Cox’s Bazar, 2018. Cox’s Bazar, 2018. Photo credit: Valentina Shafina/Ground Truth Solutions
Communicating with communities in the Rohingya refugee response: towards a whole of programme model
by Nick van Praag and Kai Hopkins October 2018

In late August 2017 the international humanitarian community launched a massive emergency operation in Bangladesh to assist hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees crossing the border from Rakhine State in Myanmar, fleeing the brutal violence of large-scale ethnic cleansing by Myanmar security forces. By the end of September, the number of refugees reaching makeshift camps in southern Bangladesh had swelled to some over 600,000, joining an estimated 300,000 displaced by earlier waves of violence in 2012 and 2016, making this the fastest-growing and largest concentration of refugees in the world.

Five UN agencies and a handful of international non-governmental organisations were already on the ground in Cox’s Bazar, where most of the refugees were concentrated. The government of Bangladesh and the humanitarian community scaled up operations over the following weeks as the refugee crisis was elevated to a Level 3 emergency. By early 2018, some 120 international and national NGOs, 12 UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) were providing humanitarian assistance across ten congested camps, ranging in size from 9,900 refugees in Shamlapur to more than 600,000 in the Kutupalong- Balukhali settlement.

The initial response

Two-way communication with the Rohingya was included as a component of the initial September 2017–February 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan. A Working Group was established early on to coordinate and provide technical support across the response on communicating with communities (CwC). The UN Joint Response Plan for 2018 underlined the need for better information provision to refugees – and, in turn, that their voices be heard in programming and decisions affecting their wellbeing. Coordination of CwC was led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). However, despite IOM technical support and efforts to ensure that CwC was mainstreamed in the humanitarian response, without a collectively agreed master plan on what aspects of CwC should be included, and absent a long-term chef d’orchestre to impose some measure of continuity and coordination among all the players, a systematic, response-wide CwC initiative was left wanting.

Individual agencies including Action Contre la Faim (ACF), the IFRC and Christian Aid pushed ahead with their own communications and accountability activities. BBC Media Action, Internews and Translators without Borders set up a consortium to improve CwC, including collecting community feedback and outgoing communications. Several other agencies began to deploy dedicated field staff to engage face-to-face with communities, but according to the Working Group’s mid-year review, language and cultural gaps remained a problem. The review also noted that marginalised people were under-represented in the feedback loop, with a lot of feedback coming direct from community leaders such as the almost-always-male and not-always-trusted Majhis.

Standard CwC tools, such as phone hotlines and complaints boxes, were rolled out, but were never going to reach full penetration among such a diverse population, with high levels of illiteracy and even higher levels of mistrust of such formal systems among people culturally unaccustomed to providing feedback or making complaints.+Internews, Information Needs Assessment, 2017. Other, more innovative initiatives, such as voice recorders for women to use anonymously in public cooking spaces and in child- and women-friendly spaces, were trusted and worked reasonably well, according to Christian Aid’s accountability assessment, although transcribing the audio is a challenge. UN agencies also began collecting feedback on specific topics. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) established Feedback and Information Centres where people could ask trained volunteers how they could access services. These were supplemented by groups of female community volunteers called ‘model mothers’, who went out into the community to reach people unable to leave their shelters, including women in purdah or people with particular physical needs.

These initiatives ensured that some level of insight from refugees got through to the broader humanitarian community. Missing, however, was the systematic, ongoing collection of feedback from refugees across multiple camps. This would have had the potential to enhance the impact of individual agency mechanisms and the work of the consortium set up by BBC Media Action, Internews and Translators without Borders. Systematic collection of feedback could take the collective pulse of Rohingya communities, with the findings used to fine-tune communication back to them about what was going on, to improve the relevance and quality of support and to establish a collective service platform for all responders, based on robust data.

Systematically gathering the views of the Rohingya

Ground Truth Solutions (GTS), an international NGO with experience in strengthening accountability to affected people in humanitarian response, was already tracking implementation of the reforms set out in the Grand Bargain in six humanitarian crises, together with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). With financial support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), GTS was about to add Bangladesh to the slate when, in March 2018, the Swiss government (SDC) became concerned about the lack of attention to bringing refugee voices into the picture. SDC’s engagement allowed GTS to beef up its work on the Grand Bargain in Bangladesh and to launch a more comprehensive programme. The first of three GTS surveys was conducted in late July 2018 by IOM’s Needs and Population Monitoring team. Results were published in August 2018, and two more rounds will be carried out to track progress over the coming months, where we will also work with IFRC to supplement the IOM data collection process.

