An Awaaz operator handling calls. An Awaaz operator handling calls. Photo credit: Awaaz
Voices rising: how two call centres are elevating the accountability conversation in complex crises
by Charlotte Lancaster February 2019

The Iraq IDP Information Centre (Iraq IIC) and Awaaz Afghanistan (Awaaz) – implemented by UNOPS on behalf of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and funded by a range of UN and international donors – were established to fill a well-documented gap in community engagement in the humanitarian response in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using toll-free call centres, both countrywide platforms enhance two-way communication to promote transparency, participation and informed decision-making through the simple yet powerful act of relaying information. The Iraq IIC has handled more than 210,000 calls since it took its first in June 2015, while Awaaz dealt with more than 37,000 calls in its first six months of operation following its launch in 2018.

Established with similar project structures, both centres record data on needs and issues captured during calls. The data is shared with partners for action – whether supplying information, conducting a field-based assessment, feeding information into high-level advocacy or incorporating feedback into strategic planning. The reporting products of both centres are used to validate data from other sources, inform messaging and policy and provide insights into realities on the ground. The centres ensure loop closure (an important part of the accountability process) by relaying updates back to the caller until satisfaction has been achieved – or expectations have been managed.

Strengthening accountability

Referral pathways, which provide technical guidance on how cases are referred, are key to the success of such centralised accountability mechanisms. The protection referral system is more robust in Iraq than in Afghanistan, where the overall architecture for accountability to affected populations needs strengthening. Awaaz is playing a formative role in the creation of these referral pathways. The Awaaz ‘ripple effect’ has led to partners establishing or strengthening complaints and feedback mechanisms and standard operating procedures, commonly in consultation with the centre. Awaaz has also played an important role in the establishment of the Afghanistan Community Engagement Working Group, which provides technical, strategic and coordination guidance on community engagement in the country.

Awaaz is driving the conversation on the collective prevention of, protection from and response to sexual exploitation and abuse in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the Iraq IIC is the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Taskforce’s centralised reporting mechanism within the country – it is commonly cited by protection partners (both in Iraq and Geneva) as an example of best practice in inter-agency referral of these cases. In Afghanistan, Awaaz is supporting the reinvigoration of collective efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse by, for example, working with partners to highlight the strategic-level coordination need for a centralised reporting and referral mechanism.

Data protection

Dealing with such sensitive data requires robust data protection policies in line with global standards. Awaaz’s policy, accompanied by a data protection impact assessment, ensures that the data rights of callers are prioritised, with clear guidelines on the different levels of consent (implicit and explicit) and the right of the caller to withhold or withdraw their information. Between 1 June and 31 December 2018, 29 Afghans exercised their ‘right to be forgotten’, with Awaaz deleting their cases from the system accordingly.

Complementarity and communication

As collective accountability mechanisms, the centres do not replace or duplicate existing agency-specific accountability processes. Instead, they support them in different ways – for example, by referring people to the correct hotline, by classifying needs prior to referrals and by acting as an alternative communication channel to report complaints and feedback. Further, the centres can host multiple lines, allowing the World Food Programme, for example, to host its refugee line in the Iraq IIC.

The centres use different tools to tap into different communication channels, such as phone, SMS and online forms, to promote information exchange with different segments of affected populations. Both centres are seeking to expand their communication platforms to include tools such as WhatsApp, social media messaging, automated voice messaging and – possibly – chatbots. These additional tools will help deliver smarter, better and faster services, while opening up alternative streams for people to contact the centres.

Community outreach

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the majority of mobile phone owners and users are adult males. This makes raising awareness of both centres’ short-code numbers and ensuring they are accessible to everyone – especially the most vulnerable and marginalised – a challenge. Utilising multiple communication channels helps to mitigate this issue and ensure access to information for people living in hard-to-reach areas, and people whose access may be restricted by cultural norms. In 2018, females accounted for 20% and 32% of people calling Awaaz and the Iraq IIC, respectively. For Afghanistan, this is a significantly higher proportion than 7%, the average number of females who participate in assessments.

The Iraq IIC and Awaaz are largely dependent on partners to distribute publicity material across the country through their field networks. A key focus of the outreach strategy for both centres is to educate field actors on their services and how they can support the work of humanitarian partners. For example, if a partner specialised in water services comes across a survivor of domestic violence and is unsure how to refer the case, they can simply refer them to the call centre. This outreach collaboration enhances access to services and an inter-agency spirit. It also saves on costs.

To expand on this collaboration, the Iraq IIC hired an Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking Community Engagement Officer in 2017 to travel to the governorates to raise awareness of the centre among both affected populations and humanitarian actors. Even so, visibility in central and southern regions of Iraq remained weak. After securing additional funding, a second Community Engagement Officer based in Baghdad was hired to focus on these underserved areas in 2018, resulting in an increase in interactions with Iraqis in this region. Due to the travel and cultural restrictions facing women in Iraq, these officers are male. To reach women, the officers conduct training with local non-governmental organisations, which then interact with women on their behalf.

Information exchange

In a context such as Afghanistan, where the lines between humanitarian and development spheres are blurred – especially for callers – it is a challenge to ensure the right actors and coordination bodies are receiving relevant information in digestible formats that they can action. This is done through a range of communication streams depending on the urgency of the caller’s need and the frequency of interactions between the centres and partners.

