Issue 52 - Article 14

Delivering communications in an emergency response: observations from Haiti

November 30, 1999
Imogen Wall

The response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti included unprecedented efforts to improve communications with affected communities. Distinct from public or external relations, this area of work promotes ways in which aid agencies can get better at both sharing information with and listening to those affected by disaster. Experience in past disaster responses has shown that communication with affected populations is a critical aspect of operational delivery, improving transparency and accountability, ensuring effective service delivery and achieving meaningful participation and the delivery of information as a form of assistance in its own right. See HAP Benchmarks 3 and 5 (Sharing Information and Handling Complaints); IFRC, World Disasters Report 2005: Information in Disasters; Imogen Wall, The Right To Know: The Challenge of Public Information and Accountability in Aceh and Sri Lanka, Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, 2006; and HAP, The 2010 Humanitarian Accountability Report.

Despite this level of interest, evidence from Haiti suggests that the picture is at best uneven. As research by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) and others has identified, few agencies communicate meaningfully with affected communities, including sharing information and listening to those they are seeking to help. See HAP, The 2010 Humanitarian Accountability Report, especially Chapter 3, ‘Voices of Disaster Survivors – Haiti 2010’.  This article focuses on those agencies that have made headway in this area, identifying the factors that enabled them to do so. The cases presented here are based on a series of interviews with local and international humanitarian actors, and where possible with the recipients of humanitarian aid. In addition to reviewing how agencies communicated with their beneficiaries, the research aimed to identify and capture best practice in areas such as mass communications, work with local media and the use of new technology.

The importance of appropriate resources

The central finding is that those agencies which resourced communications work appropriately, in particular those that established stand-alone units, provided better communications support across their organisations than those that did not. Most of these agencies also had stand-alone communications projects and addressed wider questions of access to information, rather than just focusing on information exchange between the agency and its beneficiaries. A second key finding is that the most successful communications models used multi-platform and systemic approaches, rather than relying on a single tool, such as community meetings, verbal briefings or bulletin boards.

That some agencies succeeded in developing effective camp-based communication systems indicates that this is possible even in a complex operating environment like Haiti. One such model was developed at Annex de la Marie, a camp in Port au Prince managed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Working specifically on the issue of shelter, IFRC was only able to provide transitional shelters for around 350 of the 800 families in the camp, and the communications strategy aimed to explain to residents who would qualify for shelter, how the process worked, how to complain if people felt they had been wrongly assessed and the alternative assistance available for people who did not qualify. The agency used notice boards, written information about the process, community meetings, a helpline run by a staffed call centre (outsourced to a private company), communication liaison staff, sound trucks and public announcements to launch the shelter initiative. The approach addressed the information needs of the affected community, met transparency and accountability requirements and helped to mitigate conflict and build trust through dialogue. Communications work is now focused on gauging people’s satisfaction with their shelter, recording and addressing outstanding issues and continuing to help those who did not receive a shelter to obtain rental support or take up other shelter alternatives.

As a result of these efforts, camp residents – who had initially accused IFRC of attempting to deprive them of shelter and threatened to obstruct construction – became supportive of the shelter initiative. During a visit by Infoasaid, residents expressed their satisfaction with the level of information they had received and their engagement with IFRC. They were particularly appreciative of the helpline; even people who had never used it felt reassured that it was available. IFRC staff working at the site also commented that the communications support had helped to improve relations with the community, build trust, mitigate against conflict and create an environment in which project implementation (construction) was possible. IFRC call centre data suggests that the communication process and the opportunities for communication – not just the information – were very important to camp residents. Satisfaction levels with the call centre (ranging from 85% in one survey to 100% in another) were higher than with IFRC itself. An independent evaluation of the IFRC beneficiary communications programme found that 85% of those surveyed were happy with the service. IFRC staff interviewed also felt that the support provided by the communications unit had been valuable, and had helped create a conducive environment for the project.

IFRC was able to pilot this comprehensive approach partly because it was one of the few organisations to establish a dedicated ‘beneficiary communications’ unit at the beginning of the response. Led by a communications specialist, the unit had a separate budget and terms of reference and was supported by a local team. The unit provided technical advice, funding and additional capacity to the Annex de la Marie initiative.

In terms of operationalising good communications, the experience of IFRC and other agencies that used the same operational structure stands in contrast to those organisations that tried to implement communications work without adequate technical expertise or support. This includes organisations whose main communications objective was to improve transparency and accountability. HAP Benchmarks 3 and 5 both require organisations to systematically provide information about their work to survivors, and put in place ways for disaster survivors to register complaints and other feedback with those assisting them.  Several organisations in Haiti made laudable efforts to introduce transparency and accountability at a very early stage, hiring dedicated staff and placing this work at the heart of their operational response. However, giving responsibility for communications work to overworked staff who were not technical specialists limited the effectiveness of these programmes.

One organisation established a camp-based humanitarian accountability system within five weeks of the disaster, which included camp liaison staff and plans for bulletin boards and complaints boxes. Its approach was impressive in many ways. To ensure that the Haiti team developed and built on the agency’s work in other contexts, a staff member with relevant experience who had managed accountability elsewhere was recruited, and support was provided by HAP. The team, initially known as Camp Liaison and initially led by a Haitian staff member who was a trained psychologist, started work in mid-February. It was specifically tasked with talking to camp residents, implementing feedback and complaints systems and advocating within the agency on the residents’ behalf.

