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Save lives and boost accountability

by Edward Girardet
Aid agencies and humanitarian relief organisations do not do enough to communicate with the victims of war and natural calamities. Their media departments should not only reach out to mainstream journalists in donor countries but develop means to communicate with target groups in disaster areas. Doing so would make relief programmes more effective. Moreover, it would serve democratic control of the reconstruction process. [ By Edward Girardet ]

Shortly after the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) held an emergency conference in Geneva. The idea was to allocate funding for the different “clusters” – food, medical relief, shelter et cetera – in order to help international aid agencies provide humanitarian relief in the disaster area. All topics were covered, with the exception of specialised media initiatives designed to inform the affected people.

That is the way things normally go. The international community is quick to fly in aid, but always seems to forget the need to reach out to the very people in need. When questioned why the UN did not have an information cluster, the OCHA chairperson gave a puzzled look. “There is a cluster dealing with communication among the different UN agencies,” she insisted. But what about the disaster victims themselves?

There is considerable evidence on the effectiveness of specially tailored “lifeline media” initiatives. They literally save lives. For the affected people, it is essential to know which roads and bridges are still in use, where aid agencies are handing out food or medical supplies, or where they can still find safe drinking water.

Victim or survivor?

“Giving vulnerable people the right information at the right time is a form of empowerment,” says Jonathan Walter, the editor of the 2005 World Disaster Report, which was published by the International Federation of Red Cross Societies (IFCR). “It enables people to make the decisions most appropriate for themselves and their families and can make a difference between being a victim or a survivor.”

The UN and other members of the international community should take note. And so should the IFCR itself. Generally speaking, aid agencies’ media work is geared to promoting their public profile with mainstream media such as CNN or BBC. They are hardly prepared for communicating with a calamity’s victims. At the time of the earthquake in Pakistan, the IFCR had no idea what to do in support of lifeline media initiatives, even though its World Disaster Report had dealt with the matter.

The reality is that support for local or specialised media is still relegated to the backburner by much of the international aid community; and that is particularly so in the case of emergency operations. This comes at a terrific cost to affected people’s ability to survive. Moreover, there is also a cost in terms of basic donor and aid agency accountability, which is seriously lacking when it comes to explaining on-the-ground actions to the victims themselves. It also means critical missed opportunities for improving aid effectiveness or alleviating conflict situations, such as the 2008 – and currently re-emerging – political upheaval in Kenya.

In many disaster and crisis situations, affected populations need to know what is going on before they can begin thinking about food or medical relief. They need information about what the government or relief agencies are doing (or not doing), when the victims can expect to receive help, or what to do if nothing is forthcoming. Should they wait with their wounded, or should they carry them out? What other towns and valleys, where they may have family, are affected? How long will it take before food arrives?

People need information from credible sources. Otherwise, rumours will run rampant, and they can become a highly destructive force. In any case, victims require urgent “needs-based” input that will enable them to make informed decisions about their own survival.

This is where specialised “lifeline media” working with local journalists can make a significant difference. Disasters such as wars, earthquakes or floods tend to knock out power supplies, so people no longer have access to electronic media, such as television. Normally, some battery-powered radios will still be working. But local broadcast journalists are not necessarily familiar with covering disasters or suddenly erupting political violence. Nor do they know exactly what kind of information is needed in emergencies. Support from aid agencies would therefore be useful.

As experience has shown, one of the cheapest and most effective forms of outreach is local FM radio, with reports produced by journalists often in coordination with the host government and aid agencies to inform the victims. If transmitters are down, provisional “radio stations in a suitcase” (prices vary between $ 2,000 and 5,000) can be set up in the field. These use computer-satellite uplinks to pull in programming and then rebroadcast locally to nearby communities, such as villages, holding centres or refugee camps.

Mobile telephones, of course, can be useful. Under the condition that transmitter points stay operational, they are an increasingly efficient tool for communication in most regions of the world. But they also serve to spread rumours. They are no substitute for competent mass-media coverage.

