BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Aid agencies working in Haiti need to do a better job of talking and listening to the people they are trying to help in order to boost relief efforts and dissipate tensions, experts say.
In the report by infoasaid, a UK government-funded network of media organisations and aid groups focused on improving communication with disaster-affected communities, experts spoke to dozens of Haitians and foreign aid workers.
They assessed how the international aid community and local media delivered information and received feedback to and from Haitians after the January 2010 earthquake and ensuing cholera outbreak.
“The largest gap remains the lack of any kind of systemic approach either to sharing information or to listening, gathering feedback or collecting and responding to complaints,” the report said.
It is increasingly recognised among the international aid community that people caught up in disasters need better, and faster, ways to access potentially life-saving information, such as where to find food, how to prevent disease and keep safe.
But the report found aid agencies in Haiti are still not talking effectively to local communities, giving them a voice that can be heard, and/or examining the best ways to disseminate information to locals through other means including radio, television, newspapers, community liaison officers, call centres, SMS texts, social media and/or information kiosks in camps.
“We’re starting to get aid agencies getting to grips with these issues but there’s still a long way to go. Aid agencies still think about whether they have to engage with these questions and they think it’s a choice. It isn’t,” Imogen Wall, one of the report’s authors, told AlertNet in a telephone interview from London.
“Communication with communities is not anyone’s job, no-one has the mandate, it’s not in the humanitarian system and it’s not in the funding mechanisms. That needs to change,” Wall added.
Many aid agencies did not make speaking with Haitians in the local language of Creole a priority, the report found.
“Humanitarian agencies overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster – and for many the impact on their own staff and offices – mostly did not prioritise communication with affected communities,” the report said. “Surprisingly few of those with a long-term presence had local Creole-speaking spokespeople.”
USING LOCAL MEDIA
While several local radio stations were up and running within hours following the earthquake, providing a popular source of news to many Haitians, few aid agencies made attempts to work closely with them and/or other local journalists immediately after the disaster.
“Much of the most effective radio work in Haiti following the earthquake was the initiative of stations themselves without any external support,” the report said.
“They (humanitarians) neglected partnerships with local journalists, who are still one of the best communication channels,” the report quotes Jacques Desrosier, head of the Association of Haitian Journalists (AJH), as saying.
Aid agencies also failed to support local media in general.
“Provision of basic humanitarian assistance to journalists, and mobile phone credit and Internet access, as well as more basic supplies such as fuel for generators, emerged as key and largely unmet needs,” the report said.
TALKING IN PERSON
Providing information to affected communities, particularly face-to-face, helps the overall relief effort and can avoid conflict, the report found.
“It is proven that information is a form of assistance. If no-one is telling you what’s going on, it’s incredibly disorientating,” Wall said.
Aid agencies who allocated staff and resources to talk to Haitians and provide useful information in Creole found their operations ran smoother, the report said.
It cites the example of the World Food Programme (WFP), which in the first few weeks following the earthquake found distributing food to over a million Haitians to be chaotic, and in some cases it caused riots.
In response, the WFP decided that the best way to improve its food distribution and food-voucher system was to ensure people understood how it worked. They hired a local spokesperson, Fedrique Pierre, to launch a public information campaign in Creole mainly using local radio. In his first month, Pierre became a permanent fixture on the radio, giving over 150 interviews, and earning himself the nickname “Mr Rice.”
“The value-added of communication on the ground is proven. It leads to smarter and more nuanced aid. It leads to a better relationship with the people you are trying to serve,’ Wall said.
Getting messages across to local communities, for example the importance of good hygiene to prevent cholera, were most successful when aid agencies used a variety of ways to communicate.
“Meshing forms of communication is best, but this is not yet part of the humanitarian response,” Wall said.
Initially, foreign aid agencies were not good at explaining to Haitians what cholera was, nor were they good at debunking widely-held myths about the disease.
“Public information and messaging were based on a technical and medical approach to the epidemic, and in many cases failed to address the fears and perceptions of the disease,” the report said.
While Twitter was popular among Haitian journalists as a way to gather and send information, few agencies successfully tapped into social media as a way of regularly communicating with local communities.
“There was no Creole twitter feed set up by aid agencies on cholera even though it’s free to run,” said Wall.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)