feel and how (un)able they are to reconnect among themselves. Time and again we hear of people caught up in conflict and other situations of violence feeling confused, lost, isolated, distrustful and angry – as a Syrian man asked me when Zaatari camp had just opened in the summer of 2012: “How would you feel?”
  4. Building trust at the point of delivery: ‘Building trust’ was another recurrent topic during the session and throughout the Forum. This is easier said than done. Building trust “is not about a one-time survey, that’s something you don’t build in two months” said de Vega. “We can build trust with populations if we are good at delivery. Communication with communities needs to go hand in hand with robust delivery.” For Mootoosamy, engaging with people in their own language and how you interact with them are key to building trust. “People don’t like to be told what to do and what not to do. They want to be informed, want to know all sides of the story and make their own opinions.” For de Vega ‘it’s too late’ to go back to basics. “We should be talking about complementarity of technology and we should not forget about the importance of face to face communication.” One quote to print, laminate and keep in our wallets: “If we spent the same time talking to people as we do talking to ourselves in coordination meetings, things would change significantly.” (That was de Vega quoting a senior UNHCR colleague.)
  5. Local media: building trust with listeners, still hitting a “trust deficit” with humanitarians: Radio is extremely popular in many countries around the world. In the Horn of Africa, short wave is still the only way to reach a large number of people not served by FM radio – mostly communities in rural, remote and inaccessible areas, those very same communities humanitarians endeavour to protect and assist. “A network of local correspondents are the eyes and ears of Radio Ergo around the country”, said Louise Tunbridge, Programme Manager for Radio Ergo. Radio Ergo (‘ergo’ in Somali means ‘mediators’ or ‘envoys in the interest of people in need’) broadcasts humanitarian news and information on short wave from Nairobi every day. “They [correspondents] record material about local issues, talk to people about what’s going on in their local areas, about their thoughts, their needs, their opinions. People hear about themselves and they think is their radio”, said Tunbridge. While remaining editorially independent, Radio Ergo tries to work with NGOs and UN agencies to produce content for their daily broadcast, and they try hard. “We have a trust deficit working with the international community. People [humanitarians] seem not to trust us enough and I wish we could engage in a more substantial collaboration”, said Tunbridge. Another critical issue raised by media development organisations in different panels – and not for the first time – is that local media is not a means to an end (i.e. ‘used’ by aid organisations to broadcast messages or air paid-for programmes). Local media is an end in its own right that deserves respect and support so that it can play a vital role in the preparedness, relief and recovery of the very communities it is a part of.
  6. Restoring connectivity, enabling communication: While not specifically addressed in this panel, this critical issue is increasingly gaining the relevance and traction it deserves. Read ‘Providing technology and losing control’, a refreshing blog on a separate session on the topic written by Meg Sattler, Communicating with Communities (CwC) Advisor with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC). The title says it all and a big question mark remains: are we ready to become ‘enablers’? Enabling people to reconnect is crucial in enabling them to reestablish vital communication networks and start coordinating their own response. In Rwanda, the ICRC and MTN Rwanda, a local telecommunications company, are helping Burundian refugees to get in touch with their loved ones by using their own phones that they can charge in ‘Mobile Solar Kiosks’ and use free local SIM cards with preloaded free airtime. This is something we want to expand.
  7. Meaningful dialogue helps to manage community expectations: Closing the feedback loop and being accountable has become something of a mantra over the last decade (read IRIN’s in-depth piece on aid agencies’ accountability from 2012). However, as Nick van Praag from Ground Truth Solutions pointed out during the Q&A, “people don’t get survey fatigue or feedback fatigue as a result of being asked questions or providing feedback. They get survey fatigue as a result of their questions not being answered”. With asking questions comes a responsibility to respond. Basically, communities get tired of being let down. While many people are grateful to humanitarian workers for being there and talking to them, as an elderly woman told me in Bossangoa in CAR last year, aid agencies can be perceived as doing “a lot of talking but little action”. For Stoll, ‘proximity is the best reality check’ and while proximity remains paramount, he pointed out: “we need to adapt to the realities of today’s world”: less physical access on the ground in certain contexts and, increasingly, more connectivity, though not for all. How do we build trust when time with communities is a scarce commodity in some crises? What does face-to-face 2.0 mean for the humanitarian community?
  8. Consider digital, age and gender divides: Technology is becoming ubiquitous, but not for everyone and not at the same pace. The dramatic rise in mobile and mobile Internet access and social media is transforming the world, and its use in emergencies will continue to grow. However, in complex emergencies infrastructure and services are disrupted or fatally compromised. Technology also reproduces old inequalities and creates new ones in the form of digital, age and gender divides. These cannot be underestimated. Aid agencies need to be able to adapt to people’s specific needs and constraints and engage with the ‘silent majority’ who are still not online.
  9. Better collaboration and better evidence: CDAC plays a key role in bringing diverse organisations, people and resources together, though there is important room for improvement. “There is a proliferation of spaces for discussion and we don’t dedicate enough efforts to it or maybe not the right efforts”, said de Vega. Advocacy, built on strong programming and operational evidence, needs to be a much larger part of the Network’s work. This includes moving from what some consider ‘over coordinating’ and ‘underperforming’ CwC responses to a more collaborative approach to support local organisations and locally-led efforts. The Philippines and Nepal are interesting examples, but those models of collaboration don’t seem to apply to complex emergencies.
  10. There is no silver bullet – we need to shift the institutional mindset: Community engagement does require technical ability, for instance in conducting needs assessments and designing interventions but it is an approach to programming at its heart. Instead, it is a more empathic, humble way of thinking and acting. As my mentor at Internews Mark Frohardt used to tell me, “by engaging in a two-way dialogue with local communities, we give people the ability to take charge of the healing of their communities and we put the human back into the humanitarian”. “Most of the challenges of communicating with communities in complex situations are not related to technology”, said de Vega. For most community engagement activities we can think of, in fact, the technology already exists to deliver what is needed. “In the years to come, people will not expect only humanitarian services and response,” said Yves Daccord, Director General of the ICRC at the Opening of the CDAC Forum. “People will also expect and will judge us regarding the quality of the engagement, our ability to listen, to change the way we operate. Let’s make sure that community engagement is not perceived as a communication tool or actions, but as a programmatic challenge, central to the way we operate.”

