Towards the design of a communication with affected communities model

Several weeks ago something incredible has been released by Infoasaid that seems to have passed under silence.

Infoasaid is a DFID-funded project that is being implemented by a consortium of two media development organisations – Internews and BBC Media Action. The overall goal of the project is to improve the quality of humanitarian responses by maximizing the amount of accurate and timely information available to both humanitarian responders and crisis-affected populations through enhanced information exchange between them in an emergency. The project has two main objectives:

  • To strengthen the capacity and preparedness of aid agencies to respond to the information and communication needs of crisis-affected populations.
  • To partner with a number of aid agencies to help inform and support their communications response in a variety of emergency contexts.

Infoasaid works at multiple levels to improve communications with crisis-affected communities. This involves the development of a range of preparedness tools to help aid agencies communicate better in an emergency; deployment of teams to the field to support partners in delivering communications responses; advocacy at system and organization level; and research to promote learning and strengthen the evidence base in this sector.

Some weeks ago they launched a new website, which has been an incredible effort from part of the team. The new website, which you can find here, is an amazing resource for all agencies and NGOs that need to face the difficult talk of communicating directly with affected communities during emergencies or disaster, or in general in complex emergencies.

Let’ have a quick look to this website.

Section one: the Media and Telecoms Landscape Guides. This edition of the website shows something that I personally find one of the best resources in terms of research and practical resources for media and telecommunication landscape in a country. When deciding how to communicate with affected communities in fact, one of the first questions is how to channel this communication and what best ways to deliver the message are already available in the country. This is what you can find here: Mobile providers, radio stations broadcasting in the country, press and TVs, availability of mobile network , Internet penetration, and a contact directory of media and telecoms operators in the most crisis prone countries in the world

These online guides are a useful tool for humanitarian responders seeking to communicate effectively with crisis-affected communities. The information contained in each guide acts as a baseline of the media and telecommunications environment and therefore can serve as a useful preparedness tool. In the immediate aftermath of an emergency, an information needs and access assessment can be undertaken in order to verify whether the channels of communication outlined in the guide are still functioning. The guides are being developed for 22 countries at risk of both natural disasters and conflict or both.

The second section of the website is indeed the best part of it.  The message libraryWhen the CDAC network was created the first time in 2009, the network emerged in response to the policy paper ‘Left in the Dark’ with a view to improving two-way communication between aid actors and disaster affected populations. CDAC Network members believed (and still believe) that information to, and communication with, affected people is essential – as a life-saving device, as key to taking ownership of their own recovery, and as critical to accountability and genuine participation. CDAC Network members believe that communication is aid.

In one of the following deployment of the CDAC network, in Haiti, one of the main problem that emerged was not only the need to communicate but the need for a coordinated and homogeneous message to be delivered to the affected communities. The problem was posed by the fact that as agencies and organizations were growing in number and size, all of them were trying in different ways to deliver messages to the beneficiaries of aid, with the result of many messages, sometimes contradicting each other, delivered to many people, sometimes not the right receiver for that message.

What emerged from that experience was the need for a coordinated afford to organize this communication channels in a way that could avoid confusion and misunderstanding (and frustration) from part of people that were already in distress. The CDAC network in Haiti continue to do this specific job, under the direction of Ben Noble, which I had the fortune to meet when I went there in August 2011, who is not only coordinating this effort but also leading, according to me, to the development of what will be called the first model for the functioning of this kind of initiative in a protracted and complex emergency like Haiti is right now.

Out of that experience, and many others, like the deployment of CDAC in Pakistan, this concept of coordinating the messages being sent to affected communities became even more complicated by the emergence of new technologies that allow everyone, even the tiniest organization, to set up its own communication channel and broadcast messages to large groups of people.

The Infoasaid Message Library is so far the very first experiment in this sense: a complete, searchable library of messages categorized according to topic, target and communication channels.

The message library is an online searchable database of messages that acts as a reference for those wanting to disseminate critical information to affected populations in an emergency. It has been developed in collaboration with a number of different clusters/sectors in humanitarian response, including, Health, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Nutrition, Food Security, Protection (Child Protection, Gender-based Violence, Mine Risk Education) and Education.

The messages include: warnings and alerts, advice on risks and threats and how to mitigate them and prompts for programmatic interventions. Embedded in the message library is guidance on contextualisation, including advice on how to adapt each message according to language, feasibility, education levels, cultural belief and practice and the ‘do no harm’ principle. The message library is designed to be used as a reference tool and each message should be translated, piloted and adapted to suit the local context and to ensure comprehension before dissemination. All messages are downloadable and exportable in different format and the website offers also a complete guide on how to use the library (and an illustrative video).

For each message there is a specific section that shows the target of the message, the possible issues related,to the messages, like sensitivity issues or cultural issues and the  preferred means to spread that message. See a couple of examples here.

In addition to this, for each message that have a high sensitivity Or risks associated to it, there is a window that ask the user several questions to guide him/ her through the process of thinking if the message selected is really the right one for the specific intent of the sender, and if all possible risks and consequences have been evaluated with the right attention.

 The third section of the website is an online curriculum for communication officers, small NGOs and humanitarian officers. This curriculum has one very practical and ought through course on how to communicate with affected communities. The ‘Communication is Aid’ e-learning course aims to raise awareness about the key components of effective communication with crisis affected communities and to build knowledge and understanding on how to communicate in practice.

The course is divided into five modules. The first two introduce learners to the course and the key concepts it covers. The remaining three modules are interactive, scenario-basedchallenges and involve learners having to make key decisions to do with communication during an earthquake, a post conflict situation and a hurricane/flood.

The modules are divided up as follows:

  1. How to use the course
  2. Why communication matters
  3. Knowing your target audience
  4. Crafting and adapting messages
  5. Communication: A two way process

 The course is based on practical and real cases and is completed with exercises and tests to measure the level of understanding of the user all the way through the course. In addition to this, the course is free and can be re done as many times as possible.

The fourth section of the website is a set of diagnostic tools aimed to enhance the effectiveness of communication with crisis-affected populations. These include checklists and information sheets on the following:

  • Questions on Community Profiling
  • Questions on Information Needs and Access Assessments
  • Radio Feasibility Assessment Checklist
  • TV Feasibility Checklist
  • Assessing the Mobile Environment
  • Characteristics of Different Channels of Communication
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response Checklist
  • Communication Strategy Template

This website is the first tentative to create a coordinated “conversation model” with affected communities and I hope that all concerned actors will use it as much as possible, contributing to is and enriching this pool of resources to include all possible typology of messages, case studies and additional information to it.

As coordination is indeed one of the most difficult thing to achieve during humanitarian emergencies, the existence of CDAC can make a huge difference in the provision of humanitarian aid.

My dream is that one day we will not need to have CDAC anymore, because humanitarian organizations will have incorporated in their own mandate, as part of humanitarian aid, communication with affected communities.

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