Communication expertise as essential disease outbreak control

CBA President Moneeza Hashmi oepns workshop on Pandemics and broadcasting, Manado, 28 May 2013

CBA President Moneeza Hashmi opens workshop on Pandemics and broadcasting, Manado, 28 May 2013

The discussion on the role of information and communication in disaster situations continues. Media-based communication is vitally necessary, but not sufficient, in meeting the multiple information needs of disaster risk reduction and disaster management. Other forms of participatory, non-media communications are needed to create more resilient communities.

During the past decade, the world’s humanitarian and disaster management communities have acknowledged the central and crucial role of communications — not just for outreach, but as a frontline activity and a core component of response.

An Asian broadcasters’ workshop I just facilitated during Asia Media Summit 2013 in Manado, Indonesia, once again reaffirmed this. It was titled: Be Prepared: Managing Your Organisation through a Global Pandemic.

It was organised by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), and held on 28 May 2013.

WHO_CDS_2005_28enProviding vital context to our discussions was the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Outbreak Communication Guidelines of 2005 [WHO/CDS/2005.28].

Perhaps the most significant sentence in the booklet is this: “WHO believes it is now time to acknowledge that communication expertise has become an essential outbreak control as epidemiological training & laboratory analysis…”

It is preceded by this candid appraisal: “Communication, generally through the media, is another feature of the outbreak environment. Unfortunately, examples abound of communication failures which have delayed outbreak control, undermined public trust and compliance, and unnecessarily prolonged economic, social and political turmoil.”

The document is certainly a leap forward in thinking, but eight years since it was published, the ICT and media realities have changed drastically. As I noted in my opening remarks, social media, then fledgling, have exploded and completely changed the dynamics of emergency communications.

In a recent op-ed published in SciDev.Net, Rohan Samarajiva and I made this point: “The proliferation of ICTs adds a new dimension to disaster warnings. Having many information sources, dissemination channels and access devices is certainly better than few or none. However, the resulting cacophony makes it difficult to achieve a coherent and coordinated response…”

We added: “The controlled release of information is no longer an option for any government. In the age of social media and 24/7 news channels, many people will learn of distant hazards independently of official sources.”

Read full essay: Crying wolf over disasters undermines future warnings by Rohan Samarajiva & Nalaka Gunawardene, SciDev.Net, 6 February 2013

CBA - AIBD Workshop on 'Be Prepared Managing Your Organisation through a  Global Pandemic' - Manado, Indonsia, 28 May 2013

CBA – AIBD Workshop on ‘Be Prepared Managing Your Organisation through a Global Pandemic’ – Manado, Indonsia, 28 May 2013

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Looking for honest and courageous people in today’s Sri Lanka: NIA 2010

From aspiration to reality...looking for honest people who stand their ground

Sri Lanka’s National Integrity Award ceremony 2010 was held at BMICH, Colombo, on 9 December evening. This marked the culmination of weeks of work in reviewing nominations and verifying information. I was part of the three-member independent award committee that chose the winners.

The occasion was both solemn and quietly inspiring. It was telling that the winner of this year’s award has been dead for nine years – killed for being honest and forthright in his work.

The late Sujith Prasanna Perera, a former Assistant Superintendent of Customs, paid the price with his life standing up against corruption and promoting integrity in his own department. It was a moving moment when the wife accepted the award from my Nepali friend Kanak Mani Dixit, who was chief guest.

The audience stood up and observed two minutes silence as a mark of respect. Some people who never knew the winner in person were in tears.

Angela Perera, wife of late Sujith Prasanna Perera, receives the award from Kanak Dixit

A Maulavi (Muslim priest) from Kinniya in the Eastern Province, M Y Hathiyathullah won recognition with a Special Mention for his active involvement in anti-corruption activities.

My fellow judges were Dr Rohan Samarajiva and Dr Selvy Thiruchandran. On behalf of the award committee, I read out a statement that explained the process of selecting winners, and our observations. Here are the last four paras, where we touch on the wider challenges in promoting integrity and transparency:

“Having studied this year’s nominations, we feel that more work needs to done to enhance the public understanding of corruption. This cancer is not limited to isolated acts of bribery or influence peddling or subverting the rules. Indeed, these are merely the tip of the iceberg — and there are many other ways in which corruption and mal-governance erode our entire social fabric. When people can better recognise the many ugly heads and tentacles of corruption, we hope it would motivate more public-spirited individuals to counter them.

“In our view, the various legal, regulatory and other structural arrangements are all necessary – but not sufficient – to combat corruption. Corruption is deep rooted in human greed. The temptations and opportunities for corruption are greater today than ever before. Faced with these stark realities, we must find the bulwark of resistance in our individual and collective values.

“In the end, the journey to a cleaner, honest and more equitable society begins with each one of us – the man or woman in the mirror. Each one of us is corruptible. At the same time, each one of us also has the potential to counter corruption. In this era of mobile phones and WikiLeaks, the opportunities are only limited by our courage and imagination. No act is too small or too insignificant. And silently looking away is not an option.

