Radio has long been recognised as an important element in responding to any humanitarian crisis. Whether as a result of extreme weather, epidemic or conflict, displaced populations need to be informed, educated and organised if they are to recover - and radio plays a vital part in this process.
Too often, however, the overwhelming need to deliver food, water, medicines and shelter in the immediate aftermath sees radio being relegated from a position of ‘must-have’ to just ‘nice-to-have’. When compounded by a perception of radios being unnecessary luxury items, or of them being a mechanism for spreading political dissent, it is not unusual for the process of getting radios into affected individuals’ hands to take many months. Radio’s role is then to facilitate the rebuilding of communities, commonly through the provision of news, meteorological updates, educational material and health advice.
But radio has the potential to play a far more immediate role in emergency response situations. Delivering radios to displaced populations at the earliest opportunity can mean that reconnecting dispersed communities and getting them back on their feet can happen much sooner than is often the case currently. The model developed by the FAO’s Dimitra project - of Community Listeners’ Clubs coming together to listen to the radio, sharing information and experiences and addressing issues of common interest – could be adapted to build shared support networks, access essential services and plan for the future.
Furthermore, early introduction of a radio service offers the prospect of identifying and drawing together local skills and labour to rebuild lives which have been turned upside down. Doctors and nurses are as likely to have been affected by a crisis as builders and carpenters. If their skills and experience can be coordinated and used to benefit affected communities, local needs can be met more quickly and dependence on external support can be reduced.
So, by setting up a local radio station - First Response’s ‘Radio in a Suitcase’ shows how straightforward this can be – and making radios available as soon as possible after a disaster strikes, not only can a potentially faster response be effected, but it can also be one that is ‘owned’ by those people whose lives have been disrupted.
There is, however, a stumbling block.
It is not that delivering radios to stricken areas means that food, water, shelter or medicine cannot be supplied – life-or-death provisions must, of course, take priority. Nor is it that storing radios for use in the event of an emergency will result in their batteries going flat and becoming un-rechargeable – technological progress means that lithium phosphate batteries can be fitted and safely stored for as long as five years.
It is rather that the often outrageous levels of duty levied by nations to which emergency radios are being delivered can see these products lying unused in bonded warehouses for extended periods whilst more reasonable costs are negotiated. And those negotiations do not always go well, meaning that the radios do not reach their intended recipients in time.
So the first step towards realising the benefits that radio can deliver in the early stages of crisis response is, perhaps, for UN agencies and NGOs to use their clout to lobby for global tariff-free importation of humanitarian consignments - including hardware such as radios.
John McGrath, is the Managing Director of Freeplay Energy