Share (information) if you really care: Challenge to humanitarian community

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Why can’t we humanitarian workers talk to each other in the field?

Why must we, instead, badger and harass people affected by a disaster or war, asking them for the same information over and over again?

With these simple yet important questions, Dr Jemilah Mahmood, President of MERCY Malaysia, started off the first panel discussion on humanitarian realities at the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ organised by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). The meeting, held in Geneva from 22 – 26 October 2007 at the Palais des Nations, has brought together over 200 persons involved or interested in information and communication aspects of humanitarian work.

I was nearly dozing off on a surfeit of humanitarian jargon and acronyms when Jemilah started her reality check. The medical doctor turned humanitarian leader spoke from her heart, and spoke such common sense that sometimes seemed to elude the self-important UN types.

Jemilah argued that there was a greater need for community based information gathering and communication, rather than just data mining that often takes place in crisis or emergency situations.

“Communication with affected communities needs to be a genuinely two-way process,” she said, echoing the discussions at my own working group on ‘Communicating with affected communities in crisis’.

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She talked of people in Aceh, Indonesia, and elsewhere who survived the tsunami — and then faced a barrage of questions and questionnaires from an endless stream of aid workers, many of who asked the same questions again and again! Why couldn’t the first group/s who surveyed survivors not have shared the information they gathered, she wondered.

“I sometimes see how humanitarian agencies are fighting with each other to keep field information to themselves,” she revealed.

There is also a need for humanitarian workers to be more sensitive to and respectful of affected people’s culture and social norms. For example, it is inappropriate to go to predominantly muslim communities and ask about their sexual habits or probe incidents of rape — even though gathering such information would be relevant in some situations. “The humanitarian workers need to find the right ways to tackle these and other challenges,” she said.

Sometimes well meaning aid workers inadvertently overstep their boundaries. In the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake of October 2005, community meetings were scheduled at times when the people had to break their day-time fasting.

Today’s crisis affected people are becoming better informed and more empowered. Jemilah recalled how mobile phones are increasingly spreading news and information among crisis affected people on the arrival of new food or medicinal stocks. Once in Aceh, the news of vaccine stock arrival spread within hours through mobile texting or SMS, prompting thousands of people to turn up asking for this service.

The humanitarian community needs to combine technology, common sense and human considerations to deliver better services and benefits, she argued. “Technology alone won’t do this for us, but it offers us useful tools,” she said.

She added: “There are huge opportunities to use modern communication technologies to plan better, reduce disaster risks and have a well coordinated response in times of disasters.”

In short, we need locally relevant, low-cost solutions to improve information gathering, information sharing and communication all around, she argued.

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MERCY Malaysia is an internationally recognised medical and humanitarian relief organisation. “MERCY Malaysia is not just a response organisation,” says its president Dr Jemilah Mahmood. This realisation came during the Afghanistan crisis (in October, 2001), when members decided it would be more prudent to look towards providing Total Disaster Risk Management (TDRM) to ensure that affected communities become more resilient after a disaster.

Since its inception, MERCY Malaysia has served hundreds of thousands of victims of natural and complex humanitarian disasters from Kosova, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Sudan. Hundreds of volunteers, both from the medical and non-medical field, have been trained and deployed to these areas. Dr. Jemilah Mahmood herself has led most of these missions at home and abroad, in particular to Kosova, Indonesia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently to Palestine.

Read The Star newspaper (Malaysia) article on MERCY Malaysia on 12 October 2007

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All Geneva photos courtesy UN-OCHA Flickr on Global Symposium+5

The many lives of PI: Crisis communication and spin doctors

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Where does public information (PI) work end and public communication (PC) work begin?

And how can we separate public information work, which is mostly institutional propaganda, from public communication of issues and knowledge directly relevant to saving lives or improving them?

This is the question that we often grappled with this week in Geneva, during the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ organised by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). The meeting, held from 22 – 26 October 2007 at the Palais des Nations, brought together over 200 persons involved or interested in information and communication aspects of humanitarian work. I was part of working group on ‘Communicating with affected communities in crisis’.

I raised the importance of separating PI from PC from the very beginning of our discussions. PI and public relations (PR) both have their place, I said, but it was not in the same league as communicating issues and knowledge.

