Partners from the Asia Disaster Risk Reduction Network are in the front line for communicating with communities during disasters. Credit/OCHA
Asia Pacific is the world’s most disaster-prone region and one of the world’s fastest-growing digital landscapes. So it is no surprise that social media and information communications technology (ICT) have become major tools for circulating information in disaster situations in the Asia–Pacific region.
The region’s diversity is staggering, with 2,000 spoken languages and a myriad of ethnicities and nationalities. In the last few years, online and mobile penetration have increased rapidly across Asia, with communities spending more time creating, consuming and sharing information. For the humanitarian sector, this is a game changer. Aid workers now recognize that they have a responsibility to engage with affected people, and the global boom in mobile technologies has enabled everyone, including people affected by disasters, to communicate more easily and efficiently than ever before.
Imogen Wall, the Global Coordinator for Communicating with Communities with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), explained: “Communicating with disaster-affected people is not a new concept. What is new are the potential changes to the way humanitarian aid organizations deliver assistance to and engage with affected people. We need to rapidly expand the currently small pool of like-minded practitioners and mainstream this emerging sector into humanitarian response.”
This was the backdrop for discussions at the first gathering of like-minded practitioners in Asia and the Pacific who came together to develop an action plan for the region. More than 45 representatives from 25 organizations, including international and national NGOs, donors and the private sector, participated in the first regional communications with disaster-affected communities meeting, hosted by the OCHA Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
OCHA’s Regional Public Information Officer, Kirsten Mildren, said: “There is only a handful of international organizations in the region who are investing in this area of work currently, but interestingly the number of organizations who wanted to attend, some from as far as India and Pakistan, was high. The general feeling was that even if their organization had not yet worked out its role in communications, they all agreed that this area of work was too important to ignore, and would be an important part of future humanitarian preparedness and response.”
There was clear consensus that this sector was critical for humanitarian response, and recent disasters in Japan, the Philippines and Thailand have highlighted the transformative impact that social media and mobile networks are having on disaster management, both in raising new opportunities and creating new challenges for organizing and implementing disaster responses.
“The possibilities can appear daunting, but the challenges can be addressed,” added Ms. Mildren. “It is clear the humanitarian community in Asia needs to forge partnerships with local and national NGOs who are the front line of this area of response. We need to work with private-sector groups, such as technology companies and telecoms, to develop partnerships before the emergencies happen, and test our new tools and relationships in simulations.”
OCHA is supporting the development of a regional network in Asia and the Pacific, bringing together partners from the technology, social networking and telecom sectors with humanitarian organizations. This network is primarily about developing partnerships that will enable humanitarian operations to get life-saving information to people, and to channel their voices to assistance providers. Through the regional network, it is hoped that country networks can be formed, which will be led by the national NGO counterparts.
Reporting by OCHA Asia and the Pacific