The Last Hurdle? Removing communication with communities ‘competitive disadvantage’

Source: Wed, 18 Apr 2018 07:27 AM
CDAC Network
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In a sudden-onset emergency, epidemic or refugee crisis, information may be the first form of aid that makes a difference.  People facing extreme threat from a natural disaster, helping newcomers forced to flee their homes or treating loved ones will be searching for information they can use while responders will be thirsty for information from those affected to make their actions more appropriate, relevant and timely. At the same time, misinformation, rumours and fake news can make things far worse for all those involved, while finding the best ways for effective two-way communication is a prerequisite to ensure the participation and involvement of communities.

Not addressing this overarching, and wholly predictable, communication challenge in a comprehensive way as part of emergency preparedness and response places any humanitarian action at a considerable disadvantage. Yet communication with populations is not always properly resourced or considered as a priority in emergency preparedness.  It suffers because it is complex and not bound up with highly visible supply side provision.  That has always been true. But in addition to the need to get information to and from affected populations, humanitarians are facing a new challenge in the communication field, and it is one that demands that far more attention should be given to ‘communication’ when government, planners and humanitarians sit down to consider how to reach populations who may come under threat. This challenge concerns the provision of connectivity, the collection of data and how to secure the protection of personal information. The establishment of networks, new technology and harvesting data about people means humanitarian action has to show a duty of care in this area, and be much better prepared with, for example, pre-existing protocols, private-sector partnerships and secure systems.

All this means that the ‘competitive disadvantage’ experienced by communication and engagement when it comes to focus, funding and involvement in emergency preparation needs to be rethought. It is time for the disparate expertise, technologies and cultural knowledge that underpins effective communication and engagement with communities to be integrated into humanitarian response planning in all countries, and for funding to sustain training, skills and development.


The Case

Engaging with people at risk, listening to them and developing effective ways to have that two-way action is recognised as being one of the more difficult components emergency response. It is one thing to have technologies that warn of weather events, or laboratories that can isolate pathogens, it is quite another to know how best to develop smart messages and start a conversation with a mass audience so they assume ownership and take the best actions to save lives or make others safe. Preparation and training will make meeting the challenge in a hot emergency far easier and make response more effective.

While the inherent difficulties within humanitarian communication and engagement may be recognised there is still an apparent reluctance to shift emphasis and resources when it comes to emergency planning. The case for doing this though is however being made through multiple experiences where humanitarians have had to catch up with best practice. The CDAC Network in 2018 completed an evaluation[i] of its component of the four-year, UKaid-funded Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme. One of the three countries where the CDAC Network developed advanced preparedness to communicate with communities (CwC) was Bangladesh, a country that has seen a real drive to reduce risk from cyclones and water borne diseases. The evaluation of the project makes the point that “the quality of - and demand for - CwC by humanitarian agencies in that country has increased in successive responses” and argues that additional finance and personnel are needed to meet the growing demands for technical support, collating community feedback, and facilitating new relationships to private sector and state-run media. Overall the evaluation supported the premise of the project “that increased investment in preparedness planning is paramount for improving response and that these approaches are most effective when they build on practices that already exist”. 

Communication, connectivity and the desire for more engagement were core frustrations during the European refugee crisis. Time and time again reports and evaluations on other emergencies pinpoint failures of communication or a lack of community engagement as a reason for failures or shortcomings. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa government messages in Liberia were distrusted by people who removed sick relatives from the capital’s hospital.  Dr. David Nabarro, the UN Coordinator for that response, said they only got ahead of the epidemic when they started to understand the importance of bodies and how the dead are viewed within the culture. Better understanding as a result of belated listening and learning amongst humanitarians allowed for more empathetic advisories to encourage changes in behaviour and acceptance of advice. But it happened late.

Nearly two years on from the World Humanitarian Summit the commitment to include people receiving aid as part of the Participation Revolution is widely acknowledged, but momentum and interest in this area seems to have slowed. This should not be allowed to happen. For too long ‘communication’ and ‘community engagement’ – essential ingredients in involving people in decisions – have been considered as accessories rather than fundamental components to any humanitarian aid operation.  The Participation Revolution called for a change in approach with the implicit message that agencies must accept the risk of receiving feedback that may be critical, or not practical. Nick van Praag, of Ground Truth Solutions, argues that such risks in this area actually rarely materialise, and that active engagement is about more than soliciting views. It must include a systematic approach to communicating with respondent communities and ‘closing the loop’, so they know their views have been considered. Whether or not their feedback is acted on, this two-way communication helps address the dissatisfaction and alienation that may otherwise persist or get worse. 

Increasingly in humanitarian emergencies aid agencies are responding not only to demands for connectivity by mobile or through the internet, but are collecting vast amounts of data. In December 2017 there were reported allegations that the Red Rose beneficiary data tracking platform had been hacked with names, photographs and family information for 8,000 people receiving assistance in West Africa being accessed[ii]. Both the establishment of connectivity through internet or mobile systems, and the collection of data about vulnerable people, or those who are marginalised and at particular risk, should create an understanding that more time, resources and efforts must be put into planning for their use so that rights are protected and that there is full public accountability.


What Needs to be Done?

It goes without saying that a crisis is a rotten time to start trying to work out what channels or institutions people trust, what messages are most likely to be listened to in any given context, how rumours are spread, the power and gender dynamics within communities, the number of languages being used and the cultural mores that may affect behaviour.

Better preparedness would involve asking questions, and finding new answers, about how populations are engaged. The independent evaluation of CDAC’s DEPP project calls for local bodies to be much more involved as it found that national agencies in general were cash strapped and much more concerned about implementation, let alone even just the most basic forms of one-way information provision. If the best communication expertise with people at risk lies with international agencies, and the shared platform in Cox’s Bazar working on the Rohingya refugee crisis has few local NGOs, then this is an area of humanitarian activity that must be changed. It is surely unacceptable that in times of most danger the best knowledge, techniques and funding, for engaging vulnerable people in their own country rests with international actors.  

Another lesson from the innovative DEPP project as a whole is that they took a long time to set up, secure the buy-in from partners and cement the collaborative relationships. This is not surprising. Emergency preparedness, as a whole, often does not attract the support it deserves. And communication as a specialist area rarely gets the funding it needs to develop properly.

Another component of the communication ‘competitive disadvantage’ in a humanitarian context is that it is rarely evaluated except as part of the overall response. This is when the initial drive is to save lives and to mobilise supplies, personnel and funding. It is therefore likely to be assessed within that context, thus perpetuating a view that communication and engagement is something to benefit organisations and their capability.  The conclusion of a paper produced for the Humanitarian Practice Network in 2013[iii] still holds true when it said, “Research reveals that, in general, projects aimed at increasing communication with affected populations are very rarely evaluated. Yet this is critically important to assess the impact of such projects on the humanitarian aid effort, as well to develop a strong evidence base for lobbying within aid organisations and with donors, to prioritise and resource communication with crisis-affected populations”.

This reality underlines, again, the need for communication and community engagement to be a well-funded part of emergency planning and preparedness so that professionalism, relevant resources, understood principles, the right languages, relevant techniques and channels, as well as data protection, are firmly established for use when lives are at stake, and time is desperately short.   


CDAC commissioned this opinion piece from consultant and former staff Martin Dawes following the completion and evaluation of the “Better Dialogue, Better Information and Better Action” component of the UKaid-funded Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme.

The DEPP evaluation will be available on our website by the end of April 2018.


[i] Strengthening information sharing and two-way communication preparedness capacity for better dialogue, better information and better action


[iii] Lessons from the infoasaid project’ HPN at ODI. Carole Chapelier and Anita Shah

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