Over the past 20 years, the international community has dramatically improved the way relief is provided to victims hit by disasters and crisis, such as the Southeast Asian tsunami or, more recently, the floods in Bangladesh and the situation in Darfur. Far more, however, needs to be done to keep those most affected by disaster informed of aid efforts.

Listen to the people

As soon as recovery work sets in, there is another very important dimension to local media. They can – and should – give affected people a voice in the relief and reconstruction process. But all too often, the aid agencies simply forget about credible information needs or embrace a form of neo-colonial humanitarianism whereby they do not feel a responsibility to explain their actions to the beneficiaries, the very people they are supposedly helping.

Whether Afghan refugees returning to the country or Kosovars engaged in the reconstruction of their homeland, people need – and want – to know what is going on. One of the reasons why resistance to the recovery and peacekeeping effort in Afghanistan is growing is that rural populations are frustrated by the lack of transparency by both the international community and an increasingly corrupt government. They feel they have a right to know where the money is going, and why.

Local media can create public forums to guide reconstruction and future preparedness, while exposing corruption and inefficiencies of the rebuilding process. The Voice of Aceh, a local radio station providing news of relief and reconstruction in the Indonesian province following the tsunami, reported that, according to local refugees, there was no clean water because access to the camps were too muddy for the water trucks. A few days later, the camp leader called the reporter to thank him, maintaining that water deliveries had resumed.

Once the emergency stage is more settled, the specialised media groups can work with local journalists to develop longer-term approaches. Daily recovery programmes on local or even national radio can be very useful, and so can TV programmes or special newspaper pages. It may make sense to stage street theatre in the refugee camps.

Donors do not hesitate to fund extensive evaluation or performance reports. It would make more sense to involve the media. Informed local and international media have the capability to monitor ongoing aid activities. They can also ensure that these remain transparent and in the public domain. The official evaluation documents, on the other hand, normally appear too late in the game to have any impact. They take inordinate amounts of time to produce.

All this shows that it makes sense to involve the media automatically from the very beginning in any humanitarian, peacebuilding or recovery process. Sadly, this plain fact is still not a matter of course. Little appears to have changed when it comes to tangibly providing logistical or financial support for media initiatives, particularly in emergency situations.

From my own point of view as a journalist and media specialist who has worked in crisis zones from Somalia and Afghanistan to Angola, Kosovo and Liberia, any aid organisation or donor that does not engage in media support should not be in the business. It is being neither accountable as an organisation nor cognisant of the individual needs and rights of the victims themselves.

Growing awareness

On the positive side, there finally appears to be slowly growing interest among certain humanitarian and development agencies for the need to involve media. In March, the UN’s OCHA, the BBC World Service Trust and Internews, a California-based NGO that supports local media, hosted a panel in New York called: “Left in the Dark – The Unmet Need for Communication in Humanitarian Responses.” Various other organisations or umbrella groups, have also held recent workshops and conferences on the role of media for improving humanitarian performance and accountability.

The Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) in Brussels is an umbrella organisation that is seeking to promote the issue. Another initiative is based in Geneva. The goal is to establish an International Centre for Media and Global Challenges as a means of promoting better reporting of key concerns such as climate change, environment and health, but also to serve as a bridge for partnership with the international aid community.

While OCHA and other aid organisations are showing more interest, there is also a tendency to simplistically believe a single media group can deal with all aspects of information outreach. Given that some are better at dealing with radio and others with print or general mass information initiatives, it is vital to retain as much diversity and imaginative out-of-the-box initiatives as possible rather than take a monolithic approach.

Drafting concepts and discussing ideas is a start, but what is needed in disaster areas is real action. So far, funding is utterly insufficient, and even diminishing. Donor governments who have traditionally supported media initiatives have been cutting back or are even eliminating information support funds outright. The current financial crisis has not helped either. The Irish government has completely cut back on its aid contributions for 2009.

Another problem is the continued ignorance regarding the importance of media as a crucial and necessary component of any serious humanitarian or development initiative. The Swiss government, for example, has for a long time tended to play lip service to independent media initiatives. But with the current foreign minister known to be highly suspicious of journalism, media support has been virtually dropped from the Swiss development corporation’s 2009 budget.