Traditionally, the media investigates, amplifies and disseminates information, while NGOs provide humanitarian aid in emergencies. For an international aid agency and a local newspaper to work together to provide information and guidance to populations in crisis is a rare type of partnership in the humanitarian field.
In Colombia, which is host to the largest number of migrants and refugees from Venezuela in the world, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), through its global information strategy SignPost, and the newspaper La Opinión de Cúcuta, with its project Estoy en la Frontera (‘I am on the border’), have partnered to provide critical, reliable and updated information through their web platforms and online responses to nearly 2 million Venezuelans living or transiting through Colombia.
InfoPa’lante, the local office of SignPost in Colombia, was launched in September 2020. It provides orientation and information services to Venezuelans in Colombia. It has national coverage, providing a map of more than 300 service points offered by international NGOs, grassroots organisations and Colombian government entities. It provides informative content, an online chat, Facebook Messenger and a WhatsApp number offering real-time guidance.
The Estoy en la Frontera platform was created in November 2019 to provide information and advice to migrants and refugees in Norte de Santander, La Guajira and Arauca, along the Colombian–Venezuelan border. It publishes guides, reports, interviews and other information highlighting the obstacles migrants and refugees face in accessing their rights, as well as stories of resilience.
Both websites provide information for Venezuelan migrants and refugees on how to regularise their migratory situation and access health, education and employment services. The users can also chat with moderators trained to answer questions and other requests for information in real time.
Building a collaborative partnership
It took time for IRC and La Opinión to get to know each other, find common ground and establish complementarity between the two projects. This process proved critical, as alignment on mission and values facilitated decision-making on other issues related to grant-making, technology and collaborative work between both teams. The two organisations signed a partnership agreement, and moderation teams were trained to ensure that shared practices were followed. They also developed clear performance measures for the collaboration to ensure that expectations for both organisations were clear.
The IRC provided tools and lessons from the implementation of SignPost programmes globally, as well as information on and referrals to local protection structures and expertise to assist users with serious protection needs. For its part, La Opinión, a trusted media outlet in the region with more than 60 years’ experience, provided expertise in local journalism and reporting on border issues. This made the partnership an easy choice.
This alliance, which did not exist previously in Colombia, offers important lessons. It confirms that information is a human right and a determining factor in enabling people to make better decisions in times of crisis. It has also had other positive effects, including changing the narratives around and perceptions of host populations towards migrants, and the assurance that the key messages that help prevent risks are reaching the communities that need them. In short, it builds knowledge along the way, while advancing an innovative and emerging partnership model.
Each platform uses different technological tools to publish information and respond to queries from Venezuelan migrants and refugees. InfoPa’lante uses the services of Zendesk, a technology partner that provides a system to manage, in one place, content, a map of services and online guidance requests. Estoy en la Frontera manages its platform through a payment service controlled by the newspaper’s technology team.
With a clear working methodology for both projects, the question arose of how technology could support the partnership. For facilitating attention in real time, both teams studied the possibility of centralising in the same software the moderation processes that InfoPa’lante and Estoy en la Frontera provide in their online chats and social networks. The software would then register users on InfoPa’lante’s and Estoy en la Frontera’s online services through a single report. However, it was necessary to ensure the independence of each platform and to separate results-reporting processes. Therefore, technological integration was discarded and, currently, both projects collect their own metrics in different ways.
What was achieved was to open a digital space for the exchange of information, experiences, questions and comments through an open WhatsApp group, in which moderators, content managers and editors of each project participate. Thanks to this chat, members of InfoPa’lante and Estoy en la Frontera promote cooperation, develop strategies to mitigate misinformation and strengthen their roles as guides for the migrant beneficiary population.
The cohesion of both teams offers other positive results, such as improved response times, comprehensive attention to users requesting information and more effective referrals. An example of this is an internal, encrypted referral form used by InfoPa’lante and Estoy en la Frontera moderators when they identify that a user needs urgent attention because they are at risk or are a victim of gender-based violence, have suicidal thoughts or have children and adolescents at risk in their family. These situations are escalated by email to the IRC’s specialised teams, with a code and password – to preserve users’ privacy – to initiate an immediate care pathway.
Journalistic expertise is a highly valued attribute of this new partnership. SignPost recognises that the La Opinión de Cúcuta has the trust of the community, thanks to a track record of more than 60 years in local journalism and reporting on border issues. In their bid to develop an information and orientation project for migrants, such as Estoy en la Frontera, it was necessary to bring together a team with experience in developing content on migration, border issues and access to fundamental human rights.