Funded collaboratively by individual UN agencies at the start, and then more commonly by pooled funds (managed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the European Union and the United States) as the centres mature, both the Iraq IIC and Awaaz strive to lead by example in terms of sharing information; collective information-sharing on feedback will lead to stronger, more relevant responses. The bird’s-eye view afforded by a countrywide centralised communication point allows both the Iraq IIC and Awaaz to capture needs from across the country, regardless of location or targeting criteria. Communicating cross-cutting priorities through online dashboards, tailored datasets and presentations at coordination meetings with top UN and NGO officials in the country, both centres complement the upward flow of information by communicating directly to international donors via regular briefing sessions on needs as reported by affected communities. It is a fundamental operational feature of – and necessity for – both centres to share information through different streams.

The Iraq IIC and Awaaz face different challenges as they operate in different contexts. The Iraq IIC is learning how to evolve and maintain relevance as the landscape – and funding priorities – shifts from emergency humanitarian response to early recovery and longer-term response. For its part, Awaaz launched in a country simultaneously facing emergency and development issues. In both countries, the centres are demonstrating the unique power of community engagement in connecting humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts.

Senior leadership support

Senior leadership buy-in is crucial to the success of collective accountability mechanisms – until accountability is absorbed into every aspect of the programme cycle, it often remains a top-down commitment. The establishment of the Iraq IIC was endorsed by the Humanitarian Country Team and benefited from high-profile visits by the Humanitarian Coordinator, the High Commissioner for UNHCR and the country heads of funding partners operating in Iraq.

One of the most senior officials in Afghanistan, the Humanitarian Coordinator, officially opened the Awaaz launch event, showing strong support for the project. The Afghanistan 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview, which informs the 2019 updated strategic Humanitarian Response Plan 2018–21, includes data analysis on priorities as reported through Awaaz.

Stakeholder management

While commitments by UN Secretary-General António Guterres on accountability take effect, community engagement waits to be fully integrated into the programme cycle. This exacerbates two main challenges for both the Iraq IIC and Awaaz: stakeholder management and information exchange. Building, maintaining and advancing relationships in a project with a range of stakeholders with varying levels of interest and influence (affected populations, government, individual agencies, clusters, non-governmental coordination forums, etc.) is an ongoing challenge. It requires a solid communications management strategy supported by a team resilient to criticism and receptive to innovation.

Challenges

Working in rapidly changing and complex contexts, the centres are exposed to manipulation by callers motivated by personal or political gain. With the Iraq IIC and Awaaz unable to verify information, the onus is on response partners – this is particularly true in Afghanistan – to remain savvy to agendas within their respective contexts.

Applying lessons from Iraq, Awaaz established standards for partner engagement from the outset, allowing the centre to stipulate that partners provide feedback to referrals. This has resulted in a relatively high partner response rate to referrals from Awaaz (above 70%), compared to Iraq, which introduced partner engagement expectations at a later stage in the project cycle and, therefore, has lower response rates (below 40%). In 2018, Awaaz included a page on partner responsiveness on its dashboard, a key indicator of community engagement and accountability; the Iraq IIC added a similar page shortly afterwards. To demonstrate that feedback is the basis for action and to build trust among affected populations, Awaaz circulates data on partner response rates back to communities through radio spots and newspaper ads.

Partner response rates can be influenced by personal interpretation, and varied commitments to accountability and/or capacity to respond will affect the amount and value of information being fed back to the centres. As part of a 2018 evaluation of the Iraq IIC by Proximity International, stakeholders identified that bottlenecks hampering the effectiveness of the centre largely sit outside of its control. This includes the varied capacities of partners to provide timely information, follow-up on referrals and report back to the Iraq IIC on action taken.

Accountability appreciation

Both projects have benefited from a maturing appreciation for and understanding of accountability to affected populations, not only at the national level but also globally. Although there was some scepticism around the Iraq IIC, once it demonstrated that a common service accountability mechanism can add value to humanitarian response – at an agency-specific and collective level – and can influence strategic planning, initial doubts were overcome.

By comparison, Awaaz not only benefited from launching after the World Humanitarian Summit, which advanced the accountability to affected populations agenda at a global and national level, but also from having Iraq as a prototype. It is much easier to sell a product that already exists than to sell a concept with no proven worth.

This is especially true in resource mobilisation. The Iraq IIC struggled with short-term, rigid funding cycles, which eased after its first year and continues to ease with every year as it becomes a more permanent fixture within the humanitarian architecture. Again, Awaaz was able to draw on the experience of its elder sister in Iraq, securing initial funding that was longer-term and more flexible – allowing the project to plan, develop and discuss expansion plans at a much earlier stage than its Iraqi counterpart.

Trust

Operating in complex crises, the Iraq IIC and Awaaz have navigated challenging environments to build centres that provide a unique service to populations affected by conflict and/or natural disaster, and those there to serve them. How this service grows in the future depends on building trust between affected populations and service providers.

Charlotte Lancaster is the UNOPS Project Manager in Afghanistan.

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