Provision of free SMS, call and battery charging services two days after Typhoon Knockten. Provision of free SMS, call and battery charging services two days after Typhoon Knockten. Photo credit: Gil Francis G. Arevalo
Sustaining coordinated community engagement in preparedness and humanitarian response: lessons from the Philippines
by Gil Francis G. Arevalo February 2019

Over a three-month period in 2013, the Philippines experienced three major disasters: the Zamboanga siege (September), the Bohol earthquake (October) and Typhoon Haiyan (November). One of the key lessons from the humanitarian responses to these events in relation to engaging with affected communities and integrating accountability into the overall response was the need to be more proactive in pre-positioning capacities and resources: not just experts, specialists and practitioners, but also accountability, communication and assessment tools, feedback channels and other communication applications as part of field-level working groups and common service platforms. Drawing on lessons from recent humanitarian responses in the Philippines, and the experience of the Community of Practice on Community Engagement, this article analyses the evolution and expansion of coordinated community engagement in preparedness and response.

The community of practice on community engagement

The national-level Community of Practice on Community Engagement (CoPCE) was established by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)-Philippines in 2014, with support from core members including World Vision, Plan International, the United Methodist Church, First Response Radio-Far Eastern Broadcasting Company, Rappler, Action Against Hunger, the Philippines Information Agency (PIA), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). As a cross-cutting Community of Practice (CoP), it is mandated to support the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), the Inter-Cluster Coordination Group (ICCG) and other thematic groups to mainstream two-way communication and close the feedback loop in humanitarian response. The CoPCE has since expanded to 50 members,+For a mapping of CoPCE members, platforms and other capacities, see: https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/philippines/infographic/philippines-cop-community-engagement-preparedness-and-response including UN agencies, international government organisations (INGOs), faith-based groups, the private sector, media groups, civil society organisations (CSOs), telecommunications companies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement and the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network. The CoPCE has launched a series of community engagement and accountability initiatives in humanitarian responses in the Zamboanga City siege, armed conflict in Marawi City, Typhoons Hagupit, Koppu and Knockten and the Mayon Volcano eruption. Activities have included setting up field-level working groups, conducting joint or inter-agency rapid information communication and accountability assessments (RICAAs),+The RICAA tool was developed by OCHA in 2014 to improve the assessment of information needs and the preferred communication channels of affected people, and the identification of accountability mechanisms ( https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/philippines/document/rapid-information-communication-and-accountability-assessment-ricaa) initiating dialogue between the government and affected populations and using social media, humanitarian radio programming and frontline SMS to support humanitarian responders in communicating with affected communities, as well as more traditional means, such as community assemblies, face-to-face dialogue and help desks in evacuation centres or camps.

Prior to the creation of the CoPCE in 2014, all interventions on community engagement (communicating with communities (CwC) and accountability to affected populations (AAP)) were reactive and mainly involved supporting the establishment of field-level ICCGs. There was little interest in preparedness and, as a new thematic cross-cutting working group, CwC/AAP found it difficult to garner support from the humanitarian community, particularly for common services projects. Setting up a field-level working group relied on a few organisations or agencies with dedicated staff, established partnerships with local organisations and government and enough resources to support work on the ground. There was no structure and no agreed minimum coordinated response actions.  Despite OCHA coming up with field-level terms of reference on how to make the working group as effective as possible, it took some time for other agencies to invest in people and projects supporting community engagement and accountability. The overlap between CwC and AAP roles and objectives was confusing to both the humanitarian community and the government, and tensions between the groups at global level further hampered  progress. It took more than a year after Haiyan before in-country community engagement experts realised the importance of not just merging the two, but also maximising their capacities to ensure a consistent approach.