If you missed the CDAC Network Member’s Forum, a recording of the panel discussion on ‘communicating with communities in complex emergencies’ and others is here, and check the hashtag #CDACNForum on Twitter.

Jacobo Quintanilla is Community Engagement Advisor at the ICRC. Jacobo has been working at the intersection of media, communications, media development and technology in the humanitarian sector for the last 12 years with the media development organization Internews, ActionAid, Amnesty International and Spanish national media.

Photo Caption: South Sudan Red Cross volunteers explain to a group of women how to prepare Super Cereal. As important as providing the Super Cereal itself is providing practical information and answer questions to enhance how families can best benefit from this nutritional supplement. Through radio announcements, a radio drama and Q&A sessions in communities and at distribution points, the ICRC has been explaining what Super Cereal is and how to cook it (Albert Madrazo/ICRC).

This post was originally published on HPN – Humanitarian Practice Network.

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2 Comments to “10 Best Practices to Reach Communities in Complex Emergencies”

  1. Internet Comment says:

    I don’t understand the direction ICTWorld has taken. Between promotional articles and general articles on development, it seems that this site has drifted far from it’s original purpose.

  2. Ana Sofia says:

    This article provides fundamental lessons for any type of community engagement through ICTs. Particularly important to bear in mind that technology is most likely not available to those who many times are the most vulnerable: women, elderly and children. Also worth of noting is the relevance of engaging in a two-way dialogue and give people the ability to take charge of their own context. I would have needed to hear more about how to incorporate current information ecosystems into a two-way dialogue between a restricted number of personnel (from the side of the NGO) and a growing number of local users/beneficiaries.