Resource - Policy Paper
Lisa Robinson and Imogen Wall

Policy Briefing: Still Left in the Dark?

In 2008, a BBC World Service Trust policy briefing argued that people affected by earthquakes, floods or other emergencies often lacked the information they needed to survive and that this only added to their stress and anxiety. Left in the Dark: the unmet need for information in humanitarian emergencies maintained that humanitarian agencies were increasingly effective and coordinated in getting food, water, shelter and medical help to people affected by disasters, but were neglecting the need to get often life-saving information to them.

Much has changed since 2008. Thanks to the efforts of several humanitarian and media support Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the report helped to galvanise momentum across the humanitarian sector to prioritise communication with the populations it serves. While many humanitarian agencies continue to see communication   as something  that is  done to raise money or boost the profile of their disaster relief efforts, the sector is, increasingly,  seeing the need for a clear strategic focus that responds to the information and communication  needs of those affected by disaster. There is also a growing recognition of the benefits of such communication to improve programming and the overall emergency response.

On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti close to the capital, Port au Prince, killing more than 300,000 people and making more than one million homeless. A coordination mechanism designed to ensure the better provision of information to – and communication with – those affected was seen as a real success.

Other examples of progress include a new project, infoasaid, which has received funding from the UK Department for International Development to provide practical assistance on communication to a range of partner humanitarian agencies. Several agencies, including the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), have secured funding and support for such work during emergencies. There is increasing recognition by the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) of the importance of this kind of communication: OCHA now includes updates on this area in its situation reports and has funded key initiatives, including the Haiti coordination mechanism. The media assistance organisation Internews, and other specialist communications agencies such as BBC Media Action (formerly the BBC World Service Trust), have also begun to develop specific humanitarian response capacity, including dedicated staff and funding, although resources are still insufficient.

Meanwhile, mobile telephony and other new communication technologies have spread with extraordinary speed. In 2008, the main danger was that people affected by humanitarian emergencies would continue to be left in the dark when disaster struck, deprived of the information that would help them to understand what was happening and what they could do to survive. In 2012, it may now be the humanitarian agencies themselves – rather than the survivors of a disaster – who risk being left in the dark. As growing access to new technologies makes it more likely that those affected by disaster will be better placed to access information and communicate their own needs, a key question arises: are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?

The response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake saw humanitarian responders begin to recognise the importance and implications of the technological communications capacity of disaster survivors. From trapped people who used mobile phones to call for help from beneath the rubble to locally- run Facebook pages to reunite families, the multiple ways in which technology could create opportunities and new dynamics in an emergency response became clear to all.

Unquestionably, the biggest single change in the communications sector since the 2008 Left in the Dark paper has been the explosion in access to communications technology among communities affected by disaster. As a result, this is the focus of this paper.

This summary is unchanged and taken from the introduction of the original document.