A CoPCE operations protocol+CoPCE Minimum Operations Protocol in Preparedness and Response Actions: https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/philippines/document/minimum-response-and-preparedness-operations-protocolversion was eventually approved in 2016 which merged CwC and AAP functions. The protocol also emphasised the inclusion of four key components in any response: a two-way communication platform, an overall accountability mechanism, meaningful community participation and closing the feedback loop. Involving people in the CoPCE with diverse skills and backgrounds was also seen as a priority. Since 2015, CoPCE members have included specialists, practitioners, programme implementers and advisors in CwC, AAP, civil mobilisation and community organisation, local network coordination and humanitarian communication.  Pre-positioned resources and capacities, including expertise, are part of preparedness planning, and there has been sustained capacity-building of CoPCE members, including a simulation of a Level-3 response to an earthquake in Manila, and engagement with relevant government agencies. In addition to mainstreaming the use of RICAA, two questions related to information needs and communication channels are now included in the Philippines HCT/ICCG 72-hour assessment tool. Since Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, community engagement has been consistently reflected in the HCT’s public situation reports.

Having a coordinated CoPCE has enabled the production of a clearer strategy, a national action plan, the operations protocol, consistent mapping of capacities and more common service projects. The CoPCE has also became an avenue for innovation in communication and engagement technologies among private sector members and start-up organisations; paved the way for members to pilot pre-crisis information mapping and consultation; encouraged more agencies, including local CSOs, to join; and facilitated the implementation of projects in direct partnership with affected communities and local government. Both at the national and field level, CoPCE encourages members and partners to test, validate, modify and contextualise technologies or emerging common services platforms. Before they were mainstreamed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), frontline SMS, voice-messaging, humanitarian radio programmes, the FireChat wireless mesh networking app and community response map were all trialled and tested. Acceptance of these tools did not happen overnight. It took two years, four typhoons, one volcanic eruption, two armed conflicts and one earthquake preparedness simulation exercise before these platforms came to be seen as indispensable resources and capacities.

Confronting challenges

The responses to Typhoons Haima and Koppu in 2015, both medium-scale emergencies, are classic examples where the CoPCE effectively deployed RICAA teams and crucial community engagement platforms. Lessons from the Typhoon Haiyan experience on the importance of preparedness meant that both local government and at-risk communities were better prepared for Haima and Koppu, enabling them to execute local preparedness protocols days before the typhoon made landfall in Northern Luzon.

Given the level of government preparedness, including early warning and evacuation procedures, the CoPCE was able to identify the community engagement interventions needed to augment the capacity of local governments and at-risk communities. In the first 72 hours, some members were able to conduct RICAAs in several evacuation centres, using UAVs in isolated areas, setting up humanitarian radio programming to support local government and other humanitarian agencies, activating ham radio services and providing solar generator sets to local radio amateurs, and establishing free call/SMS and battery charging services in some evacuation centres. Although communication lines were down, crowdsourcing through social media (Facebook, Twitter) was active before, during and after the typhoon, supported by FireChat.

But here’s the catch, in both responses: there was no activation of field-level working groups, and only ten of the CoPCE’s 50 members provided minimum response interventions. In part this was because the impacts of Haima and Koppu were not considered as damaging as Haiyan; local communities were able to evacuate and the local government was effective in coordinating and managing the response, which meant that less international support was required. The CoPCE’s key role during these emergencies was to complement and augment the government’s response. While there was a request from local government to continue community engagement support, field staff decided to hand over responsibility to the local government and CSOs. Likewise in the Zamboanga siege, despite having the longest-running field-level working group (from 2014–17), only a few agencies, including OCHA and IOM, continued to provide consistent support to the city government’s public information office.

For the Marawi conflict response, while humanitarian agencies (including local CSOs) actively participated in the field-level working group set up by OCHA in the first few months, momentum was not sustained as only a few agencies had committed to being part of the group and fewer still were able to lead it. It took several months before the humanitarian community and the PIA, under the Task Force Bangon (Rise-Up) Marawi, identified the need to resurrect the working group, this time focusing on issues related to unmet humanitarian needs and addressing future concerns around early recovery and return. Together with the PIA, OCHA and UNHCR helped keep the working group alive and working in support of local government initiatives, and the national-level CoPCE continues to mobilise and provide support.

