Lois Appleby, Humanitarian Information Officer for Action Aid International, shares her take aways from the CDAC Network Forum panel focusing on mainstreaming ‘communicating with communities’ within humanitarian organisations.
Members of the CDAC Network, like ActionAid, understand the importance of communicating with disaster affected communities and listening to what they have to say. But how can we make sure the rhetoric becomes a reality across all of our humanitarian responses? What do we need to do to make it part of the DNA of our organisations and donor financing systems to enable us to put our words into action? This was one of the hot topics at the CDAC Network Members’ Forum in Geneva on 9 July debated between INGOs, media development agencies, government donors, UN and Red Cross colleagues.
Miss the discussion? Here are the key points from the session.
Challenges for Humanitarian Actors
1. Evidencing why communicating with disaster affected communities is so important in the first place
“Communicating with communities is a means to an end. The end is about addressing the power imbalance.” – Mark Bulpitt, World Vision UK
We humanitarians all need to get better at showing why empowering disaster affected communities with information and two-way communication channels makes a difference, and why it should be embedded across our disaster preparedness, response and resilience building work. How can we do this? By documenting how ongoing dialogue with communities informs programme design, empowers people to make their own decisions, and leads to a much better overall programme. If donors were shown the cost benefit of communicating with communities (CwC), surely it would be taken seriously? The Ebola response in West Africa is a prime example of how information saves lives. Humanitarian actors have the opportunity to leverage this to push for policy changes in our organisations, and not let the interest slope off.
2. Convincing everyone in our own organisations first, before the next disaster
“We need to be hard- nosed about convincing our organisations on CwC” – Keiran Dwyer (UNOCHA)
Getting senior leadership to understand the importance of communicating with disaster affected communities is essential to make sure it becomes part of humanitarian organisations’ DNA. Organisations should have a clear framework that is brief, easy to understand and can be used by everyone in the field. The potential down side to having dedicated staff working on improving CwC and accountability can mean that others don’t think it is their responsibility. To counteract this, could we make CwC part of our staff performance monitoring systems to incentivise people to take it seriously? As the saying goes, ‘what gets measured gets done!’
3. Looking outside of the traditional humanitarian system
We need to challenge ourselves and make sure we are more transparent and accountable, and importantly, open to being challenged. If we aren’t delivering the best response on the ground possible, it is likely to be discussed on the local radio - we should be ready to listen to local media, respond openly, and adapt.
4. Increasing complexity of disasters and humanitarian access
“If we don’t change and adopt a localisation model, we won’t be able to meet the scale of humanitarian need.” – Dylan Winder, DFID
Disasters are increasing and the old humanitarian model is exactly that – old! The global humanitarian system is already too overstretched to cope with the current level and complexity of disasters. We face ever diminishing resources and capacity to respond, so the traditional model where international organisations take the lead has to change. Localising responses, ensuring national and local actors have the capacity and power to respond to disasters is the future.
The end game? Ideally, we INGO workers should be doing ourselves out of a job.
1. Work together to learn from successes and challenges
CDAC Network Members can work together to learn from shared experience, and influence other coordination bodies and networks they are part of. CDAC Network Members are well placed to pilot innovative projects with other members, including the private sector, and importantly document what works and what doesn’t.
The new DFID-funded Disaster Emergency Prepardness Programme (DEPP) projects in Bangladesh and South Sudan, dedicated to improving communication with communities in disaster preparedness and response, are prime testing grounds for collaboration, shared learning and community led innovation. Watch this space.
The recently launched Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) includes a specific commitment to CwC, providing humanitarian agencies with an opportunity to take a fresh look at our programmes and mainstream communication with disaster affected communities.
CHS Quality Criterion 4: Humanitarian response is based on communication, participation and feedback.
Communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them.
Media development agencies can work more closely with local media, bridging gaps between humanitarian and journalists, documenting best practice, and learning from successes to develop toolkits.
Donors can include requirements to communicate with communities in funding guidelines and reporting, and actively fund CwC activities. Dylan Winder of DFID advised agencies to “Submit good proposals for CwC and make sure your projects are part of the strategic response plans.”
2. The World Humanitarian Summit
“The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 is a massive opportunity for CwC. It is critical that we positon it well and use critical moments to leverage it.” – Keiran Dwyer (UNOCHA)
In 2016, the first ever World Humanitarian Summit will be held, bringing together governments, humanitarian organisations, people affected by humanitarian crises and the private sector to propose solutions to the ever increasing humanitarian challenges, and set an agenda for the future.
Shifting power from the north to the global south, and localising humanitarian response, are set to be key topics on the agenda. Communicating with disaster affected communities is perfectly aligned with these issues, so it is essential that we seize the opportunity to shape humanitarian action going forward. But let’s not stop there. The summit is just the start.
Finally, I leave you with the big question from keynote speaker and seasoned humanitarian Nigel Fisher, which we should continue to ask ourselves going forward:
“What does success in communicating with communities look like? Is success better community engagement so that we humanitarians are more responsive? Or is success when others can do what we humanitarians do through locally-led response?”