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A Lesson In Humanitarian Broadcasting

Communicating effectively with people affected by a crisis is one of the most important aspects of the humanitarian response. And yet it's also one of the most overlooked. At a recent workshop in London, WFP Senior Spokesperson Gregory Barrow got a crash course on how agencies like WFP can do a better job of providing the people they serve with accurate, useful and potentially even life-saving information.

“Don’t forget the snakes,” one of the trainers reminded us as we wound up the day’s session and went through the main lessons that we had learned over the previous few hours. The “Humanitarian Broadcasting” seminar, delivered by the CDAC (Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities) Network in London had given us a crash course in how to use media to deliver life-saving messages to communities caught up in natural disasters like floods or earthquakes.

Snakes were a theme that ran throughout the seminar as we grappled with the challenges of communicating with beneficiaries affected by monsoon flooding in Bangladesh as part of a series of simulated exercises. Snakes, as anyone who lives in Bangladesh knows, do not like water, and when the monsoon floods arrive, they tend to seek refuge in the same places as people: dry land, houses, mosques and schools. The end result is that people crowding into dry areas to shelter from the monsoon get bitten.

One lesson learnt during the CDAC seminar was that if humanitarian agencies had better lines of communication with disaster affected communities in Bangladesh, they would be quicker to recognise the threat from snakes, which are often the second most common cause of death after drowning during monsoon season. In monsoon season in Bangladesh, practical advice about how to avoid snakebites, or how to treat a person who has been bitten by a cobra might be just as useful as information about shelter, access to water, and food distributions. But because many agencies are not always listening to beneficiaries, they might not recognise the immediacy of this threat.

So what has the lesson about snakes got to do with the way an agency like WFP might design and implement its response to a big monsoon related disaster in a place like Bangladesh? The answer is that used in the right way, information can save lives. In the midst of a disaster, it is often the affected communities who have the deepest and most immediate knowledge about the greatest needs, and listening to their voices can help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the humanitarian response.

There are a number of ways that humanitarian agencies can open channels of communication to people who are caught up in a sudden onset emergency. Some 96 percent of the world’s population is expected to either own, or have access to a mobile device by the end of this year. This rapid proliferation of mobile phone usage means that localised SMS networks with feedback mechanisms for beneficiary communities can open up access to a rich mine of information about needs and response mechanisms.

Another approach is to establish a dedicated local radio network using a suitcase radio studio and transmitter, and linking this to wind up radios that can be strategically distributed to focal points among communities affected by a disaster. Regular broadcasts and updates about the humanitarian response, including radio content that gives the beneficiaries a voice over the airwaves, helps to assure those that are caught up in an emergency that help is at hand, and provide them with practical information about where and when food, medical assistance and shelter will be distributed.

The “Humanitarian Broadcasting” seminar in London focused primarily on the potential for cooperating with national and community radio broadcasters, television stations, and newspapers. By negotiating access to radio and TV audiences that will reach those affected by disasters, humanitarian agencies can share vital messages about relief programmes.

Participants in the seminar learnt that sometimes it can be challenging to persuade a local pop music radio station that is short of money to dedicate air time to public service messages about the humanitarian response to a national disaster. Radio stations might demand payment for air time or staff involved in dedicated humanitarian broadcasts. They may also feel that devoting time to humanitarian messages will lose audiences that are more familiar with music or entertainment programming.

Humanitarian agencies can try to bring a broadcaster on side by offering support in terms of content gathering, and ideas for innovative and dynamic programming such as competitions, quizzes and drama that can all be useful ways of conveying important information. If this is successful, then it is important to follow a number of basic rules:

•    Keep your messages simple and make them useful to the affected communities.
•    Explain what help is available, who is going to deliver it and where it is available.
•    Try to give beneficiaries a voice on the radio.
•    Listen to feedback from the audience and take action in response to their concerns.