How can the interest and energy of CoPCE members be maintained when responding to small and medium-scale emergencies? Investment in preparedness, engaging more agencies and maintaining an enabling culture for members to explore how each feedback platform would work and transform into a common service became the entry points to encourage other organisations to be part of the CoPCE. Since 2016, the CoPCE has implemented a series of preparedness activities through common service partnerships, such as expanding membership, mainstreaming the use of RICAA, improving field-level community engagement coordination and implementing more community-based projects, including pre-crisis information mapping and consultation.

Compared to actual response, resources are limited when it comes to preparedness initiatives or activities, and the CoPCE relied on co-shared funding schemes to implement preparedness initiatives. For some members, this can be draining since the process takes time, and momentum can be lost; in one example, only 14 of the CoPCE’s 50 members took part in the pre-crisis information mapping and consultation exercise in Metro Manila as part of earthquake preparedness. Resources and capacities needed to cover more or additional areas were limited. To ensure that the right assistance gets to communities quickly and appropriately in the event of an earthquake, the pre-crisis mapping tool should be further used and tested in other Metro Manila areas by other CoPCE members. Again, the usual challenge is the limited funding available for preparedness initiatives. This was the first time that the HCT, through the CoPCE, conducted a pre-crisis information mapping survey and consultation at the Barangay level (the lowest unit of government) on aid preferences in an urban setting. It was part of the HCT’s process of planning for a Manila earthquake, undertaken in coordination with national government agencies, local government and international/local NGOs. By adapting a ‘no regrets’ approach, the exercise encourages others to appreciate the ‘new normal’ in communicating and engaging with affected communities as part of preparedness. In preparedness, it is critical for CoPCE members to keep testing and validating community engagement platforms to determine if they work, or whether they need modification and improvement so that other members can adapt or contextualise their use or further mainstream them. At a minimum, and as has been the norm since 2014, the CoPCE should at least activate the operations protocol including setting up a field-level working group, conduct joint or inter-agency RICAA and maximise available community engagement platforms.

‘Learn to unlearn then relearn’

How do we break the routine? There are no easy answers. However, it helps to have some CoPCE members deployed outside the Philippines and providing support to other colleagues within the Asia-Pacific region. During the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and in the Rohingya crisis, focal points from World Vision, Plan International, IOM, Oxfam and the Red Cross were at the frontline supporting local colleagues in restoring communications lines and providing lifesaving information. Some provided remote technical assistance in contextualising some common service platforms.

In 2017, the Shongjog CwC Working Group visited the Philippines to find out more about the CoPCE. Most members have learned a lot from the challenges and totally different context in Bangladesh as shared by counterparts from other UN agencies, INGOs and government. One of the takeaways from the exchange visit is the importance of cultural and political sensitivity in using various platforms. While this has been at the core of initiatives in the Philippines, it bears further emphasis. The exchange visit served as a good reminder for CoPCE members that, like Bangladesh, the Philippines has to deal with issues of diversity and inclusion in making community engagement platforms more accessible to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.

Another factor to (re)consider is how to engage more government agencies and what the CoPCE or any technical cross-cutting thematic groups could do to support them in preparedness and response. This has always been a case in point, especially in the Philippines, where in most responses the government is overstretched, and where taking a co-leading role on community engagement may do more harm than good at the height of a humanitarian response.

Conclusion: embracing the learning

Applying, adapting and replicating new ideas and practices takes time considering the diversity and inclusiveness of the CoPCE. But this is how you push members not only to think outside the box, but also to slow down and reflect on what the CoPCE as a whole should prioritise in preparedness and response. Whenever possible, the CoPCE needs to capitalise on common service partnerships with the government and local networks, be more sensitive to the evolving needs of the affected population, and ensure that every intervention is mindful of the cultural and political context affecting or facilitating the recovery of at-risk communities.

Gil Francis G. Arevalo is a community engagement specialist/practitioner with OCHA. He provides technical advice and support to the CoPCE.

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