The Broader View: Why communicating with disaster-struck communities matters

5 December, 2011
Refugees hold ration cards that help them to get food aid. 30-40 per cent of refugees surveyed by Internews said they need more information on how to access food provision. Credit: Internews/Meridith Kohut.
Refugees hold ration cards that help them to get food aid. 30-40 per cent of refugees surveyed by Internews said they need more information on how to access food provision. Credit: Internews/Meridith Kohut.

Internews’ Director of Humanitarian Media Jacobo Quintanilla explains why providing people with clear information during a crisis, and listening to their concerns, is as important as providing food, shelter and medicine.

17-year-old Suuban* endured 16-hours of child labour on the back of a truck, fleeing drought conditions in Sakow, in southern Somalia, to the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, in North-East Kenya. Her delivery was severely damaging to her health, but she didn’t seek medical attention.

When she arrived at the camps, other refugees told her that only women who had given birth inside the camps could see doctors. This was not true.

Unfortunately, Suuban’s story is neither new nor exclusive to Dadaab. It is just one more example of why effectively communicating with disaster-struck communities is so important to an effective response.

Today, twenty years after the camps in Dadaab were first established to assist 90,000 Somali refugees fleeing political instability across the border, the Dadaab camps have become the largest refugee complex in the world. With over 443,000 residents - 150,000 of whom only arrived in the last six months - these camps now constitute the third-largest city in Kenya.

Despite the longevity of the camps, however, a recent survey - led by Internews, and aimed at understanding the information needs of refugees in Dadaab - found that large numbers of displaced Somalis did not have the information they need to access basic aid and make informed decisions.

The findings were presented at a recent meeting hosted by OCHA, in New York and also in Geneva, on behalf of the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC). Click here.

The study found that more than 70% of newly-arrived refugees said they lacked information on how to register for aid, and similar numbers said they needed information on how to locate missing family members.

Respondents also said they lacked enough information on how to access health care, how to access shelter, and how to communicate with family outside the camps. Equally important, almost three-quarters of new arrivals, and around a third of long-term residents, said they have never been able to voice their concerns or ask questions of aid providers or the Government.

Permanent, predictable and reliable

The assessment, conducted in partnership with Radio Ergo/International Media Support (IMS) and Star FM of Kenya and with support from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), highlighted once again the need for effective communications with disaster affected communities to become a permanent, predictable and reliable component of humanitarian responses.

Humanitarian organizations have historically failed to realize that emergency responses are often undermined by a lack of information among affected people, in a way that severely affects aid effectiveness and accountability.

Humanitarian workers should, for example, much more proactively approach and partner with local media to support humanitarian communications.

Many aid responders are starting to use new technologies such as mobile, crowd-sourcing and mapping tools, to engage with more people in a crisis response. These tools also give affected communities more power to make their voices heard.

But it is also essential to develop effective low-tech low-cost solutions first. The response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti demonstrated that trying to introduce new technologies during an active crisis response operation can be also ineffective and even disruptive.

Donors need to invest much more in preparedness, and humanitarian organizations need to engage much more effectively with at-risk populations and local media, a key player who will always be “there”. Technology may help us to listen more and better, but at the end of the day, everything goes back to the basics: human interaction.

A recent UK Department for International Development (DfID) Humanitarian Emergency Response Review said: “The people who are on the receiving end of the our assistance are rarely, if ever, consulted on what they need, or are able to choose who helps them or how.  Whilst this has been long recognized as an issue, too little has been done about it.”

It is time to acknowledge and fund this work. People out there are talking; they are just waiting for us to listen.

* Name has been changed to protect her real identity.

Written by  Jacobo Quintanilla, Director of Humanitarian Media  -  Internews on Twitter: @jqg