10 best practices to reach communities in complex emergencies

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.”

by Jacobo Quintanilla

Jean-Luc 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.”

You can see the registration of the CDAC Network Members’Forum here.

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

1. Understand the local context

Understanding local actors, local capabilities and local ways of doing things, as well as political, economic, social and community dynamics is key, because conflict situations always present particular and specific challenges (Nigel Fisher, former Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti and the Syria region).

2. Get to grips with the local information ecosystem – meet your audience where they are

Understanding local information ecosystems includes understanding what people want to know about, what information and communication channels they currently use and trust, how they use them and how information flows. Also it’s important 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” (Philippe Stoll).

3. The information space is increasingly contested

Rumours, misinformation and propaganda have always been a feature of conflict situations and in the digital world, this happens faster, both at a global and local scale, and can be much slicker. This situations have a direct impact on how aid agencies operate, how they are perceived and how people feel, often confused, lost, isolated, distrustful and angry. “In these contexts information is a tool or a weapon of war” said Stoll.

4. Building trust at the point of delivery

Building trust “is not about a one-time survey, that’s something you don’t build in two months” said de Vega. “Communication with communities needs to go hand in hand with robust delivery, and we should not forget about the importance of face to face communication”. For Jean-Luc Mootoosamy, engaging with people in their own language and how you interact with them are key to building trust. “People want to be informed, they want to know all sides of the story and to make their own opinions”.

5. Local media: building trust with listeners, still hitting a “trust deficit” with humanitarians

Radio is extremely popular in many countries around the world, so during the discussion Louise Tunbridge (Programme Manager for Radio Ergo) presented Radio Ergo, as a good tool for sharing humanitarian news and information. However a trust deficit in cooperation between the international community and the local media comes to light. “Humanitarians seem not to trust us enough and I wish we could engage in a more substantial collaboration”, said Tunbridge.


6. Restoring connectivity, enabling communication

A big question mark emerges: 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.

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. However, while many people are grateful to humanitarian workers for being there and talking to them, aid agencies can be perceived as doing “a lot of talking but little action”. For Stoll, ‘proximity is the best reality check’ and “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.

8. Consider digital, age and gender divides

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.

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.

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. “In the years to come, people will not expect only humanitarian services and response”. People will also expect and will judge us regarding the quality of the engagement, our ability to listen, to change the way we operate” (Yves Daccord, Director General of the ICRC at the CDAC Forum).


Photo Caption: Albert Madrazo/ICRC.

You can find the original article on the ICT Works website.

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