Information: a right, a deliverable and a power

Sector-wide the most under resourced aspect of communicating in emergencies is the communications with those affected by the emergency. All too often the onus is on getting communications materials out to the Head Office or to the international media — overlooking those at the heart of the emergency.

Information is a right, and it is a deliverable. It bestows power — power to take control of a situation that is by definition out of your control.

Great progress has been made in terms of accountability to those we serve through a variety of initiatives. However, treating information as a commodity — as vital as shelter kits and food and water to distribute — remains an unmet need. By treating information as a deliverable we can help communities help themselves long before any aid workers arrive. And, equally as important, delivering this commodity empowers people when they feel the most helpless.

Often the community is the true first responder. They are the ones who have to pick up the pieces, assess the situation, and explore options for relief and recovery.

The humanitarian sector needs to provide them with vital information to help them help themselves. Information about when is it safe to return home, how to boil water to purify it, what to do if your child is suffering from psychological distress, or even how to build a makeshift shelter is critical.

In April last year, during a meeting hosted by Save the Children and the British Red Cross, a group of agencies — the the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) working group — wanted to make this change and to examine how we could work on improving this situation.

One area of work we have identified as a priority is technology — in particular, keeping abreast of the innovations in the sector and exploring how these could be best used in the humanitarian sector to enable better communications with communities.

Technology provides an incredible opportunity for us to better at delivering this information. The meteoric rise of mobile phone usage and the huge popularity of social media networks in particular are opening a lot of doors. Using text messages to establish two way communications with affected populations can support every stage of an emergency response from relief through to recovery and rehabilitation.

However we need to explore how this technology can help with both mitigation and preparedness. Early warning systems could and arguably should harness the huge reach of SMS (text messages). The Maldives has been exploring using mobile technology to warn of disasters.

Broadcast media also remains a vital tool at our disposal to enable mass communications with affected communities. We need to build upon the work of organisations like the BBC World Service Trust that is exploring ways to analyze audiences and how they receive information. This is the first and most important step. Research has shown that people return to their preferred channel of information following an emergency. They have a relationship with that source – there is arguably a loyalty.

Having agreements, relationships, and systems in place to enable humanitarian agencies, media trusts, technology providers, and local media to work together to deliver this information seems to be the logical solution.

We need to also remain loyal to the “old fashioned” methods as well — the notice boards and the community meetings — these too have flaws, but they should be included in the  range of options that we use to approach this issue. We need to also have a good understanding of how the communities get their information.

As with all humanitarian work there remains a huge need for coordination. In Aceh, for example, different agencies gave out different information describing what to do during an earthquake: duck under the table, stand in the doorway, or run out the door. These mixed messages would obviously confuse the people they were originally designed to help – increasing the risk and endangering lives.