The work of this group of professionals is reflected in a series of articles written in plain and concise language, using words and expressions familiar to Venezuelan migrants and refugees to ensure that there are no language barriers that could limit understanding of the message. The rigorous treatment of information, through permanent consultation of live and reliable documentary sources, ensures that the content complies with criteria of truthfulness, impartiality and objectivity – principles that also guide InfoPa’lante, as SignPost’s local office in Colombia. InfoPa’lante’s content managers specialise in the production of articles for different population groups on topics such as violence prevention, psycho-emotional support and recognition of rights and duties.
The result of these good working practices is evidenced by the publication of articles written by Estoy en la Frontera on the InfoPa’lante website and social networks and vice-versa, always respecting the credits of the source that produced the information. Impact is measured in the volume of visits to both platforms – over 100,000 a month – and the positive rating left by users on the articles they consult on www.infopalante.org and estoyenlafrontera.com.
Another benefit of the agreement is knowledge transfer. Estoy en la Frontera journalists train InfoPa’lante’s content managers on good titling practices, impact posts to attract more readers, the use of verb tenses and other writing tools. For its part, the InfoPa’lante team trains the journalists of Estoy en la Frontera in good moderation practices and how to fill out referral forms in particular situations: children and adolescents at risk or unaccompanied, women victims of or at risk of suffering gender-based violence and people with suicidal thoughts, and strengthening psychological first aid so they can use psycho-emotional tools.
Psycho-emotional and continuous professional training
In a collaboration where the human component is a priority to bring critical information and accurate guidance to communities, the need for psycho-emotional and professional training is enormous. To reinforce emotional care in this kind of team, the team implement self-care practices and strategies to prevent or mitigate professional burnout and stress, which is directly related to the context in which they work, in addition to the current global situation caused by Covid-19. By generating these spaces of trust and openness, a connection is established between co-workers, which implies knowing and listening to the other from a different position and place, being more human, more sensitive and closer, being empathetic, respecting the positions, feelings and thoughts of the other, finding points in common and taking advantage of the things that unite them, despite belonging to different organisations.
Another key element in strengthening this partnership has been the professional training available to each partner’s staff. Both SignPost and La Opinión have professionals with diverse profiles, including lawyers, graphic designers, journalists, publicists, social workers and psychologists. Each of them has free access to a study platform hosting courses ranging from marketing, social media and photography to leadership, teamwork and digital analytics, allowing them to meet their needs for technological training and soft skills, to keep pace with new trends and working models emerging in journalism and the humanitarian field. As a result, each professional is applying the tools and skills they are acquiring to their work, as well as in the development of new strategies to further position both projects as reliable and accessible platforms for consultation within migrant communities in Colombia.
Although the collaboration is still young, both organisations hope for a long-term relationship that will continue to have a positive impact on Venezuelans needing access to information and services in their localities, and guidance on the concerns and problems that affect them.
In this sense, we share a series of lessons from this unconventional collaboration in a humanitarian context:
- Do not rush the trust-building phase. Trust is the most important part of ensuring long-term success. It can be tempting to move quickly into planning and implementation. It is important to foster a relationship based on trust, honesty and familiarity on which to build future collaboration. Partners need to recognise that this is time-consuming, and there must be commitment on both sides to invest in it.
- Involve senior management in the trust-building phase. In the initial stage, senior managers from each organisation held discussions directly to establish credibility. In this case, the director of Estoy en la Frontera met with the director of SignPost Global and three programme staff from IRC Colombia headquarters.
- Identify the partnership relationship in-country. The relationship between InfoPa’lante and Estoy en la Frontera grows and strengthens in Colombia. SignPost’s head office in the United States provides support through a methodology and working structure at the beginning, but then must let the relationship evolve at the local level. People with good communication skills are vital to overcoming the challenges and gaps between headquarters and partners.
- Develop clear standards of mutual performance. Estoy en la Frontera had developed key performance indicators before beginning collaboration with SignPost and IRC to help shape its objectives. Subsequently, the partners worked together to adapt them to the collaboration, so that all parties maintained a clear understanding of where they were at any given time, and where they were going.
- Regular interaction with migrants and refugees is key. Direct daily interaction with beneficiaries has allowed us to identify new information needs, gaps in access to services and rights and new risks they face in Colombia. This allows us to create content that responds to these questions, identify service providers in new municipalities in Colombia and publish prevention messages that protect the integrity of our beneficiaries.
Alicia Pepe Vides is the Senior SignPost Manager for Colombia.