Learning from Kosovo: the Humanitarian Community Information Centre (HCIC), Year One
by Paul Currion June 2003

Following the mass return of Albanian refugees to Kosovo in June 1999, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was assigned responsibility for the Office of the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs of the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was also part of this Office, and in this role began to provide information services to support the humanitarian effort.

One such service was the Humanitarian Community Information Centre (HCIC) which, operating out of a container, opened its doors in July 1999. By mid-August, the HCIC was formally opened in the UNHCR building in Pristina. Its work included developing a contact list and sectoral matrix, and organising daily briefings for the humanitarian community. As well as office space, UNHCR agreed to provide administrative support for the Centre. Support was also provided by the US Agency for International Development, the UK’s Department for International Development, Catholic Relief Services, the International Rescue Committee and the World Food Programme.

This article outlines the key lessons learned by the HCIC in its first year, developing a potential model for OCHA or other organisations in future emergencies.

 

Information is not free

Acquiring accurate information requires time and effort. Investment is a basic precondition for useful results – although it does not guarantee them. But nor does it necessarily mean additional financial resources; frequently it simply means allocating staff time at an early stage. Organisations should give more attention to planning for information needs as an integral part of humanitarian strategic and programme planning. Donor agencies are more likely to fund projects where it is clear that the information is accurate and timely.

Early baseline data provides a yardstick for later assessments and updates. As an example, the HCIC was instrumental in organising the July 1999 Rapid Village Assessment (RVA), a comprehensive information-gathering exercise that assessed humanitarian needs down to village level in areas such as housing damage, water and sanitation and health. Based on a standard survey form, UNHCR, the intergovernmental International Management Group, NGOs and KFOR troops gathered this data, which was then processed by the HCIC. Reports based on this data were made freely available to the humanitarian community to provide baseline data for their work, and to facilitate the identification of priority areas, and the database itself was later distributed on CD-ROMs.

Sometimes costs are unavoidable. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are among the most exciting applications of new technology – but they require a large capital investment to start up and maintain. In terms of staffing and equipment, a large proportion of the resources of the HCIC were invested in its GIS. However, the results justified the expense, with the HCIC producing a series of thematic maps showing key sectoral information on housing damage, and the location and status of schools and clinics. In the absence of generally-available and adequate route maps for Kosovo, the HCIC also produced and distributed over 5,000 copies of the Kosovo Atlas. As well as detailed ground maps of Kosovo, the atlas contained thematic maps that provided information on topics such as the division of KFOR responsibilities and the distribution of minorities.

GIS has wider applications for humanitarian coordination. The classic example of this is in de-mining, where a GIS can be used to maintain records of mined and cleared areas. For example, KFOR supplies a ‘layer’ of data showing areas where mines or unexploded ordnance exist; UNICEF then provides a second layer showing school locations. Combining the two sets of data and creating buffer zones around the schools indicates initial areas for de-mining. When a third layer of data is added, this time representing footpaths used by children on their way to school, the resulting intersection of areas establishes priority sites for de-mining. Maps of these sites are then distributed to de-mining agencies.

High-technology solutions are not the only answer

GIS is a high-tech, high-cost information resource – with the potential for correspondingly high-value results. But in most situations, resources on the scale of those available in Kosovo will not be so readily to hand. Information management to support humanitarian work need not be entirely dependent on technology. According to Burim Hoxha, the HCIC website designer, ‘technology is nothing – it’s the people who are working with it that are important’.

One of the most valuable parts of the HCIC was its reception area, a public space where day-to-day enquiries could be dealt with. The highly-motivated staff at the front desk met basic requests for information, directed more technical questions to appropriate staff within the centre or in other organisations, and distributed HCIC products. The basic resource required for this service was simply friendly and engaged local staff with appropriate language skills. The reception area also had a notice-board for regular announcements, and ‘mailboxes’ for agencies. These were highly valued in the absence of working telephone or postal systems, and at a time when Internet access was limited. They acted as a central point for distributing materials and making contact with colleagues, even for agencies with advanced communications. As a result, they were used by UN agencies, NGOs, governmental organisations and other interested groups. Activities like these demonstrate the value of a ‘back-to-basics’ approach, even where resources are plentiful.

Information is a process

Both low- and high-tech approaches to information management are useless unless the right attitudes underpin them. Kosovo was information-rich but communication-poor, and the HCIC made many direct and indirect efforts to generate what might best be described as an ‘open information culture’. In key fora such as the Information Group, set up by the Strategic Planning Office in UNMIK, the HCIC lobbied for the creation of a Chief of Information Coordination and the assignment of Information Focal Points within each UNMIK department. Indirect attempts were made through the development of products that demonstrated the utility of sharing information, such as the Kosovo Atlas and Encyclopaedia.

