Rohingya young man and mobile phone. Rohingya young man and mobile phone. Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash
Advancing a collective model for communication and community engagement: lessons from the Rohingya response
by Margie Buchanan-Smith and Marian Casey-Maslen October 2018

The response to the Rohingya refugee crisis poses particular communication and engagement challenges. Literacy levels among the Rohingya are low and there is no standardised or internationally recognised written script for their language. Refugees have limited access to radios and are officially banned from owning SIM cards for Bangladeshi mobile phone networks. Language barriers and cultural norms restrict access to women, and unelected male local leaders in the camps (the mahjee) act as powerful gatekeepers. Religious leaders are also influential. The host community is easier to access as most Bangladeshis possess mobile phones and are highly reliant on this information channel. All of this has significant implications for how humanitarian agencies engage with affected and host populations. One aid worker experienced in communication and community engagement described it as the most challenging environment for communication they had encountered.

This article draws on the findings of a real-time evaluation of coordination of communication with communities in the Rohingya response. The evaluation was commissioned by the Communication and Community Engagement Initiative convened by the CDAC Network. It was undertaken by independent consultants Margie Buchanan-Smith and Shahidul Islam. The full report can be found at www.cdacnetwork.org.

Communication and community engagement

The response to the Rohingya refugee crisis was one of the first to integrate Communicating with Communities (CwC) within agencies’ early operational work. Work to embed a systematic approach to communicating and engaging with the Rohingya in Bangladesh began in 2013, with the establishment of a Working Group for Communication with Communities in Emergencies (CwCiE), chaired by the Bangladesh government’s Department of Disaster Management (DDM) and convened by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and BBC Media Action. The CwCiE evolved into a wider national, multi stakeholder platform, Shongjog (‘linking’), led by the Department of Disaster Management, with the objective of improving the delivery of humanitarian assistance to disaster-affected communities in Bangladesh through predictable, coordinated and resourced two-way communication.+This work was made possible through the CDAC Network component of DFID’s Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (2013–2018). A CwC coordination group, led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), was proposed in February 2017, for the response to the earlier Rohingya refugee caseload in registered camps.

The central role of CwC in the response is reflected in the standing CwC representation at weekly Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) meetings, and in a dedicated section and budget line in the Joint Response Plan. Staff interviewed for the evaluation remarked on the emphasis on CwC in the early days of the scaled up response. European Civil Protection and Human Aid Operations (ECHO) specifically asked its partners to engage with the CwC Working Group from the beginning of the response. The first CwC coordinator for the new influx of refugees was deployed to Cox’s Bazar by IOM in the first half of September, and a CwC Working Group met for the first time on 19 September, less than a month after the influx began. Working Group attendance peaked at around 30 agencies, before falling back to between 20 and 25. In January 2018, four sub-groups were set up, covering Info Hubs, accountability, radio and content. The proliferation of sub-groups was a challenge, particularly for smaller agencies with few staff or where there was only one designated CwC focal point, and the sub groups could become disconnected from each other. However, they also provided an opportunity for debate and further discussion on major issues, including accountability.

Info Hubs

Multi-sectoral Info Hubs have been a central component of the response, with half of agencies operating them as part of their work.+V. L. Fluck, S. Aelbers and J. Rahaman, Humanitarian Feedback Mechanisms in the Rohingya Response, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Internews, 2018. Most are operated by local staff of national (and occasionally international) NGOs and Rohingya volunteers, offering a face-to-face service providing advice and information, making referrals to service providers and recording complaints. There are a number of different models in terms of how they operate, and it is now time to take stock, learn from what works best and standardise accordingly. The CwC Working Group has developed Standard Operating Procedures to encourage harmonisation of the services offered. Planned research will help to identify good practice from the perspective of the Rohingya.

Community outreach through networks of volunteers

A number of volunteer networks were set up by different bodies with different purposes, many of whom had been specifically tasked with playing a key role in messaging, collecting information and feedback from and consulting with refugees on a house-to-house or large group basis. The evaluation found evidence to support the important role that the volunteers play, for example in addressing diphtheria, but noted that networks and incentives need to be mapped in each camp to understand how they interact or overlap and to improve coordination.

