Why Communication Needs To Be At The Heart Of Humanitarian Response

It has taken the aid world a long time to realise that there might be value in putting the needs and views of affected people at the heart of decision-making
An information session for Rohingya women living in camps in Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar
An information session for Rohingya women living in camps in Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar
BBC Media Action

“One organisation delivers blankets; then another also delivers blankets. One organisation distributes rice, and then another also distributes rice. Talking of blankets, for example, I’ve got six or seven new blankets in my home.”

These words, spoken by a Nepali man sitting on a pile of rubble after the 2015 earthquake, have stayed with me as a reminder of what needs to change in the global approach to humanitarian response.

“Instead of giving us such things, they could give us what we need, like water, for example”, echoed a woman. “We asked particularly for water pipes and they didn’t give us those. We have to go far away with a basket to collect water.”

At the root of this absurd situation were a number of key problems.

Among them, the perpetual issues of coordination and professionalism. When lots of agencies are planning to help people, it’s clear that there needs to be a basic discussion on which agency does what, and where. In fairness, things have come a long way in the aid sector since high-profile humanitarian response fiascos of the 90s, such as the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, led to an increasing professionalisation of aid and steadily better coordination. In all big humanitarian responses, there are now frequent coordination meetings where these important conversations happen, and do make a difference. But there are still gaps, as we saw in Nepal.

The other problem was about not listening to the people you are trying to help.

It has taken the aid world a long time to realise that there might be value in putting the needs and views of affected people at the heart of decision-making.

Listening to people can be time-consuming, especially if they don’t speak your language, and it gets all the more inconvenient when what you hear does not match with your preconceived ideas about what you should be doing. It’s far easier to make assumptions about what to give people, dole out whatever you previously promised your funder you would deliver, and measure success in terms of total numbers of blankets and bags of rice distributed.

But how can we hope to really help the people we are serving if we don’t find out what they need?

This issue is at the heart of the still-emerging field of what is increasingly referred to as Communication, Community Engagement and Accountability (CCEA). The past few years have seen big strides towards recognising that crisis-affected people need timely humanitarian information, are able to participate in decisions that affect them, and have access to responsive complaints mechanisms. Key international policies and guidelines (including the Transformative Agenda, the Grand Bargain and the Core Humanitarian Standard) include strong reference to this.

What is needed now is a more systematic application of these standards, more people with the skillsets to implement them and - underpinning it all – more dedicated funding. But the humanitarian community has learned a lot and there are encouraging examples of progress.

Putting theory into practice

The United Nations describes the Rohingya emergency as currently the “fastest-growing refugee crisis”. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have fled their homes in Myanmar and now find themselves in vast, sprawling camps over the border in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Early assessments found that, as usual, communication, feedback and accountability mechanisms in the camps had numerous failings. Since those assessments, BBC Media Action (the organisation I work for) has been among a number of agencies who have received funding to improve the communication flow between refugees and the relief effort, and we have noticed that in this response a number of things are working better than in many other responses.

Firstly, CCEA is very firmly on the radar of most responding agencies and funders as an integral part of the response. It is no longer seen as an optional add-on and there is a lot of effort taking place, even if the results are not always perfect. Secondly, coordination structures for CCEA were already present when the crisis escalated so there wasn’t the usual scramble of who should be at the table.

Thirdly, there are now many aid workers with the skills and knowledge to undertake this kind of work.

There is no doubt that greater awareness and momentum at a global level is leading to change on the ground. Local-level efforts – in particular preparedness – can also make a contribution.

Being prepared

If humanitarian assistance is to be effective, all aspects of a response require preparedness: from where will shelter materials be sourced? How will aid reach the affected people? Who will deliver it? Where will food and medical supplies (and not to mention all those blankets) be stocked while they await distribution?

Preparedness for communication is no exception – training, planning, awareness-raising and relationship building are a must before an emergency hits. And when disaster strikes, all those efforts must translate into action.

In 2013 BBC Media Action began work in Bangladesh (funded by the UK Department for International Development) to better prepare media and aid agencies to communicate with affected people in emergencies. This included the creation of a working group for Communication with Communities, chaired by the Bangladesh Government’s Department of Disaster Management. With a fresh grant through the global Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, this later evolved into Shongjog – a national platform focused on Communication with Communities.

This kind of preparatory work helped build relationships between agencies and key individuals, raised the profile of CCEA, established coordination mechanisms and also skilled up local staff on CCEA, with many hundreds of professionals trained in humanitarian communication and accountability - the majority of whom are now working on the Rohingya emergency.

Taking action

As part of our response to the crisis, BBC Media Action works with Internews and Translators without Borders to provide a Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability. In practice, this means helping provide practical, local-language information to Rohingya people giving the space to ask questions and highlight problems, as well as gathering and analysing feedback which is shared with all aid actors via What Matters? - a regular bulletin offering an overview of Rohingya and host communities’ priority concerns as they evolve.

The hope is that agencies will continue to use findings from the latter to inform their work. A simple piece of feedback can have a significant effect on improving lives. For example, one of the bulletins described a concern that pregnant women are not getting enough nutritious food, such as vegetables. Now it’s over to the aid agencies to either provide that food if it’s indeed lacking, or give pregnant women information on what nutritious options are available and how to access them.

And that brings us back to the most critical point: action. People can become rapidly disillusioned if they try using the plethora of suggestion boxes and feedback hotlines, but nothing happens as a result. If we ask for people’s trust, and if we want to help them to the best of our ability, we must not only listen to communities but also act on what we hear.

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