I can’t see, so when my radio was destroyed in the cyclone, I felt very isolated. Now that I have a radio, I feel like I can see!
Ann Kite Yo Pale or Let Them Speak: Best practice and lessons learned in communication in Haiti
The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the south of Haiti on January 12th 2010 triggered the largest humanitarian response since the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. But the earthquake was unfortunately not the only serious emergency to strike Haiti in 2010. The outbreak of cholera in the town of St Marc on October 18th 2010 brought a new, highly infectious and deadly disease to a country with weak sanitation and health systems, and no knowledge of this illness.
Throughout these responses, a number of organisations tried to operationalise ways to fill a long-acknowledged gap in humanitarian response: the way in which aid agencies share information with and listen to those affected by the disaster. At the same time, a whole range of other actors – Haitian media, local private sector actors including technology companies, telecoms companies and Haitians in the overseas diaspora also started working to share information and to improve communication. Of particular note was the Haitian use of mobile phone and web based technology (more Haitians own mobile phones than own radios), and the experimental efforts by aid agencies to understand and engage with this new dynamic.
Aid agencies also found themselves grappling with many practical challenges in delivering better communication: the need for in house skills, securing funding, how best to position this work and what the cost benefit analysis was of investing in communications.
In February 2011, an infoasaid team began two months of detailed field research in Haiti in an effort to discover which of these efforts had borne fruit, map and capture Haitian led initiatives, look at how theoretical models had delivered in practice and most importantly of all, to look at the viewpoint and user experience of those affected by these disasters when it comes to communication. Through a series of focus groups, face to face interviews and collating existing monitoring and evaluation efforts, the team – Yves-Gerald Chery and Imogen Wall – worked to identify models, projects and approaches that had delivered and present them in a format of practical use to professional humanitarians looking for support in engaging more with communications. What models work best? Where should aid agencies invest for the best cost-value outcomes in communications work? How can the impact of a communications project be judged? What actually is the value of mobile phone technology, and how can this emerging phenomenon be meaningfully understood and engaged with? And what are local actors doing, and what implications does that have for responders?
The findings were striking. Firstly, although the evidence is anecdotal, the demand for information from survivors of the earthquake and the cholera outbreak was high, with Haitians desperate for knowledge and information especially practical updates on finding loved ones, sourcing assistance. Those affected by disasters also stressed again and again the importance of communications as a process, not just the transfer of information. They placed huge value on being listened to, being able to contact humanitarian organisations and were very sensitive to and appreciative of efforts by agencies to communicate.
On the international side, good communications work was clearly viable and important from the earliest stages of the response – as demonstrated in work by Internews, and agencies such as WFP, and found to be an important investment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the agencies and organisations that delivered most effectively on communications were those that invested in dedicated technical capacity and in funding for basic communications tools. This is linked to another finding, that agencies who had invested in communication discovered a close link between good communications work and improved operational delivery. Some actors went so far as to say their projects would have been impossible without communications support. During the cholera outbreak, the response of communication actors from the first hours was essential to the survival of potentially thousands of people, whose ability to recognise symptoms and take prompt action was literally the difference between life and death.
The increase in organisations investing in communication is however leading to a new challenge: the increasing importance of coordination of communications work. Haiti saw the first ever attempt to create a project to handle coordination – the CDAC initiative – which was judged a success and highly useful service by interviewees, particularly during the cholera emergencies. Complex challenges in this area remain.
There is no question that technology is revolutionising the communications sector. This is field in its infancy, and in Haiti it is clear that innovation was being driven primarily by local populations, not international experts. Aid agencies need to learn to be guided by local expertise in this area. Interviewees also emphasised the importance of ‘not losing the human element’ – that while exciting there is more to effective communication than technology.
Finally, the single biggest gap across the board within agencies was the lack of M+E of communications projects. This did not only make passing judgement very difficult, it was also clearly hindering the development of the sector and the capture of best practice to inform future responses or to encourage further investment by agencies especially at headquarters level. In the case of technology this gap extends to a lack of methodology as well as a lack of investment.
There is no question that the experiences in Haiti in 2010 were vast and in many ways unusual and even unique. While there is much to learn, replicate and build on from the practical case studies contained in this report, technological advances mean that in communications possibly more than any other sector, it is essential to look forward and plan for the disaster of the future, not those of the past.