Members of my working group – drawn from humanitarian organisations, UN agencies and the media – broadly agreed with this view. But many couldn’t help sliding back to their own agency’s PI/PR agendas during our discussions!

This is no accident. In this age of spin and soundbites, many development and humanitarian agencies are under pressure to raise their individual profiles in the public eye. In trying to do so, they give far higher priority – and resources – to PI/PR than to engaging in issue-based communication, or, to use one of their own favourite phrases, ‘evidence based advocacy’.

For public communication to assume its rightful place in the development process and humanitarian intervention, all key players will need to be more restrained with their PI/PR agenda. But looking around the massive UN complex in Geneva, where a dozen UN agencies are competing with each other for the public’s and media’s attention, I can’t quite see this happening soon.

I touch on this in an essay in August 2007 titled Cheque-book development corrupting the media. Here’s an extract:

As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.

So the first step would be to deliver less logos and more real information.

Read my other relevant blog posts:

August 2007: Cheque-book Development: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos

April 2007: Say MDG and smile, will ya?

April 2007: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

Everyone has information ‘needs’ — and information ‘wants’ too!

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When the development community talks of people living in poverty (or ‘the poor’) they almost always talk about somebody else — it is not ‘us’ but a remote, often nameless ‘them’.

And when the humanitarian community talks of people affected by crises — disasters or conflict — that too almost always is about somebody else, typically in a poor country.

The well-meaning, do-good people in development and humanitarian communities are fond of talking about the information needs of the poor or crisis affected. These ‘needs’ are usually defined in terms of survival, sustenance or relief.

It’s as if people in poverty or crisis situations only have a simple set of information needs, but none of the information ‘wants’ that we, the privileged, have in abundance.

In Geneva this week, I have argued that everyone has a right to not only information needs, but also information ‘wants’. Development or emergency relief would become truly meaningful only when both these are met.

I’m participating in the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ organised by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). The meeting, held from 22 – 26 October 2007 at the Palais des Nations, UN headquarters in Europe, brought together over 200 persons involved or interested in information and communication aspects of humanitarian work.

I was invited to be part of working group 5 on ‘Communicating with affected communities in crisis’. Members of this group were drawn from national and international humanitarian aid agencies, UN system, governments and the media.

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Our brief was to ‘look at the information needs of affected populations both during emergencies and in longer term recovery efforts’. We were to ‘evaluate the nature of these needs, to identify actions necessary to achieve operational reality, and to consider the strategies required to integrate beneficiary communications into the humanitarian response framework, particularly through the opportunities offered by the current reform process’.

Now that’s all well and good, and we did that part of our work in earnestly and seriously. The outcome was presented on Oct 25 to the plenary stimulating discussion and debate.

But I kept reminding our working group that we really have to think beyond the mere information needs of people, and address their information wants as well.

This basically means information related to cultural and social aspects. Humans don’t live on bread, water, clothing and shelter alone. We are complex and nuanced beings with a vast array of interests — and that’s equally true for the city stockbroker, village farmer and the aid worker wearing a UN cap.

Evidence of this is all around us if we only care to notice. For example:

* Tens of thousands of people driven to temporary shelters by disasters or wars followed the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany from their make-shift homes. Football mania didn’t stop at the periphery of a camp.

* Every time there is an important cricket match in South Asia, it unites the rich and poor, the sheltered and homeless, and those living normal or crisis disrupted lives.

The sooner we in the development and humanitarian sectors recognise this reality, the better.

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Photo shows working group 5 in session: photo courtesy UN OCHA.

I made a similar point in an essay written in mid 2004 on using information and communication technologies (ICTs) for poverty reduction:
I cringe every time I hear remarks about the poor just needing survival or sustenance related information. The information needs and wants of the poor can be as diverse as everybody else’s. Sarvodaya – Sri Lanka’s largest development NGO — once surveyed the information needs of poor people in rural and semi-urban areas. Their findings included: health and nutrition information, as well as details on bank loans, foreign jobs and insurance policies. There was also interest in world affairs, national politics and cultural affairs…

Read my full essay in GKP Partners Newsletter (My essay is the last one, so keep scrolling down, down, down.)

Three years later I found myself making the same point to a different group, many of who are information specialists working in crisis and emergency situations.

This kind of perception will continue as long as we harbour the us-and-them divide.

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