26 March 2009
Press Release
IHA/1273

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

‘LEFT IN THE DARK; THE UNMET NEED FOR COMMUNICATION IN HUMANITARIAN RESPONSE’


SUBJECT OF HIGH-LEVEL PANEL HELD AT UNITED NATIONS HEADQUARTERS


While food, water, and medical supplies were vital to meeting people’s needs when disaster strikes, those familiar building blocks for mounting an effective humanitarian response were, however, missing one critical element:  information.  For crisis-affected populations, weather reports, health bulletins, and directions to emergency shelter, played an equally crucial role in helping save or rebuild lives.


“The right information is crucial to making the right decisions, especially when one’s life had been turned upside down by circumstances outside of one’s control,” said Catherine Bragg, Assistant Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, opening a high-level panel discussion at United Nations Headquarters on meeting the information needs of disaster-stricken populations.


During and immediately following a humanitarian disaster, critical questions needed quick and accurate answers ‑‑ Where is the nearest open hospital?  Is help on the way?  Where can we find food and clean water?  Ms. Bragg said humanitarian actors were becoming increasingly aware of the need to ensure effective two-way communication, especially when local media outlets might be overwhelmed.


“But if we as humanitarians are serious about helping survivors be part of the architecture of their own recovery, we must be serious about […] providing them with the information they need to make the right decisions,” she said.


The panel, Left in the Dark:  the Unmet Need for Communication in Humanitarian Response, featured diverse humanitarian and media professionals, including from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), BBC World News Trust, Internews, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Most of the participants had worked in some capacity in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that rocked the Indian Ocean region and had left nearly a quarter of a million people dead in its wake.  The new reality was that information was just as critical as “the pots and pans we’re giving out”, said one speaker.


Sharing personal experiences and organizational strategies, the panellists stressed the vital necessity of building in communication plans to emergency and humanitarian response strategies; cooperating with and supporting local media capacities; bolstering two-way communication; and building bridges with the private sector to harness the possibilities offered by the growing prevalence in many disaster-prone countries of new communications technology, such as cellular phones.


Sir Nicholas Young, Chief Executive Officer of the British Red Cross, said that, as natural disasters became more frequent and as the incremental impacts of climate change became more apparent every day, “the thirst for information is going to be as great as the thirst for water”.  That being the case, he feared the humanitarian community was currently failing to meet the information needs of affected populations and ill-prepared to cope with emerging challenges.  Among other things, he was also concerned that aid agencies tended to focus more on information for their own needs, rather than on using it to help the populations they served.


“More and better information not only improves disaster response [but] recovery operations as well,” he continued, adding that:  “Information is a vital form of aid.  It can save lives, livelihoods and resources […] often it’s the only form of disaster relief an affected population can afford.”  He acknowledged that providing timely and effective information was costly, but, to address that, perhaps aid agencies needed to do a better job about explaining the importance of the issue to their donors.


He called for coherent, cooperative and strategic responses, which took advantage of local media expertise, as well as community-level outlets such as schools, civic organizations and churches.  While he acknowledged the growing importance of text messaging, blogging and other forms of “instant” information, he said blackboards, newsletters and radio broadcasts were just as important.  Ultimately, however, trust, was the key, as crisis-affected communities must be able to make sound decisions based on the information they were being given.


Highlighting the BBC World Service Trust Afghan Education Project (AEP), Shirazuddin Siddiqui, Country Director for Afghanistan, said the project had been producing a popular radio soap opera for the past 15 years. It had also recently launched a special news and current affairs programme.  The AEP also produced other topical dramas and documentaries focused on, among others, rural issues, health care and nation-building.


He said that the AEP had played a vital role in the days and months immediately following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  There was considerable unease in the country, both because the Taliban was still in power and because of the growing spectre of Coalition bombing.  While the prevailing feeling had at first been to suspend all broadcasts, he said the staff, many of whom had already suffered “traumas and awful experiences” in Afghanistan and elsewhere, had made such experiences the content of the programming.


Lisa Robinson, the BBC World Trust Projects Manager for Africa, said that, in times of crisis, information was critical because it was immediate.  Moreover, while it might take days to put together an effective humanitarian response, information was crucial in providing guidance and emotional support to survivors who were often the first responders in crisis situations, helping families and neighbours long before aid workers arrived on the scene.


She also noted a BBC-led project which had partnered aid agencies and local organizers to form listening groups around local radio broadcasts to discuss up-to-the-minute information or difficult issues.  “Broadcast information might be ephemeral, but it is no less vital than anything else we’re distributing,” she continued, calling on humanitarian agencies to mainstream information into every aspect of their work.


For example, Ms. Robinson said that, to a list of frequently asked questions ‑‑ Are schools open?  Which hospitals are up and running? ‑‑ aid agencies could add:  “Where is the nearest radio?” or provide times of local news casts.  Aid agencies could also stockpile battery-operated or wind-up radios just as they stockpiled food and other relief supplies.  She also called for stronger partnerships with local media, which should be used as “more than public relations tools”.


Mark Frodhart, Vice-President for Africa and Health and Humanitarian Media of Internews, said that, while there had been some remarkable improvements, most reforms and fundraising targeted bolstering information exchange between relief agencies, rather than between those agencies and than local populations and media.  What was needed now is institutional change that mainstreamed communication for local populations and included local media.


Internews, for its part, had held talks with journalists and humanitarian actors about the opportunities for and impediments to carrying out such change.  That exercise had revealed, among other things, that during crises, neither humanitarian actors nor local media prioritized information delivery.  Generally, international agencies focused on service delivery, while local journalists were focused on the getting the “top story” of the day.  Broader and more effective collaboration could lead to better community action, more effective relief efforts and a better informed audience, he said.


Picking up that thread, Alison Campbell, Internews Senior Media Advisor in Bangkok, said the agency worked most closely with local media, which had the greatest reach into populations and fed into so many networks.  In an emergency, local media was unrivalled in its ability to transmit and amplify information.


By example, she said that, in recent months, when war-weary Tamil civilians had begun to emerge from hiding in Sri Lanka, many had known where to go for help largely because of Internews’ Lifeline project, which had provided thousands of transistor radios to families that had been driven from their homes.  The Lifeline team had broadcast news bulletins in local languages for the better part of a year and throughout the recent intensified fighting in Sri Lanka’s east.


Monique Villa, Chief Executive Officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, highlighted Reuters’ plans to launch an “Emergency Information Service” to fill gaps in the information chain.  That project would highlight the need to focus on speaking to local populations in their own languages.  So far, it had set up hubs in Delhi, Bangkok, Nairobi and Dakar, and soon one would be established in Bogotá.  Once up and running, the service would draw on the work of Reuters’ Alert Net journalist, who would cover humanitarian issues, but also be “ambassadors” within the local community to ensure swift effective action.


She told the audience that the key was not just to give information, but “actionable and accurate” information ‑‑ not to react to panic but help affected populations make choices.  On new technologies, such as cellular phones, she noted that countries in the developing world, especially Africa, were becoming more and more connected.  So, perhaps a key pre- or post-crisis strategy would be not to hand out cellular phones, but chargers and battery packs instead.  She also urged humanitarian organizations to step up their cooperation with local and international media outlets: “Don’t be frightened of the sound bite,” she said.


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For information media • not an official record