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Strengthening Communication in the Central African Republic

One of the world’s least developed countries, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by a series of major challenges since its independence in 1960, including several coups, multiple armed rebellions, and frequent food insecurity. The most recent armed rebellion was launched on December 10, 2012 by an alliance of armed groups known as Seleka, whose primary grievance is President Francois Bozize’s failure to uphold the peace agreements that were brokered in 2007 and 2008 between rebel groups and the central government. Seleka’s forces have advanced to within 75 miles of the Central African Republic capital city of Bangui, and regional governments are urging peace talks to end the hostilities. An immediate agreement seems unlikely, however, as the rebels are calling for President Bozize to leave power immediately, a demand that he is currently rejecting outright.

Although often overshadowed by crises in neighboring South Sudan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the humanitarian needs in the CAR are ongoing and pressing. Historically, poor communication infrastructure has greatly hampered humanitarian agencies’ ability to respond to these crises in a timely and appropriate manner. With USIP support, Internews and the Bangui-based Association of Journalists for Human Rights (AJHR) undertook a project to improve the two-way information flow between communities and humanitarian agencies. Specifically, the project strengthened communication within a network of community radio stations and produced a daily e-newsletter for humanitarian agencies.

The stations that comprise the Network of Community Radio Stations are located across the CAR, some in very remote areas that are not regularly covered in national media. Through the USIP-funded project, the Internews and Association of Journalists for Human Rights project team were able to add four new radio stations to the Network (in Mbaiki, Paoua, Bambari, and Boali), bringing the total number of stations to 15. To facilitate communication between regions and with humanitarian organizations based in the capital, Association staff called each of the stations every morning to gather their daily updates. The team then worked throughout the day to produce stories, which were shared through a daily e-bulletin with all participating stations and with a recipient list that had grown to more than 500 by the conclusion of the project. Among the recipients of the e-bulletin are more than 30 U.N. agencies and INGOs operating in the CAR, including UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR, Mercy Corps, and the International Refugee Committee. Since some participating radio stations do not have internet access, the project team also made up to four audio productions per week and sent these to the radio stations via mobile phone technology. During the USIP grant period, the Association placed more than 6,500 calls and produced more than 950 stories on a variety of topics, including health and conflict.

This project improved communication flows in the CAR in two important ways. First, remote and previously unconnected regions of the country are now able to share and receive news from other parts of the country. Second, humanitarian agencies now have a reliable source of information on events around the country, and can plan responses accordingly. In September 2011, after an outbreak of ethnic violence in the northeastern part of the country, the Association used information gathered from the community stations to produce a series of stories explaining the violence and the resulting conditions on the ground. This information helped several U.N. agencies plan for the provision of food and shelter for the several thousand people who had been displaced by the conflict.

With support from staff at the community radio stations, the Association has also produced a series of stories on the psychological effects of abductions by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which are a continuing threat in the eastern part of the country. Moreover, one of the community radio stations, Radio Zereda in Obo, has been recognized as an essential source of information on the LRA and an important link to affected communities. Together with correspondents from Zemio, Mboki, and Rafai, Radio Zereda staff members have been invited by the coalition of American, Ugandan, South Sudanese, and Central African armed forces to attend regular meetings to get up-to-date information on the continued hunt for LRA leader Joseph Kony and his forces.

USIP’s grant to Internews and the Association of Journalists for Human Rights was made through the Communication for Peacebuilding Priority Grant Competition, which seeks to explore the ways that communication flows and communication technologies can contribute to violence or peacebuilding. As part of the grant-funded project, Internews and the Association provided Frontline SMS technology and related training to 11 of the community radio stations, which in turn solicited SMS contributions from their listeners. The SMS component of the project was first piloted with the Bambari and Obo stations, where it was implemented with a good deal of success, and was then offered to the nine additional stations. Although these nine stations did receive some useful contributions via SMS, the total use of the Frontline SMS system outside of Bambari and Obo was less than what was hoped, likely owing to illiteracy, lack of familiarity with technology, and suspicions around the SMS medium of communication. As the lead ‘learning organization’ of a cohort of USIP’s Communication for Peacebuilding grantees, Internews convened a two-day workshop with fellow grantees Radio La Benevolencija and the World Policy Institute to discuss key lessons that emerged from the three grants. The report from that workshop will be shared on USIP’s website in the coming weeks.