“I would like to end by quoting the Malaysian social activist Anwar Fazal, whose words sum up what the National Integrity Award is all about. Begin quote ‘In a world that is increasingly violent, wasteful and manipulative, every effort at developing islands of integrity, wells of hope and sparks of action must be welcomed, multiplied and linked…’ End quote”

Read full statement on TISL website

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at National Integrity Awards ceremony 9 Dec 2010

‘Can you hear us now?’ India’s bottom millions connect to information society

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

At the end of the world’s largest general election that lasted nearly a month, Indians have just re-elected the Congress Party to govern over the world’s largest democracy for another five year term.

It’s too early to discuss what role, if any, the recently enhanced telecommunications services played in this outcome. But there is no doubt that access to telephones – especially mobiles – has revolutionised the life of the billion plus Indians in the past few years.

Farmer Sayar Singh epitomises this change. Earlier this year, we filmed a day in the life of Sayar, a resident of Pushkar Nala in India’s Rajasthan state. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of LIRNEasia.

Sayar is definitely BOP: growing wheat and flowers on his ancestral land, he makes around INR 6,000 (USD 115) a month – on which income he sustains an extended family that comprises his wife, four children, elderly father and an unmarried sister. Life isn’t easy for this 33-year-old, but his spirit of enterprise is as abundant as his praise for his newly acquired mobile phone.

He only bought a mobile in mid 2008, but eight months later, that investment had definitely improved business and social life for him. So much so that his life’s narrative is clearly divided as Before Mobile and After Mobile.

“Our life before the mobile phone was hard,” he says. “I took two days to do what I can now do in a day. Now I can get in touch immediately and all my work happens faster and more easily!”

He now tracks market prices and moves his produce quickly for better profits. With workload reduced and income doubled, Sayar has reaped dual benefits from his mobile.

Watch our short profile of Sayar Singh, ardent promoter of mobile phones in rural India:

This isn’t Sayar’s first experience with owning a telephone. Earlier, he was frustrated with a fixed phone that didn’t work half the time. The service was so bad that he gave up the phone after a while.

He recalls: “Phone wires in our village were often faulty. They used to be out of order for 2 or 4 days, sometimes even half a month! All my work was affected. I couldn’t talk to my brothers and sisters. Call charges were also high. When my phone line was down, I had to call from STD booths or neighbours’ phones.”

In our interview, Sayar kept referring to his fixed phone connection as ‘government phone’ – a reflection of the state-owned former monopoly. It was a reminder of just how bad telecom services were in India until only a few years ago.

As Shashi Tharoor, the former UN Undersecretary General – who, incidentally, has just been elected into Indian Parliament from his native Kerala state – has remarked, India had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world.

He wrote in 2007: “Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India’s telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn’t also a tragedy — and a man-made one at that.”

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Tharoor recalled the infamous words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s communications minister in the 1970s, C.M. Stephen. In response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, the minister declared in Parliament that telephones were a luxury, not a right. He added that ‘any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone’ — since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

According to Tharoor, Mr Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude: ignorant, wrong-headed, unconstructive, self-righteous, complacent, unresponsive and insulting. “It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn’t, in any case, care what anyone else thought.”

All this didn’t change overnight, and as Tharoor reflects, the key contribution of the government was ‘in getting out of the way’ — in cutting license fees and streamlining tariffs, easing the overly complex regulations and restrictions that discouraged investors from coming in to the Indian market, and allowing foreign firms to own up to 74 per cent of their Indian subsidiary companies. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also been a model of its kind, a regulatory agency that saw its role as facilitating the growth of the business it was regulating, rather than stifling it with rules and restrictions.”

It still took time for this revolution to be felt at the bottom of the pyramid. As LIRNEasia says: “Just five years ago, the Indian telecom industry’s massive momentum barely included the poor. The country had slightly over seven access paths (fixed and mobile connections) per 100 people, but in rural India 100 people were served by only 1.5 access paths. Even in urban India, the poor were unconnected.”

Then things started changing rapidly. According to LIRNEasia’s latest teleuse@BOP survey, 45 per cent of Indian BOP teleuser households had a phone in late 2008: 37% had a mobile only; 5% had a fixed phone only; and 3% had both. This is massive progress from the 19 percent of BOP homes with a phone just two years ago. Read more about BOP telephone penetration and use in India.

Tharoor has called this the “mobile miracle” — one that has accomplished something socialist policies talked about but did little to achieve: empowering the less fortunate. Rapid mobile penetration in my native Sri Lanka has had a comparable social transformation – in a commentary last year, I called the ubiquitous mobile ‘Everyman’s new trousers’.

Of course, the mobile revolution is far from over. There are many more millions yet to be connected, and those already connected expect affordable, reliable and value-added services.

“Indian BOP is still in the mobile 1.0 mode using mainly voice and missed calls functionality. Messaging is being used by only a third of the BOP population. Mobile payment and government services use is almost non-existent,” Rohan Samarajiva, chairman and CEO, LIRNEasia, was quoted as saying soon after the latest study was presented in India in February 2009.

How far and how much value added mobile services can penetrate the BOP remains to be seen. Sayar Singh, for example, currently spends US$ 8.6 to 9.5 a month on phone services – over 8% of his enhanced monthly income.

“I haven’t subscribed to any services like cricket news or astrological forecasts. I don’t need them…and I don’t want to spend on them,” he said in our interview.

But mobile telephony is an area where the boldest projections have been exceeded – so never say never.

Photos by Suchit Nanda for TVE Asia Pacific

Cellphones and the Economic Modernization of India: Listen to Shashi Tharoor at Asia Society, NY, in 2007: