In Haiti, as is the case in the aftermath of many natural or man-made disasters, the opportunity for affected communities to have their voices heard is still rare. The communications effort following the Haiti earthquake last January was unprecedented in scale and scope. This was the first-ever humanitarian operation with a collective, multi-agency initiative focused on dialogue with affected groups.
Working from the premises of an emergency media centre created by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), the Inter-Agency Working Group on Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) (www.cdac-haiti.org) provided an important coordination platform for an unparalleled collective communications effort, with daily radio shows like Enfomasyon Nou Dwe Konnen (‘News You Can Use’), currently on 41 radio stations, Connexion Haiti, produced by the BBC World Service Trust and the BBC’s Creole Service and Chimen Lakay (‘The Way Home’), produced by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Radio Boukman. In all, up to 70% of the Haitian population is being reached with messages, news and information on relief services and programmes.
Technology providers such as Ushahidi and Noula crowdsourced information and tagged verified messages from survivors to an online map; the Thomson Reuters Foundation pushed out millions of SMS messages about humanitarian services; the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) deployed mobile messaging, including as part of the national cholera effort; and International Media Support (IMS) created a humanitarian media centre to host local Haitian media associations. A very important and key initiative has been the use of community mobilisers from agencies such as the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and Action Contre la Faim (ACF), for outreach and education on cholera prevention in internally displaced persons’ camps.
CDAC also advised on the distribution of some 9,000 donated wind-up radios through Internews working under the support of USAID/OTI, and coordinated Koute Ayiti (‘Listening to Haiti’), a travelling caravan with music, drama and public debates. Outreach and education on cholera prevention in camps was conducted through dozens of community mobilisers. Working with IMS, CDAC also supported the local media with $90,000 in cash grants and equipment, organised get-togethers of humanitarian actors and the local press and coordinated communication initiatives, including audience research on information needs and the use of the media by communities exposed to the cholera epidemic.
More still to be done
Much remains to be done to improve communications with disaster-affected communities. Establishing systematic ways of listening to survivors has proved a particular challenge. Significantly more resources, training and expertise are needed to move dialogue with affected populations into mainstream humanitarian practice.
The humanitarian community needs to work harder to include those affected by disasters in the design and implementation of communications programmes, tapping into traditional, indigenous and often more trusted channels, such as religious leaders and farmers’ groups. We also need to improve the way we communicate with local authorities. Last but not least, we need to be more sensitive to community expectations. Without genuine participation, communities cannot ask questions or make informed decisions. When they cannot access information, they cannot inform, guide or direct the services aimed at them.
CDAC is the key strategic forum on communication issues for the humanitarian community. However, in Haiti and beyond, providing information to affected communities is still regarded as an added burden. Collectively, the humanitarian community fails to realise that humanitarian responses are often undermined precisely because people’s information needs are considered a low priority.
Room for optimism
There is a very long way to go to ensure that communicating with affected communities is a properly supported component of the standard humanitarian response to any crisis or emergency. The humanitarian community is slowly but surely realising the power of – and the need for – effective communication, and Haiti has been the first emergency where the broader humanitarian community has tried to apply this systematically.
Let’s hope that disasters like the earthquake in Haiti have helped us to realise that there is no need to reinvent the wheel in each new emergency. Let’s also hope that a consolidated effort in 2011 brings institutional change within the humanitarian community to make sure that genuine communication with disaster-affected communities becomes a reality.
CDAC and all other initiatives designed to enhance communications with affected communities, need to be predictable, reliable and sustainable if we are to consolidate and mainstream the advances that have been made. All of us have an important role to play in this effort, and all of us are equally responsible. People out there in the camps, under tents, in the bush, are ready; they are just waiting for us to deliver.
Jacobo Quintanilla, Internews Humanitarian Director and first CDAC Coordinator in Haiti.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CDAC Global. CDAC Global is a community of practice founded by a group of international relief and development organisations including Save the Children, the British Red Cross, the Irish Red Cross and OCHA, and media development agencies including Thomson Reuters Foundation, the BBC World Service Trust, International Media Support (IMS) and Internews.