When disaster strikes, people need information as much as they do food, shelter, and medical attention, says a new report from the BBC World Service Trust, the BBC’s international charity. And in the area of providing information, the humanitarian community’s track record could be improved, says the October 2008 report, entitled The Unmet Need for Information in Humanitarian Responses.
Effective information and communication exchange with affected populations are among the least understood and most complex challenges facing the humanitarian sector in the 21st century. Recent evaluations of disasters – including those of the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake – have identified the failure to consider the value of information and communications with affected populations as a critical and unmet need.
Effective communication can also help agencies be more effective, the report argues:
There is also growing evidence to show that effective communications strategies for beneficiaries … hold huge potential for aid organisations themselves. This is not just because they can save lives but because they enable better accountability, more effective management of expectations and ultimately improved humanitarian response.
One example of this beneficial effect is illustrated in the following story told in the report:
In Galle, Sri Lanka, staff from the Office for the Coordination of Humantarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that there was much confusion among the local populations about their rights and entitlements concerning housing, and little capacity within the government to provide the information required.
The OCHA team worked with several different agencies and local officials to design a campaign including radio spots, posters, a leaflet explaining housing rights and crucially a week long open house day at the offices of the local government department in charge of housing, during which beneficiaries could ask questions, register for assistance and talk to government officials and aid agencies on how to access assistance.
The campaign was a huge success, with both local government officials and populations responding enthusiastically and benefiting from better understanding of each other’s roles and needs.
The Humanitarian Practice Network of the Overseas Development Institute, which is holding a discussion on the report December 4, 2008, also included a positive example in its announcement.
When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May of this year, it was weeks before a valiant local effort was reinforced by a massive international response. But one lifesaving commodity was able to get through from the outset: information. Dedicated radio broadcasts helped many to survive in those first critical weeks, telling them how to purify water, treat minor ailments, identify serious medical problems, and build basic shelters.
After reviewing evidence about how affected populations see the need for information and what information they need, and then exploring why such demands are rarely met “and what structures, systems and skills are missing”, the report concludes with detailed recommendations, short-term and long-term. Key recommendations are for agencies to “mainstream communications with affected populations” and to “make someone responsible for understanding and responding to the information and communication needs of affected populations”.