The survey questions were designed – with input from the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) and others working in Cox’s Bazar – to solicit and gauge as accurately as possible refugees’ views on the current delivery of aid, the extent to which it meets their needs, the quality of relationships with humanitarian field staff, refugees’ sense of security and knowledge about how to make complaints, as well as other topics linked to the effectiveness of the response. The findings from the first round of 1,003 displaced Rohingya across 23 sites in the subdistricts of Ukhia and Teknaf – a year after their arrival in Bangladesh – if not definitive, are at least an important step in understanding the bigger picture, cooperating with other accountability and communications partners, informing the overall humanitarian response, engaging operational players and ultimately improving the delivery of aid.

First-round results indicate that the Rohingya refugees’ most trusted sources of information about aid are community members they are familiar with – their friends, family, Imams and Majhis. Imams and Majhis are also their preferred first line of communication in filing complaints – not agency-implemented formal complaints mechanisms. This may be because people are familiar with the Majhi system and are not aware of other options, rather than any particular trust in Majhis. While most refugees are aware of the kind of assistance available and say that aid has been provided consistently over the last 12 months, they don’t consider it sufficient.

Figure 1. Findings from Ground Truth Solutions surveys conducted with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in July 2018

Cash, food security, shelter and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) were among the most commonly cited unmet needs, and many of those surveyed say they sell aid items in order to buy food – fish, meat, vegetables and seasonings – as well as firewood and cooking fuel. More than half favour a combination of cash and goods or services, while a third prefer receiving goods and services only. Of those already receiving cash support, most are satisfied, which suggests that humanitarian agencies should consider increasing the balance of cash over in-kind assistance.

Generally speaking, most of the refugees surveyed said they felt well-treated by humanitarian agency field staff and trusted their work – although nearly half said aid providers didn’t take into account their views when making decisions about providing aid. Not surprisingly, few saw their lives improving, and nearly all requested updates on the situation in Myanmar, prospects for the future and eventual repatriation. These findings are borne out by a recent Internews report on community feedback that shows significant demand for more information on these topics.

Some of these views are not new; humanitarian agencies in Bangladesh have been getting similar messages for months and many of the concerns are reflected in the accountability assessment undertaken in one of the Rohingya camps by Christian Aid earlier this year. But the response-wide findings, complementing the work done by the three-party consortium (BBC MA, Internews, TWB), help build a more comprehensive evidence base for the delivery of better aid. Trend data is crucial, and GTS will repeat the exercise at regular intervals over the coming months, enabling the humanitarian community to understand whether things are improving or standing still.

It would have been better if the right combination of responsewide communication and feedback activities had been up and running right from the outset. It was always going to be hard in Bangladesh, but this latest experience underlines the need to shift from the current ad hoc approach to designing accountability systems in emergencies to a standard whole-of programme model that spells out what needs to be done and provides a stronger set of delivery vehicles. It should come with dedicated funding that does not depend on specialist service providers competing for funding and at the prodding of a few enlightened donors. Response-wide activities complement the work of individual agencies and sectoral clusters as they act on the principles of accountability to affected people set out in frameworks like the Common Humanitarian Standard.

This type of common approach would also go a long way towards simplifying things for harried humanitarian managers, who must create action plans, and donor staff, who must then make sense of it all before deciding which tools are most relevant and which configurations of players and types of services to fund. Needless to say, it will also improve the experience of the refugees, not only in how their voices are heard, but in the relevance and quality of the support they receive.

The lack of a full time CwC coordinator in Bangladesh made it harder for the AAP subgroup to get traction, but what’s really needed is an accountability focal point at the right hand of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator to help oversee a response-wide approach and to work to ensure that it is not corralled away in a working group way down the line of command. If accountability to affected people is to become a reality outside the coordination room, every humanitarian country team must be able to draw on the right mix of rapidly deployable capacity – both national and international – to fill what remains a critical accountability gap in emergency operations.

There’s no hard and fast blueprint, as the unique challenges in Bangladesh demonstrate. How the collective model is implemented and the composition of the team may vary in light of circumstances and specific challenges. At a minimum, it must include the following: first, the capacity to provide information about what affected people can expect from relief providers, using appropriate communications channels, languages people understand and expert service providers; second, a systematic and regular approach to bringing out and responding to affected people’s views across the whole response, so that agencies’ decisions are informed by users’ perspectives; and third, it should include the ability to solicit and respond to individual grievances. This last activity is central, but should not be confused with the kind of proactive approaches to reaching out implied by information provision and the systematic collection of feedback.

As the humanitarian country team in Bangladesh sets about drawing up the 2019 Joint Response Plan, there is an appetite to use the feedback being collected from refugees to inform changes in the response, and to use those views as a metric in tracking impact and effectiveness. The litmus test will be whether this drives changes in programme implementation on the ground.

Nick van Praag is GTS Executive Director. Kai Hopkins is Senior Programme Manager and Bangladesh project lead.

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