Sudden-onset emergencies are typically chaotic, making effective communication between communities, humanitarian responders and governments, whether local or international, challenging.
Building on experience from the response to Typhoon Bopha in Mindanao in 2012, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) supported the coordination of communication with disaster-affected communities following Typhoon Haiyan with the deployment of an interagency Communications with Communities (CwC) Coordinator and other CwC field staff. CwC cross-sectoral working groups were set up in the typhoon-affected area, convening local and international NGOs, UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, media development actors, local media, mobile operators and local government, with the aim of coordinating two-way communication across the humanitarian response.
This article provides a summary of findings from the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network Learning Review on the Typhoon Haiyan response.+CDAC Network, Typhoon Haiyan Learning Review, November 2014, http://www.cdacnetwork.org/tools-and-resources/i/20141124131123-z7io0.
Following Typhoon Haiyan, information and communication access was severely impeded for weeks, with very little access to communication channels. Most people were unable to contact their families to tell them they were alive. Government and humanitarian responders also faced significant challenges in sharing lifesaving information with communities. In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, two emergency humanitarian radio stations were set up by CDAC Network members in Tacloban City and Guiuan, and the government and telecommunications companies set up telephone charging stations and internet points. For the first time, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, in partnership with Ericsson Response, the Vodafone Foundation Instant Network and GSMA, provided mobile connectivity to affected communities, rather than just humanitarian responders.
As part of the response, OCHA deployed CwC staff to coordinate communications with communities in affected areas. CwC focal points from CDAC Network members and other international and national agencies began coordinating as the typhoon approached landfall, sharing existing data on the communication preferences of Filipinos, contact information, project plans and hardware through the CDAC Networks Field Coordination Community of Practice (CoP).
At field level, OCHA deployed surge staff to support CwC coordination. CwC Technical Working Groups were established in all five operational coordination hubs to provide technical advice to the clusters, and to give agencies a space within which to coordinate on CwC approaches. These groups, co-chaired by the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), OCHA and World Vision International, operated as part of the humanitarian cluster system and worked with the clusters to integrate communication and information within response and recovery planning. They brought together representatives from international organisations, local government, local NGOs, church organisations, media development organisations, local media and telecommunications companies. The knowledge and experience brought to this forum by national partners contributed to the effectiveness of the coordinated communications response, providing cultural context and connections within communities on which to build.
Factors enabling CwC coordination
Respondents involved in the Learning Review noted the benefits of coordination, such as avoiding duplication and conflicting information reaching communities, collaboratively addressing community information gaps and ensuring that community feedback was acted on. Respondents felt that sharing project and technical information and open and transparent leadership within the Technical Working Groups created an environment that supported coordination.
Although understanding between local media actors and international humanitarian responders took time to develop, a collaboration between First Response Radio, local journalism network PECOJON International, World Vision International and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), to keep the humanitarian radio station Radyo Abante on the air in Tacloban, was noted as an example of a collective commitment to accountability on behalf of the humanitarian response. Radio also played an important role in psychosocial support and improving connectivity between community members. Radyo Bakdaw (set up by Internews with local journalists) broadcast distribution schedules from organisations operating in the area, including the ICRC and the Philippines Red Cross, so communities knew what relief goods to expect and when, as well as gathering feedback from recipients and forwarding this to humanitarian organisations.
The development of a Community Feedback Form (CFF) in an attempt to systematically consolidate community feedback being collected by different agencies was praised as a shared project goal within the technical working groups.
Regular interaction and strong and transparent leadership in the CwC Technical Working Groups addressed and moderated issues of power between agencies. The CwC and AAP Technical Working Groups provided a forum to build a history between their members, particularly media actors which may not have previously participated in such forums. Interaction and communication built relationships over time, and gave context to members of the Technical Working Groups on organisational mandates and programming around CwC. In some cases, this led to collaboration over CwC initiatives. Some respondents commented that Technical Working Groups were a seeding ground for initiatives now underway in the Iraq response.
Respondents in part attributed the success of coordination to strong brokerage skills by experienced coordinators at the beginning of the response, but also noted that the more remote operational hubs would have benefited from more direct engagement and technical support from CwC/AAP Coordinators during the initial phase of the response.
