Communication can and should be seen as aid. People rely on communication to find out what’s happening, where to go for assistance and who to call for help. Research and projects, such as infoasaid, give evidence that communication is crucial to survival and recovery. In fact, the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network positions two-way communication with affected people at the heart of resilience-building, preparedness and response.
If communication is aid, what does that mean in practice? And how do we get better at doing it? These are some of the questions that participants of the ‘Communication is Aid: Humanitarian, Media and Technology Collaboration’ event*, held in Nairobi on December 6, tried to answer.
In her opening remarks, Gabriella Waaijman, Officer in Charge of UNOCHA Eastern Africa, explained, “Gone are the days when humanitarian agencies can provide assistance without asking what the needs are in the communities where they are working.” There is no doubt in my mind that we need to listen to communities because they are the only ones who know what’s happening on the ground and can suggest what would improve their day-to-day lives. We need to empower them with the tools to communicate their needs to us, and we need to effectively respond. Modern development requires two-way communication and listening.
Are we there yet? That’s for debate, but we are certainly getting closer. Adeso is implementing a USAID project in northern Kenya, working with pastoral and transitional communities to reduce hunger and poverty, increase social stability, and build strong foundations for economic growth and environmental resilience, and we are looking at ways to use communication to enhance these objectives. USAID also helped jumpstart SokoShambani, a free SMS platform that allows small-scale potato farmers in Kenya to connect directly with buyers. “It takes the farmer to the market, and the market to the farm,” as Stephen Kimiri of ZEVAN explains.
Other examples include the Praekelt Foundation’s development of the Young Africa Live mobile platform that provides young people in Africa with information about HIV/AIDS and other sexual health issues. Since 2009, the platform has been used by more than a million people in South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. The Danish Refugee Council has for its part adapted the Ushahidi platform – a free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping that was first used following Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections to collect eyewitness reports of violence and place them on a Google Maps – to monitor humanitarian aid in Somalia. Through this system, DRC’s beneficiaries can use their mobile phone to provide feedback on the aid they received from DRC, and make complaints.
So, how do we use the right technologies in the right context? As Rob Burnet from Well Told Story underlined, “Push won’t work – it must be pull.” We need to understand our audience and really listen to what they want. For example, USAID invested in Well Told Story’s innovative Shujaaz.FM multi-media project aimed to engage Kenya’s youth in promoting peace for the March 2013 elections. The project includes fictional Kenyan youth who grapple with real social and political challenges in a monthly comic book and through daily radio spots. The project gained popularity and 20,000 Kenyan youth now interact with the characters on Facebook.
Humanitarian and development players can learn a lot from private sector entities who are developing new technological solutions to address some the challenges faced when delivering aid. At the same time, we must keep in mind that while technology is part of the solution, it is not the solution in and of itself. It needs to be used in the right context, by the right people and for the right audience. Improving how we communicate will therefore require resources, training and commitment. My hope is that we continue to seek modern communication methods to provide more opportunities for learning, exchange and future collaborations for all audiences around the globe.
*Adeso and UNOCHA Eastern Africa jointly organized this one-day event, in partnership with the CDAC Network and Internews, and with financial support from BBC Media Action and Microsoft. Presentations and video from the event will be available on the Adeso website in the coming weeks, and in the meantime, have a look at this Storify.