Assessing the impact of this work in Haiti is difficult as – in common with almost all such projects in Haiti – no detailed monitoring and evaluation has been carried out; beneficiaries’ perspectives are particularly hard to research given the time that has elapsed since the earthquake. Asked to reflect on their experiences, staff said that a more systematic and better resourced focus on communications would have enhanced their work further. In particular, they noted that, despite recognising the importance of communication, the agency did not identify a need for specialist technical communications support to help develop effective communications strategies until several months after the earthquake. Local staff in particular saw this as an important gap. As one staff member put it: ‘communication is the most important thing. Without communication you can’t organise anything. Next time, I would organise better communication first. I would provide training for my team, especially on how to handle discussions and manage conflict and anger. Guidelines would also be useful: Sphere needs to talk about communication’.

The importance of technical support in communications was also recognised in an internal evaluation of the agency’s humanitarian accountability work. This recommended a number of technical improvements in communication, including the development and production of written materials to accompany verbal briefings and briefing notes for staff interacting with camp residents. It also emphasised the need for information to be repeated and reiterated to guard against distortion. The evaluation also found that few residents understood the agency’s concept of ‘feedback’, and recommended more systematic and effective communication around what does and does not constitute a ‘complaint’. ‘Humanitarian Accountability Assessment, October–-November 2010’, WVI internal assessment.

Staff also noted that, in practice, the perceived focus of transparency and accountability on feedback and complaints management had also led to a strong emphasis on collecting information from disaster survivors, rather than on proactive information sharing with affected communities (for example about the organisation, its plans and what it is able and not able to do). This was also felt to be an imbalance by staff. As one international staff member commented: ‘If we had proactively shared information more, we wouldn’t have got a lot of the feedback that we did. A lot of the feedback was basic questions about who we were and what we were doing. If we had told them about areas of focus and selection criteria, for example, we would have pre-empted a lot of that. We quickly realised this was a gap’.

Organisations that established communications with beneficiaries as an area of work in its own right were also concerned with improving access to information for all Haitians. IFRC and Voila, one of the main providers of mobile phone services in Haiti, developed an SMS system which enabled information to be shared rapidly with large numbers of people. Initially this system was used to alert people to new services like vaccination clinics. The model was then developed along with an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) phone system to enable transmission of hurricane warnings and preparedness information to specific geographical areas. During the October 2010 cholera outbreak, the system was quickly adapted to provide information about prevention, identification and treatment, as well as the locations of cholera treatment centres. Although infoasaid focus groups found anecdotal evidence that responses to this service were positive and IFRC’s efforts were appreciated, no detailed evaluation of this work has yet been carried out by IFRC, so the beneficiary perspective has not been captured or analysed in any meaningful way.  The IFRC communications unit also established a regular, live, nationwide radio show in partnership with local station Radio 1. As the show was live, listeners could call in and ask questions directly of project staff. This project became particularly important during the cholera crisis when, in response to audience demand, several programme broadcasts were dedicated to cholera. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) also developed projects that addressed more general information and communication needs.

Standalone communications units

A second finding is that having standalone communications units or activities which can provide technical support across an organisation, as IFRC and some other agencies did, helped increase operational effectiveness. Staff in these organisations emphasised how important such support was to improving project implementation and delivery. Some staff, even those who were previously sceptical, said that they now believed that dedicated communications support was essential to effective project delivery. ‘I would say registration [of camp residents post-earthquake] would have been almost impossible without the support of our communications team’, one senior camp manager noted. This process was supported by IOM’s communication unit, which established teams of dedicated local communications staff who went to camps and helped explain the registration process, produced leaflets and fliers and used sound trucks and entertainment to provide information and assist in crowd management.  Representatives of WFP said that hiring a local spokesperson to explain food distribution processes was key to improving the management of distributions in the first few weeks after the earthquake.

The importance of dialogue

A third key observation is that the most successful communications strategies in Haiti used multiple channels and emphasised dialogue and open-ended communication, rather than just information collection or delivery. Many survivors commented on how important the communications process was to them – knowing that there were ways to express their views (not just complain) and to ask questions was key. Haitians interviewed were acutely aware of which organisations had bothered to communicate with them, and had much more respect and enthusiasm for those that did.


There are some important caveats to drawing clear conclusions from communications work in Haiti. One is that the Haiti earthquake occurred in a very particular context, where social, political, economic and cultural dynamics varied wildly between those affected. Another is the lack of systematic monitoring and evaluation of communications work, in particular how disaster survivors perceive and use agencies’ communications channels in the early stage of a response. Even agencies that established dedicated communications teams tended to focus on information distribution, with few mechanisms for either gauging community response or establishing systematic ways of listening to affected communities. IFRC, for example, tends to cite the numbers of SMSs sent as an indicator of the success of the project, even though data like this offers little insight into actual impact.

The Haiti experience confirms that effective communications can enhance all aspects of humanitarian work, including transparency and accountability, public education and information and service delivery. The best way to achieve this is to establish a well-resourced, dedicated communications capacity, including technical specialists, to ensure that communications work is well designed and implemented, and to train and support operational staff across the organisation. Key to this is the recognition that effective communication with communities is a specific and important technical area of work, separate from PR or external relations. In Haiti, this tended to involve recruitment of international communications experts, but in other contexts there may be opportunities to source such expertise locally. Because communications is a social and cultural process international expertise alone is unlikely to be sufficient.

Haiti reinforces findings from earlier emergencies: effective communications work requires technical expertise. Unless organisations commit to investing in effective communications, recognising this as distinct from external relations and working with donors to ensure both funding and methods of measuring operational impact, the potential of communications work to improve all aspects of humanitarian response – including accountability and transparency –will not be realised.

Imogen Wall is an independent communications consultant specialising in disaster response and humanitarian emergencies. The research in Haiti discussed in this article was conducted for the infoasaid project, a partnership between Internews and the BBC World Service Trust, funded by DFID. The project seeks to improve how aid agencies communicate with disaster-affected communities.


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