‘Displaced people in northern Iraq live in an information vacuum which is hindering their ability to cope with the catastrophe in which they find themselves’, is the key finding from the first inter-agency information and communication needs assessment carried out in Iraq. ‘This information vacuum results from lack of access to reliable news and information from local media, and lack of access to information about existing and planned aid services.’
Members of the assessment team came together to discuss their key findings and learning at a #CDACLearn event at Action Aid’s London office on 23 October. In a discussion facilitated by Greg Barrows of the World Food Programme, Internews’ Jacobo Quintanilla, OCHA’s Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque and World Vision International’s Madara Hettiarachchi talked about their experiences working together in Iraq.
The need to ‘put the human back into humanitarian response’ through better communication with affected communities was a key topic of conversation, as well as ‘what will the sector do with this information?’
Panellists were struck by the lack of information available to IDPs. ‘This leads to rumours on top of rumours, as communities see NGOs talking to each other during relief distributions, but not to communities’, explained Madara Hettiarachchi, Assistant Director of Humanitarian Accountability at WVI. ‘Everyone wearing a shirt with an NGO or UN logo should be able to give basic information about the relief effort, and listen to communities’ concerns. That is something serious for all of us to think about in terms of training staff, and also coordinating so we can share as much accurate information as possible’.
Jacobo Quintanilla, Director of Humanitarian Communications, who has carried out information needs assessments with Internews in many contexts, was struck by the psychological impact the lack of information and connectivity can have in a conflict situation. ‘When you walk into an IDP camp and find tough Arab men crying because their mobile phone battery has died and they can no longer connect with their wives and daughters who have been captured by ISIS, it is harrowing. Why do we act like access to mobile phones is a luxury? Any one of us would want to be able to connect with our loved ones.’
The team discovered that women had less access information than men, linked to limited access to mobile phones and their husbands wanting to protect them by not sharing information. ‘There is no one size fits all approach’ said Madara, ‘We need to provide information in a nuanced, appropriate way so women can also organise and coordinate between themselves.’
Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, OCHA’s Global Communication with Communities (CwC) Coordinator explained that communities were actively trying to reach humanitarian agencies through their own networks. ‘At the height of the crisis, people were calling the OCHA Operations Centre from the Simian Mountains requesting that mobile phone chargers be dropped along with aid packages, as this was the only contact they had with the outside world.’
The report, which sets out clear recommendations, has been well received by aid workers on the ground who recognise many of the challenges. The report has also been used in programme design and wider advocacy by the participating agencies, including OCHA who have set-up a CwC coordination group in Erbil, Iraq.
However, the proposed structure for supporting Communicating with Communities across the Iraq response, largely through technical support to clusters, remains unfunded. A ‘media liaison officer’ role has been recommended, as Iraq has a strong media network which humanitarian agencies could using to give communities ‘useful, actionable information’. There is a need to keep on top of what information communities need, and respond to this through appropriate channels. ‘Communities want information on what agencies are doing tomorrow, not what they did yesterday’, explained Jacobo, ‘information needs don’t finish, they just change over time’.
When questions were asked about protection, and the risk of raising expectations with common communication platforms, the panellists acknowledged that these issues are real, but need to be tackled head on rather than avoided. ‘We often have a fear that once we open communication channels we won’t be able to respond to all the questions, or we’ll find ourselves under attack’ said Alexandra, ‘That’s why a CwC structure is essential so we all have as much information as possible, and a common agreement on what non-sensitive information we can share and how to manage expectations.’
This report marks the first time representatives from a diverse group including CDAC Network Members have carried out an assessment collaboratively. The benefits of pooling expertise and resources from INGO, media development and UN partners was recognised, not to mention the greater weight the report holds for being an inter-agency publication. However, the panellists were concerned that, while ‘there was a lot of heart in the mission’, ‘it only happened this time because the right people were in the right place at the right time’.
Challenges to making information and communication needs assessments a reliable part of humanitarian response include both funding for deployments (generously provided by WFP in this case), and finding experienced staff to undertake the assessment. The Internews/CDAC Network Humanitarian Communication and Media Roster is working to find and train experienced surge staff, but there was also a call for a ‘CDAC Network internal roster’, where experienced representatives of CDAC Network Member organisations could deploy to carry out joint needs assessments – ensuring the assessment in Iraq isn’t a ‘one-off’.
A short video from the event will be available here soon.
To read the full needs assessment report click here.