Why communication with disaster affected communities matters!

I am in Bangui. Central African Republic. Another African country affected by war, hunger, poverty and corruption. Not quite. This is one of the worst I have even seen, even if I cannot say I have seen that many. But let’s look at it a bit closer.

Since its independence, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by crises associated with poor governance and conflict. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 159th out of 169 in the 2010 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index and scoring 3/3 on the Vulnerability Index of DG ECHO. Poverty is rife and exacerbated by corrupt and predatory state institutions. A culture of political patronage and corruption undermines leaders’ accountability, and the exceptionally fragile government has almost no institutional capacity to deliver services; most especially for the 84% of the population living outside the capital.  Almost half of the country is out of control of the government and in the hands of rebel groups. Almost no one knows what is going on there.

For instance since September 2008 the east of the country has been a region heavily destabilized by the arrival of the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, fleeing apparent military defeat in Northern Uganda. In CAR, the LRA has replicated the killing and terror of the local population witnessed for two decades in Uganda. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), LRA rebels have killed at least 2,385 civilians and abducted another 3,054 in CAR since their arrival.

The LRA is now believed to be made up of approximately 250 separate elements which are highly mobile and moving around in small groups in a large geographical area.  The army of CAR, deployed in the worst affected area with 250 troops, is often aware of the LRA attacks through basic word of mouth but often fails to take any action.  The LRA is therefore able to continue its campaign of terror because it often attacks by surprise. When national or international agencies intervene, the rebels have long since fled, often leaving hundreds of victims behind.

Is there anything in here that sounds strange?

I will tell you what sounds strange to me: 250 people, the LRA movement, is able to kill in one year 2385 people and kidnap 3,054. How is that possible? Well some explanation can be that the United Nations and international agencies evidentially suffer from a lack of information on LRA activities at a local level. Research confirms that international actors are yet to fully utilize the knowledge of local people. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks for the UN and the army to get to know that there has been an attack in a village. In the est-south of the country there is little phone coverage, one radio station and zero Internet coverage. Communication is sorely based on word of mouth or on the ability of the people to walk for hours to get to the next village to spread the word.

But there is something that is even more surprising to me.

In CAR, society leaders, local self defense groups, traders, hunters, and Mbororo herdsman live and travel in these remote areas where they have extensive knowledge of LRA whereabouts.  This information, so vital to stemming the flow of LRA atrocities, should and could be shared with international organizations, military forces and international intelligence agents. Yet, there is far little done to make this connection.

This is one of the reasons why I am here and why the work that organizations like Internews is absolutely key in this context.

Internews piloted a project in CAR in early 2011 with a network of community radio stations. The nascent project is managed through a coordination center supported by The Association for Journalists on Human Rights, founded during a series of trainings of Internews on human rights between July and December 2010. The network works with mobile phones using a phone tree to query, on a daily basis, participating humanitarian agencies and community radio stations.

The network exchanges information directly from radio station to radio station or between the radio stations and the coordination center. Ultimately, all the stations are connected through an internet modem and receive content and bulletins via this round up. The network connects the stations with each other, and enables humanitarian agencies to quickly exchange information with communities throughout the country. Although just a month young, the concept has already garnered an enthusiastic response from OCHA, UNDP, and BINUCA (Integrated Office United Nations in Central Africa).

Now what needs to be done more? According to me, a lot, but the IN project is a good start and can be used a baseline.

So let’s state some points that are essential to understand the situation here:

- Information save lives. This is not just a motto, this is the reality. Until international organization will not understand this, they will waste lives. Let me make an example: the LRA normally starts by attacking a village by surprise. Then what they do, is that they simply follow the route and on their way north, or west, attacking all the villages on their way and killing, kidnapping and raping. If there was a way to connect all those villages, then there is a way to save lives, because you can create an early warning system that will allow all the villages around to know, in advance that the LRA is coming. (this has been already done in DRC by the Invisible Children initiative)

- If international organization and the 3 different armies (Ugandan army, CAR army, and French Army) here want to do something, they need to get information, Quickly: meaning yesterday! They need to get the information from the local population and there is a very simple way they can do this. Crowdsourcing. They don’t even have to do it with the entire populations: they can choose a couple of families or trusted people in the villages along the border and provide them with a long distance radio transmitter. When there is an attack those people can easily communicate with the army and let them know what is going on. Even better, they can built mobile phones towers, and create an infrastructure that can be used by everyone! (and maybe also go into the development phase, trying to step out form the long standing Emergency phase that CAR is experiencing since more than 20 years which has a consequences that very little is invested in long term development projects and all goes into short term emergency projects).

- The system needs to be a real time system. Everyone operating in the area should be part of it, meaning all the NGOs, UN agencies and different organizations should be part of the system, which needs to be build around the central role of the local population and local media. There has to be a system that connects all these actors in real time via long frequency radios or mobile phones and that allow for information about LRA attacks to be shared and the response to be coordinate in real time.

Ok, I know. Not an easy thing to do. But seriously??? 250 people against 3 armies, 20 NGOs and 4 million people? I don’t believe this is only a problem of resources and poverty.

Let’s get our shit together and do something. And I would start with something that may sound revolutionary: listen to the people, communicate with disaster affected communities, saving lives by providing people with information that can empower them in making decisions by themselves.

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