Obstacles to CwC coordination
Obstacles excluding or reducing the participation of agencies in coordination included lack of resourcing for CwC coordination activities (attendance at meetings was cited as a main obstacle for stakeholders outside the coordination hubs) and lack of management understanding of the importance of CwC, which led to a focus on agency mandates over collaborative initiatives. Some respondents also noted that the size of the CwC Technical Working Group in some hubs meant that outcomes were slower to produce, and coordination of joint communication and information needs assessments and monitoring of communication initiatives during the response was not as efficient as it might have been.
Many smaller agencies did not have the staff to attend sometimes weekly or fortnightly coordination meetings. Flexible alternative techniques were established, including coordination and communication via email and phone for agencies located outside humanitarian hubs.
The future of CwC coordination
When asked what CwC coordination should look like in future responses, respondents had a variety of answers. Responses were commonly situated on a continuum between CwC coordination as a minimal activity (i.e. preventing duplication though coordinated information provision) and CwC coordination as an integrated activity as part of an overarching and collaborative strategy for communication with communities, with less focus on organisational or agency objectives. Suggested models and functions of CwC coordination included access to funding to incentivise coordination, particularly in the early stage of response, to reduce competition for funds and to lead to more common CwC projects.
The disbursement of funds directly to actors at field level could address some of the challenges associated with obtaining funding through traditional mechanisms, such as the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). Important caveats on how this funding might be administered were noted, including the brokering of funding democratically, with a focus on long-term partnerships. Access to funding could also be improved by modelling the costs of CwC response options, so agencies know how much to budget for effective CwC. This costing is underway within the CDAC Network. Costing of CwC response options, mapping of flexible programme funds within existing networks and establishing funding at field level for coordinators would ensure that funding is available for collaborative or common service projects, and incentivise CwC coordination.
There was a call for an exploration of common service initiatives in the CwC field by some agencies. Many respondents were critical of the lack of collaboration over CwC initiatives that could serve the whole sector, while recognising that their own organisational environments and donor requirements often prevented this collaboration.
Future common service initiatives that could be explored include:
- Common service logistics for CwC hardware. Attempts to coordinate the distribution of radio sets were unsuccessful, with duplication in some areas and gaps in others. Radio sets should become a standard part of distribution kits where a need for them is identified.
- Common service CwC printing services. Agencies reported problems in access to printed materials such as maps or posters. Printing critical CwC materials and disseminating these for all to use was a useful initiative.
- Common service database or technology for information management. Information management between humanitarian actors will improve information flows outwards to communities.
- Common resource mobilisation efforts for funds for system-wide responses such as hotlines or databases to manage feedback. Respondents mentioned barriers associated with privacy and confidentiality, as well as concerns that feedback would not be effectively referred or addressed. The ongoing common service pro- ject between Plan, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and World Vision aims to address these concerns by increasing accountability to people affected by Typhoon Haiyan through the use of common approaches to participation, information provision, com- plaints, response and feedback mechanisms and closing the feedback loop of follow-up, action and response.
- Common advocacy initiatives. Common advocacy initi-atives could include developing a common language around CwC, common templates for advocacy strategies and preparedness agreements and developing capa-city to generate evidence-based advocacy in CwC coordination.
Donors also have a role to play in supporting implementing agencies to prioritise effective communication with communities in their agency and cluster-specific planning and broader accountability efforts.
Finally, the majority of respondents felt preparedness activities that built on relationships developed through the AAP/CwC Technical Working Groups were crucial. Media agencies in particular emphasised the need to improve understanding between humanitarian agencies and the local media, focusing on each others roles in disaster response. Building CwC into the overall National Preparedness Strategy led by OCHA, and integrating it into multi-sector preparedness activities, such as minimum preparedness training and emergency simulation exercises, will hopefully ensure that effective communication is seen as an essential part of future emergency response in the Philippines. Preparedness and advocacy will require closer partnerships with government, clusters, programme staff and communities to ensure that communication interventions are tailored and streamlined to take advantage of the limited CwC funding currently available.
Ultimately, effective coordination and engagement between communities, humanitarian responders and governments, whether local or international, is critical. This will not happen without commitment and the provision of sufficient resources for effective and consistent communication with, and meaningful engagement of, crisis-affected people in their own response and recovery. Links must also be made between humanitarian work and development and preparedness efforts to achieve sustainable solutions. Realisation of effective coordination is dependent on a proactive approach to these issues.
Caroline Austin is an independent consultant. Nicki Bailey is the CDAC Network Research and Learning Officer.