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Q&A: Are humanitarian aid agencies approaching communications all wrong?

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A report from Internews finds that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh don't feel they have enough information to make good decisions and many say they are unable to communicate with aid providers.

BANGKOK — By continuing to treat communication as an afterthought, humanitarian aid agencies are failing to adequately pass on vital information to Rohingya refugees now dispersed in camps and informal settlements throughout Cox’s Bazar, according to a recent report from Internews. It is a problem hardly confined to the most recent refugee crisis, warned Internews Senior Director for Humanitarian Programs Anahi Ayala Iacucci, and one with global implications.

When a largely illiterate refugee population balloons from well over 200,000 to 1 million in three months, communication quickly becomes as crucial as it is challenging. And in Bangladesh, humanitarian aid groups are currently communicating with affected communities about services such as food distributions and vaccinations any way they can — through staff at physical hubs, pictorial messaging, and door-to-door visits with interpreters.

But more than three-quarters of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar feel they don’t have enough information to make good decisions, and almost two-thirds said they are unable to communicate with aid providers, according to Internews’ interviews with individual refugees and focus groups.

Aid groups 'desperate' to communicate effectively with 1 million Rohingya refugees

The current suite of ad hoc communications strategies in Cox's Bazar reflects an aid community unprepared for the rapid growth of a city-sized refugee camp. But communication challenges have also been compounded by the low literacy rate of the refugee population, the complexities of the Rohingya language, and a surge of aid groups unfamiliar with the local context.

The report paints a broader picture of a humanitarian sector that still treats communication as an afterthought — or relies on feedback channels preferred by the humanitarian community, rather than by the affected population. The lack of functional feedback mechanisms is one pain point in particular that Iacucci feels needs to be addressed immediately in order carry out projects that deliver for communities.

In the meantime, in the absence of trusted sources of accurate and consistent information, rumors and misinformation can fill in the gaps and exacerbate a crisis, leading people to make poor decisions or leaving them vulnerable to violence, trafficking, and radicalization — all issues that Iacucci feels are very valid concerns right now in Bangladesh.

Devex spoke with Iacucci about what she deems a more fundamental problem in the humanitarian community’s approach to communications — one that leaves room for propaganda and doesn’t answer to community members’ needs. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the biggest dangers of a lack of information or misinformation in Cox’s Bazar right now?

The biggest trend that we’ve seen there is that the lack of a place that provides meaningful targeted and verified information makes it a lot easier for people who have the intention of spreading a certain type of propaganda within the youth, especially in the Rohingya society, to actually provide them with alternative information. And one of the things that we've seen is a rise of fake news on social media that is specifically aiming at increasing the emotional impact of the ethnic cleansing that is happening in Myanmar. Some of the fake news that we have seen moving around on the Internet is specifically targeting Rohingya youth and providing them with an alternative to just sitting there and being passive receivers of this, and actually trying to instigate them to either become more radicalized or become more actively involved in the fight against the Myanmar government.

“[Communication] is a complex mechanism that needs to be overlaid on top of the overall humanitarian response. It’s not an add-on, it’s not a cherry on top of the cake, it’s the dough.” — Anahi Ayala Iacucci, senior director for humanitarian programs at Internews

That is for me a very big danger, and it’s a danger that’s a bit subtle. It all spills down to a much larger issue, which is the fundamental lack of trust for humanitarian organizations. Because, as you can imagine, if you arrive in a place and you expect to find some sort of relief and then everything gets complicated, you don't know where to go, you don’t know who to talk to, very few people speak your language, then you start becoming increasingly frustrated with the community that is supposed to serve you, which is the humanitarian community.

And one takeaway from the Internews report is that the majority of aid workers aren’t trusted or viewed as a good source of information. Where do you go from there? How do you start to change that?

We need to make sure that if we are not the ones providing information, someone else has that information to provide to them. You're not necessarily going to be able to build that confidence that will allow the community in the next six months to come to your humanitarian organization to ask for information. But what you can do is to make sure that you give that right information to the people that they already trust.