‘What Matters’

BBC Media Action, Internews and Translators without Borders are working on a common service to produce monthly bulletins (https://www.internews.org/resource/what-matters) in English and Bangla. These provide a snapshot of feedback collected through conversations with Rohingya refugees and nationals, community focus group discussions and radio phone-in programmes on Bangladesh Betar and Radio Naf. The service aims to analyse feedback, track rumours, check facts and provide responses. Bulletins are distributed to community and aid organisations to assist sectors in planning and implementing relief activities with communities’ needs and preferences in mind. The bulletins have helped highlight host community concerns and how refugees’ concerns have shifted over time, from mother and child health and welfare to safety and local concerns about crime. This is an accessible and important output which should eventually draw on a wide range of sources of feedback. Complaints boxes also appear to be widespread, though there is growing evidence that this is an ineffective feedback mechanism and inappropriate for a population with low levels of literacy. Notable innovations include the provision of voice recorders in cooking areas and safe spaces, for women to use anonymously.

Communication and community engagement: the way forward

While much was achieved by the CwC Working Group early on in the response, both its members and the real-time evaluation recognise that not everything has run smoothly and there remain areas for improvement.

Communication and community engagement needs stronger, more accountable leadership. Leadership of the coordination body should be agreed quickly – ideally as part of preparedness. It should be neutral and should where possible be led by national agencies. Agencies’ accountabilities and responsibilities need to be clarified early on (for instance to the Humanitarian Country Team). Coordination must be adequately resourced. Although the CwC Working Group had a higher profile than many other working groups – including the dedicated section and budget line in the Joint Response Plan – coordination and translation were poorly resourced, especially considering the scale of the response. At the peak of the crisis, two people led CwC coordination, but both had other roles and were on short (maximum three-month) contracts, and their agencies could not provide adequate support from headquarters. As a result, some fundamental CwC coordination functions – such as mapping who is doing what, where and when – did not happen, though some common services, including the ‘What Matters’ bulletins, were picked up by specific agencies. It is worth noting, however, that CwC activities (not necessarily labelled as such) were standard practice for many agencies and sectors, which is a hugely positive development.

Coordination mechanisms for communication and community engagement should be more inclusive. A few national NGOs have attended the Working Group regularly, but overall they are underrepresented, even when the co-chair was from the Cox’s Bazar civil society forum. Government representation has tailed off. Both are ascribed to language issues and culturally different styles of communication. The proliferation of sub-groups has also been an obstacle to participation for smaller agencies. The limited participation of local agency staff meant that local knowledge was lost and important discussions were held outside of coordination structures. Engagement with host communities, a priority for the government and national NGOs, was not prioritised to the same extent by the Working Group. Although government engagement is critical, creative and practical ways of achieving this need to be explored, recognising that the government does not have the staff resources to attend regular coordination meetings.

More concerted effort is needed on establishing collective approaches to communication and community engagement. The Info Hubs, for example, are a valuable source of information on refugee issues and concerns, but data is not collated across agencies or collectively analysed. Doing so would be a particularly useful contribution that the CwC Working Group could make, and has obvious links to the ‘What Matters’ bulletins.

Communication and community engagement works best when instituted before a crisis. The preparedness work of national and international agencies on communication and community engagement – in particular that done by Shongjog (formerly the CwCiE) – set the foundation for embedding CwC early in the response. Links between Shongjog and the CwC Working Group have been important in the provision of materials for messaging that could be adapted to the context and language of the Rohingya. However, Shongjog has been able to provide only limited support, partly because its focus has been on preparing for natural disasters in a more stable context.

Margie Buchanan-Smith is a freelance evaluator and policy researcher. She is a Senior Research Associate with the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI and a Visiting Fellow at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. Marian Casey-Maslen is the Executive Director of the CDAC Network. She has over 20 years of experience in humanitarian response and development work.

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