CDAC and the importance of communication in humanitarian action

There is increasing awareness of the important role of communication in aid work, as the Twitter hashtag #CommIsAid demonstrates. One of the NGOs that focus on this important element of humanitarian action is CDAC (the Communication with Disaster Affected Communities), which aims to bring together diverse local, regional and global actors to catalyse communities’ ability to connect, access information and have a voice in humanitarian emergencies.

By Martin Dawes, CDAC

The network was formed by humanitarian workers concerned about the lack of interaction with people hit by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Their concern spoke to long standing issues within emergency response and an awareness that too often aid agencies arrive and deliver, without necessarily consulting  with people about what they want, or taking into consideration local capacities and capabilities.  So the response is seen too often as an international affair that suggests that there is little on the ground that can be used and local people or national institutions are written out of their own tragedy. Not only that, by not listening and engaging, any international effort, however well intentioned, is bound to be less effective as it will not build on existing capacities and unaccountability will not create trust or buy in. The Network has now grown to more than thirty organisations, including six UN agencies, all of whom are committed to pushing an agenda for communicating and engagement with disaster affected communities.

Why communication is important

When people are in trouble they are going to want food, water and shelter but they are also going to want information. In South Sudan  there are instances of people forced from their homes but turning to the radio to find how where their children can now go to school. In a disaster people want news about what has happened, as well as when and where aid will arrive. But also they will want connections restored to tell relatives they are safe, to see if their friends are alive and, as happened after the earthquake in Nepal, to receive money on their mobiles from concerned relatives abroad.  Similarly communication in terms of social media can become platforms to alert authorities about help being needed, or to hold then to account for a slow response. Keeping across communication in an emergency now requires new skills and awareness.

There is a much more recognition that people should be consulted when projects are being launched in their name, but how to do that, how to provide feedback and what languages should be used to ensure marginalised and the most vulnerable are involved is not always simple.  And when people start talking aid needs to understand what is being said, and to give better information if rumours are spreading that are likely to create harm. This is an area that has received special attention since the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and during the European migrant crisis which is a classic example of people seeking their own salvations aided by mobile phones. In terms of communication now, there are disasters where aid is happening through the medium of social media without ‘us’, the humanitarians.

At a Community Listening Club, FAO Dimitra Project. Pic: Eliane Najros/FAO

How aid workers can improve communication

The skills needed to address this task are changing fast. And well away from PR for agencies and creating PSAs for local radio. It has to be faced that a lot of traditional communication in emergencies in the past was ineffective and relied on people with little knowledge about a country, the languages spoken or the systems their target audiences were likely to take notice of. For example an evaluation after the Nepal earthquake showed that agencies reverted quickly to radio, even though a lot of relay masts were down. Furthermore, the main listeners were men although the messages on health and child care were directed primarily at the women who were often working instead of listening to the radio. In fact the research showed that most people in the rural areas preferred to hear information from their local district leaders by word of mouth. This is something aid workers need to know if they want to be effective, but it makes their dissemination and translation job much harder. Times are changing . The ‘Participation Revolution’ of the Grand Bargain agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit 2016 means much more emphasis should be placed on local response and a proper engagement with affected populations that involves discussion, feedback and changing course when good advice is offered. Aid is littered with examples of things  going wrong because local knowledge was not taken into account.

To help there are new approaches and agreements that emphasis the essential need to have communication and connectivity in a disaster. Both mobile operators and satellite providers have signed ‘connectivity charters’ guaranteeing services in the event of a UN designated humanitarian emergency. There is pressure on social media platforms to provide connectivity intelligence in the immediate aftermath of a disaster so aid agencies can pick the right channels to target audiences. In Brazil information provided by Facebook helped UNICEF develop messages during the Zika outbreak. When they started UNICEF expected the main need to involve expectant women. But the data revealed from internet searches and other sources showed that the main audience would be men wanting to make the environment safer, so new messages were developed aimed at men and vector control. However there are many areas where more traditional communication channels still hold sway. Aid workers, now more than ever, need to understand that their communication challenge is not about developing a new app. There are hundreds of those. It is about knowing the audience, knowing the issues around gender and the marginalised, understanding that in Kenya you will not necessarily reach the right audience with English, or even Swahili, but may have to get into Luo. Finally they should also understand that if you want to be successful then the final test will be about trust and whether you are being truly authentic.

The academic research that can help humanitarian communication

You will have noticed that I have not said anything yet about international media and how they cover aid response and emergencies. Quite a lot has been said about that. I am much more concerned about what happens when someone facing the worst moments of their life are coming into contact with responders, and how that interface, that essential two way communication, could be made better for both sides. There is little academic research in this field, yet it is vital as a time when the threat of pandemic is never far away and where aid resources are likely to drop even as needs are growing. The push to more local action and response, and for aid to be as effective as possible with less resources actually carries with it an inherent need for more engagement, two communication and dialogue that goes beyond tokenism.