If they already trust the religious leaders and the friends and family members and the Mahzis [an elected leader in the community who represents up to 200 families], or whoever it is, then use them — but make sure you give them the right information so when they are asked questions by the community, they are able to provide that information in a good way.

What are some of the main reasons you would point to as to why information provision is so difficult in Cox’s Bazar specifically right now?

Well, I don't believe it's very difficult.

Really? That’s what I’m hearing from most everyone I’ve interviewed — that this context in particular is so much more difficult communication-wise than others?

I’ve seen some of the logistical issues around it, I personally do not think that this is particularly difficult. I just think that first of all, as usual, the humanitarian community is not ready for it. We don't have anyone that speaks their language.

For me, the point is there is no capacity on the ground, I mean you've been there, but I can tell you from what I've seen, the majority of people that do communication with communities in Cox’s Bazar have been hired on short-term consultancy contracts. They come in for two or three months, try to help organizations figure out what do to do, and then they leave. So first there is no investment from the humanitarian community into communication with communities. The investment that exists is sporadic and ad hoc: “Let’s hire a consultant for two, three months so they can help us figure it out,” but this is not how it works. This is a complex mechanism that needs to be overlaid on top of the overall humanitarian response. It’s not an add-on, it’s not a cherry on top of the cake, it’s the dough.

The report also touched on humanitarians not viewing refugees as information resources. Tell me more about feedback mechanisms — or lack of them — in the camps.

The emphasis that has been placed in the last year or six months on the fact that the humanitarian community wants to set up accountability systems for themselves — I don't think it’s working.

“A good feedback mechanism is one that involves the community in the design and in thinking through the process of implementing humanitarian assistance.”

The majority of the way these organization are building feedback mechanisms — and we've reviewed some of them — is that they put an information point in the camp, people walk in, and they ask: “Are you happy or not happy?” Yes or no. And that's the feedback mechanism, but that's not how it works. A truly “Communicating with Communities” feedback mechanism means that you discuss an issue with the community. That's how you get feedback. You discuss how its designed, how it’s built, what’s your intended outcome. And you have that open conversation with the community so the community has an ongoing dialogue with you.

And on the other side, you are not the one that should be evaluating if you're doing a good job or not. Right now, we are in discussion with BBC Media Action and Translators without Borders about setting up a common feedback mechanism, and if we manage to do it, it would be the first time where the organization doing a common feedback mechanism will not be the same organization that is providing services.

So collecting feedback should be in the form of group meetings, or community meetings?

It can be group meetings or community meetings, or it can also be individual surveys, but the problem is if you do individual feedback, you need to answer to every one of them. You can't just collect the feedback and then not answer. The most important thing is you need to act on the feedback. A good feedback mechanism is one that involves the community in the design and in thinking through the process of implementing humanitarian assistance.

And this mechanism that you and Translators without Borders and BBC Media Action are working on?

The whole idea is to look at the already existing feedback mechanism and revise them and teach a humanitarian organization how to make really true feedback loops. It's literally building the capacity of humanitarian organizations that are really spending money to set up information hubs or whatever it might be and really teach them: “OK you want to spend money and you want to put in resources, this is great.” Let us teach you how to actually do it properly rather than having a ticked box and saying, “Well you know I have an information hub in the camp, so I'm done with communication with communities.”

Then what?

And that's the other thing. If you get feedback from the community and you informed the community into your programs, then you need to have flexibility both on the budget side and on the programmatic side to adapt your programs to the feedback. So if you decide you're going to build seven schools and the community comes back and say we don't want seven schools we want three schools and four clinics, you need to have a mechanism to be able to go back to your donors and say actually we discussed this with the community and we think we should do three schools and two clinics … Then the donor needs to give you the flexibility to be able to do that right. So I think that until people really understand that communication with communities is supposed to have an impact on your program design and implementation, then it's going to be really hard for them to do it and they find it really difficult.

We also need people to be a lot more aware about all of the potential that they're missing here to make changes.