Issue 65 - Article 7

Connecting humanitarian actors and displaced communities: the IDP call centre in Iraq

October 29, 2015
Gemma Woods and Sarah Mace
A WFP employee explains the IDP call centre

In August 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Vision, Internews, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Norwegian Refugee Council conducted an inter-agency assessment of information needs amongst displaced communities in Iraq. ‘Understanding the Information and Communication Needs of IDPs in Northern Iraq’, September 2014. Although the assessment noted that access to communication channels was clearly regarded as a key priority, it also discovered that a lack of information was fuelling feelings of isolation, confusion and mistrust amongst displaced people and significantly reducing their ability to cope with the growing crisis. Displaced Iraqis had only limited access to conflicting and incomplete information regarding the provision of and access to basic services and humanitarian assistance. ‘We don’t know the organisations or their names,’ one man told the inter-agency team during their visit to Dohuk in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. ‘We have never spoken with them. We don’t know anything about their work.’ The report called on humanitarian agencies to increase their information-sharing and dialogue with affected communities, and strengthen their ability to listen and respond to the needs and feedback of displaced people.

Developing the IDP call centre

To address some of these issues, a group of UN agencies and NGOs established a nationwide hotline for displaced people to access information on humanitarian assistance and provide feedback on the humanitarian response. The call centre is currently funded by UNHCR, WFP and OCHA, with partners including IOM, the Norwegian Refugee Council, World Vision and Save the Children providing technical support and capacity-building, including training for call centre staff on protection, the humanitarian response architecture in Iraq and accountability. The project is implemented by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

The call centre, based in Erbil, currently has seven staff able to take calls in all of the languages and dialects used in Iraq. Callers are given the option of talking to a male or female staff member. Staff have been trained in active listening techniques to ensure that the information gathered from callers is correct, and callers are given the time and space to explain their concerns. While staff are not trained counsellors, they are able to identify issues which may need further support and refer callers for further assistance.

Information on humanitarian programmes (for instance loca-tions, allocations and documentation requirements) is passed to callers or flagged for specific NGOs or UN agencies to respond to if the queries require further investigation. At the same time, regular reports are provided to the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and clusters on any trends in the issues raised by callers and their feedback on aid programmes. At the request of humanitarian agencies, call centre staff also conduct post-distribution monitoring of the assistance provided to IDPs and collect feedback from them.

Providing a single point of contact was identified as a key way to reduce confusion around which organisations were providing which services in each location. Given the difficulty of accessing certain areas of the country, the call centre also permits ongoing information exchange, even with people in harder to reach areas. The call centre also helps agencies meet their responsibilities regarding accountability to affected poulations, and having a better understanding of people’s needs and feelings enables agencies to be more responsive. With access a key issue in the response, the call centre aims to help identify gaps in hard to reach areas, enable affected people to communicate with humanitarian actors and ensure that assistance is appropriate.

The call centre builds on a similar initiative in Jordan run by UNHCR to provide information to refugees. The Jordan centre drew on the expertise of private sector customer service call centres, and this experience has been transferred to the design of the Iraq centre. A single, toll-free number, Cisco call handling software, a ticketing system to allow callers to be identified if they called back or required follow-up and giving callers the choice of a male or female call handler were all built in.

The road to opening the call centre has been anything but smooth, from its inception to its launch in July 2015. It is a complex project. The equipment required was not available in Iraq, and international sanctions meant there were import delays. The need to get the right call-handling equipment into Iraq and the technical requirements involved in working with three separate telephone companies, all with very different methods of operating, caused further delays, and working with the cluster system and key strategic partners to gather the information to give to IDPs took time. It is very important to ensure that operators have accurate information about the dozens of different humanitarian services available to IDPs in Iraq. Leadership from the humanitarian country team and OCHA was key in facilitating the gathering of information. A website is being developed for this, and updates will be reported at the HCT level. UNOPS have succeeded in delivering the project thus far and will continue to support it.

What the project has made clear is that there is a huge need for clear and timely information amongst displaced people. It is hoped that that the call centre will help in addressing that gap.

First results

Following a limited launch in July 2015, the call centre is now operational countrywide. The majority of callers in its first nine weeks (31%) requested information on how and where to access food assistance, followed by requests for information about cash assistance projects operated by humanitarian actors (20% of calls). Other calls included requests for assistance with shelter and access to medical care, and requests for relief items such as blankets and mattresses. With the onset of winter, it is anticipated that these calls will increase.

The majority of callers so far have been male (71%), high-lighting the need for further community outreach and for the humanitarian community to employ alternative comm-unity engagement methods to reach women. For example, the project is aiming to place phones in female-friendly spaces to allow for more engagement by women. As highlighted by the 2014 interagency assessment of the information needs of IDPs in Northern Iraq, female respondents said that they preferred a face-to-face approach to communication. A multi-channel, multi-platform suite of community engagement approaches was identified as the best way to address information needs in Iraq. Whilst the IDP call centre can go some way towards addressing information gaps, it cannot resolve the information needs of all sections of the community.

Whilst work is ongoing to publicise the call centre across the country, displaced people are starting to notice the leaflets and posters advertising the service distributed in areas hosting the highest proportion of displaced communities. Thirty-six-year-old Ali was forced to flee from his home in Fallujah in May 2014 with his wife and young daughter to seek refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. On arrival he found shelter in a rented house shared with three other families, but could not find work. In August 2015, Ali saw a poster advertising the IDP call centre on the wall of a public hall in Erbil and decided to call and ask for help. ‘The person who spoke to me at the call centre was very kind and helpful’, Ali said. Call centre staff put Ali’s family on the waiting list for a space at a local IDP camp. ‘I was happy to learn that there was someone who cared about our problems and was searching for a solution for us’, said Ali.

Ensuring that call centre staff have up-to-date and accurate information on the country-wide humanitarian response is an ongoing challenge. Humanitarian agencies regularly set up, alter or shut down assistance programmes in response to the ebb and flow of funding and operational needs. As the humanitarian response moves on, call centre staff have received more training and guidance to allow them to respond to queries; for example, when the value of food vouchers provided by WFP changed, staff received specific briefings on this issue to ensure that the answers they provided to callers were clear and consistent. However, making sure that call centre staff have access to the most accurate and up-to-date information is a resource-intensive activity.

The challenges of providing information to displaced comm-unities in Iraq are extremely complex. Some 8.6 million people are currently affected by the crisis, including 3.2m people dis-placed from their homes. Iraq: Humanitarian Crisis – Situation Report no. 60 (2 September – 8 September 2015). Needs exceed the ability of the humanitarian community to respond, and call centre staff are not always able to identify humanitarian actors with the capacity to respond to callers’ requests. The aim is that feedback from calls, including identifying gaps in assistance, will influence how humanitarian assistance is organised and delivered. More time (and data) is required before this can be translated into results on the ground.

Next steps

The next aim is to provide online access to anonymous data mapping and analysing the main information needs reported by callers across Iraq. IOM is taking the lead in making data easily available to the public through its Community Response Map, which was expected to go live by the end of September. Meanwhile, work continues to increase awareness of the call centre. Analysis and mapping are key to helping humanitarian partners understand needs on the ground and adjust their response accordingly. Donors must continue to support the humanitarian response, particularly by listening and responding to the needs of the displaced as expressed by people contacting the call centre.

Gemma Woods is a Protection Officer working for UNHCR in Erbil. Sarah Mace was the Call Center Coordinator for UNOPS in Erbil until August 2015. She is now working on Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) for WFP in Rome.


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