Information management is a multi-sectoral requirement that should underpin all activities, and should extend through the transition from relief-oriented to development-oriented activities. It also requires a long-term commitment (since investment in the present will only yield benefits over time), and an understanding that this commitment must be renewed repeatedly in response to changes in the wider situation.

Many organisations resist sharing information, particularly when security issues are involved or funding is at stake. The best way to overcome these obstacles is to create a space in which organisations can be certain that they are sharing their information on equal terms, and in good faith.

Information needs an honest broker

Information is not neutral; in humanitarian emergencies, it can be a tool with which to gain donor funds, win media attention or accrue political influence. The question of who has access to different types of information – the location of minorities, refugee numbers, donor allocations and food-security assessments, for example – can become a real issue. Ideally, in a complex emergency clear levels of information would be established, accessible to different parties at different levels, and agreed focal points set up to channel that information.

The HCIC dealt solely in public information that was available to all. While individual staff members within the centre frequently had access to restricted information, this was not processed or distributed through the HCIC. The role of honest broker enabled the HCIC to request information on the understanding that it would be used not to further a particular agenda, but to help all actors in their work.

Perhaps the HCIC’s single greatest asset was its perceived neutrality. This did not just refer to its physical space, but extended to almost every area of HCIC activity. As an example, the Centre fielded a two-person Field Liaison Unit (FLU), tasked with providing a means of communication between Pristina and organisations based outside the city. The FLU travelled to regional and municipal inter-agency meetings on a weekly basis, gathering and disseminating information. One NGO representative commented that the FLU was seen as an ‘intermediary not beholden to any agency’ – no mean feat given the often tense relations between the actors in Kosovo.

Show, don’t tell

To back up the principles outlined above, you need to demonstrate the practical benefits of sharing information. In practice, the quickest way to do this is to generate high-visibility products with obvious and immediate utility. The Kosovo Atlas was one such, the HCIC Kosovo Encyclopaedia CD-ROM another.

The Kosovo Encyclopaedia collated all available information relating to relief and reconstruction work for the period June 1999–June 2000. An enormous information-gathering exercise, the final product eventually totalled more than 600MB of information. The Encyclopaedia, which opened automatically and ran in a Web Browser format, was designed to be user-friendly, even for those with minimal computer experience. Over 1,300 were distributed through the HCIC reception desk and the FLU.

Resources such as this can be developed for any geographical location or thematic sector. The Encyclopaedia demonstrated the benefits of sharing information – with the result that many organisations began to approach the Centre, asking how their documents could be included in the next edition. A specific request by the UNMIK Department of Reconstruction led to the creation of a specialised Desktop Reference CD-ROM, an easy-to-use resource containing all reconstruction-related documents.

Conclusion

The HCIC has been cited by the Brahimi report on UN peace operations as an example of the practical application of information technology in supporting humanitarian coordination. Similar information centres can become a valuable part of a humanitarian response, even when they are relatively modest in size and resources. Instead of looking at the resources that went into building the HCIC, we should instead look at the principles that came to characterise its work.

Accessibility. With no security checks and no IDs required for entrance, the HCIC was possibly the only international office in Pristina freely accessible to all. HCIC services were available to anyone who needed them – including local people, who could come in off the street to ask for advice on where they might receive shelter assistance or food aid.

Service. People using the HCIC were not seen as ‘beneficiaries’, but as customers. The HCIC attempted to facilitate the work of these customers, providing support, advice and technical assistance.

Neutrality. The HCIC tried at all times to be neutral in its dealings, and to address all customers on equal terms.

Flexibility. As well as taking forward its own initiatives, the HCIC attempted to respond to need wherever possible, and to support the initiatives of others.

A ‘Toolbox’, currently in production, is intended to record and disseminate the lessons of the first year of the HCIC; it will be available on the HCIC website and on CD-ROM.

The HCIC was the result of a fortuitous combination of inter-agency cooperation, solid resourcing, imagination and luck that will be hard to replicate. However, the lessons that it learnt in its first year can and should be made available to everybody actively engaged in humanitarian work. But the most important lesson learned by the HCIC is relatively simple: that effective coordination of humanitarian work is greatly aided by effective information management, both within and between organisations.

Paul Currion was Information Officer for the International NGO Council of Kosovo between November 1999 and April 2000, seconded from ICVA; and Manager of the HCIC between April and September 2000, seconded from Save the Children US. He is currently developing the HCIC Toolbox as part of a collaborative consultancy between Save the Children US and OCHA. For more information about this article or the HCIC Toolbox, contact Paul at paulcurrion@hotmail.com, or visit the HCIC website at www. reliefweb.int/hcic.

 

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