Whether by mass SMS campaigns or face-to-face conversation, getting information to beneficiaries can be critical to their survival. Technology offers new tools. But old questions remain: are they getting the message and how well do we listen?
Seated at her desk at the IFRC base camp in Port-au-Prince, Sharon Reader brings up a Google map of Haiti on her laptop computer. Scattered over the map are tiny blue markers representing cell phone towers. She selects a group with her cursor, then types a message in Creole and hits “send”. In less than an hour, nearly 24,000 people in the northern town of Port-de-Paix receive an SMS from the Haitian Red Cross Society reminding them to wash their hands thoroughly with soap to protect against cholera.
Ten minutes away in the camp known as La Piste, a Haitian woman with a cheerful smile and blonde braids, Nicolette Bernard, walks up to a woman washing laundry at the entrance to her tent. She introduces herself as a Haitian Red Cross hygiene promoter.
“What do you know about cholera?” Bernard asks the woman. As they start to chat, she reminds her of ways to protect her family from catching the disease.
These two very different communications tactics — one hi-tech, one face-to-face — not only share a common message, they are a critical part of the effort to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid through communication. By talking and listening to beneficiaries, the reasoning goes, aid organizations can target aid more effectively while giving the recipients a greater role in their own recovery.
“There’s a huge need to include beneficiary com-munications in any development plan,” says Leonard Doyle of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “You’ve got a million people who have been living in tents for a year. Does anybody know what they need, what they think, what their problems are? You need to include them in the conversation. Otherwise you’re blindly wandering around assuming you know the right answers.”
This basic idea of talking to victims is not new. It’s been around for as long as people have sought to help others in need. But the concept of beneficiary communications, as it’s now known, has taken on new dimensions in recent years after several major disasters — particularly the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — highlighted the need for improved warning systems and aid that better reflects people’s requirements on the ground.
In response, a number of international relief and development organizations and media agencies created a working group called Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities, which supports and encourages those working in the humanitarian sector to communicate with the people they’re aiming to help.
Now beneficiary communications, or ben comms, is part and parcel of many operations, from flood-ravaged Pakistan to famine-afflicted Mongolian herding communities. But the scale of the Haiti earthquake brought the Movement’s beneficiary communications efforts to a new level. For the first time, the IFRC hired a full-time ben comms delegate, while the British Red Cross and Canadian Red Cross both created similar jobs.
“Getting information is as important as getting water,” says Reader, the IFRC’s beneficiary communications delegate in Port-au-Prince. “When something bad happens we immediately turn on the radio or television. There’s a need to know what’s going on — where do I go, what do I do, how can I get help?”
From SMS to megaphones
Since the earthquake, Reader and her ben comms colleagues have dealt with shelter issues, disaster preparedness, gender-based violence, health and hygiene by using a combination of hi-tech and time-tested methods. They have sent out sound trucks, printed posters, produced radio shows, created telephone call-in lines, supported hygiene teams and transmitted millions of text messages to people’s cell phones.
Meanwhile, the use of SMS messages took on a new dimension. “A lot of people had started to use SMS technology but it was not efficient, it was a scattershot approach,” says Will Rogers, a communications specialist for the Irish Red Cross who had been developing cell phone messaging for campaigns in Indonesia.
Before making the trip to Port-au-Prince, he contacted Trilogy International, the parent company of one of Haiti’s phone suppliers and explained the IFRC and Haitian Red Cross Society’s needs. Trilogy’s developers put together a brand-new system that allows the IFRC and the National Society to zero in and send text messages to a specific geographic zone. For example, when a storm surge threatened the northern coast of Haiti last September, they could send a message to 50,000 people in the affected area without disturbing people in the rest of the country.
And unlike other services, recipients don’t have to be subscribers to the alert system to receive the SMS. Thanks to the ingenuity of some camp residents, sometimes people don’t even need phones. At one camp in Port-au-Prince, the camp committee president, Paul Jean Bélo, sends people out with megaphones to broadcast the content of each SMS throughout the camp.
But cell phones have their limits. Most of the cell phones owned by people in Haiti only receive messages of up to 140 characters. So some SMS instruct beneficiaries to dial a toll-free line for a menu option and a longer recorded message. During a campaign about gender-based violence, victims were instructed to call the number for a list of clinics they could go to for help.
When Hurricane Tomas was on its way, an SMS invited people to call for disaster preparedness information. The phone line was overwhelmed and while 310,000 calls got through, many others didn’t. Reader plans to address that problem with an upgrade of the line. At the same time, the response has convinced some sceptics that the text messages have an impact. “I myself didn’t think they would work so well,” says Periclès Jean-Baptiste, communications director of the Haitian Red Cross Society.
All told, the IFRC and the Haitian Red Cross delivered nearly 27 million text messages to 1.2 million Haitians in 2010. Trilogy has licensed the technology to the IFRC for free and is working with Rogers to convert the product into Urdu and adapt it to a mobile network system in Pakistan. In January 2011, the IFRC and Trilogy signed a licence agreement that will allow the IFRC to deploy the system globally.
The personal touch
But SMS is just one part of an overall strategy. When creating a beneficiary communications campaign, Reader starts with a particular issue then builds a plan of action around it, picking and choosing methods that work together and reinforce the message.
At the Annexe de la Mairie camp, for example, she anticipated problems when the IFRC and Haitian Red Cross only had enough available land to build 350 shelters for 900 families. Working closely with the shelter team, she headed off those problems with what she calls a “tailored solution”, putting up notice boards with posters explaining how the Red Cross conducted the selection process and who they considered the most vulnerable members of the community. She sent out a sound truck with the same message, so even those who couldn’t read would understand. And she advertised a call-in centre that people could telephone with questions. “We used communications to smooth the process and reduce the amount of frustration,” she says.
In Port-au-Prince, La Piste is a massive camp where 50,000 displaced people live in endless rows of dingy tents. This is one of the first places where cholera appeared in the capital, and there is a treatment centre on site. In early January, a number of empty beds served as proof that people were assimilating the message about how to avoid the disease.
Nonetheless, Haitian Red Cross hygiene promoters were continuing to pay visits to the tents every day. One volunteer, a young woman named Lovely, walked up to a woman cooking food in front of her tent. “Cholera is still here,” she told her, “so don’t forget to keep washing your hands and cooking your vegetables.”
“It’s so important to keep communicating the messages again and again,” says Amanda George, who is in charge of beneficiary communications for the British Red Cross. On Fridays, she often hires a sound truck to do a hygiene promotion road show throughout the camp. Big speakers blast Haitian music and messages while a couple of volunteers dressed like clowns sing, dance and talk to the crowd about hygiene.
“One of our drivers is a musician,” says George. “He composed a song about waste disposal. After he sang it once in the camps, the kids already knew the lyrics and were singing along.”
West of the capital in the seaside town of Léogâne, there are nearly 50 wooden kiosks scattered throughout the communities where the Canadian Red Cross is working. The National Society built them as information points, providing material such as lists of people whose houses have been assessed.
“The day after we put up the first one, a man came by and realized his name wasn’t on the list. He had fallen through the cracks,” says Louise Taylor, the Canadian Red Cross ben comms delegate. The kiosks also have letter boxes for residents’ comments, and posters with cartoon drawings explaining various issues, such as the system for distributing transitional shelters.
Face-to-face communication also helps aid workers pick up on and counteract potentially harmful rumours. At one point, Reader caught wind of a rumour that camp committee members were taking money in return for shelters. She immediately printed posters saying that Red Cross Red Crescent shelters were free and providing a number that people could call if they were ever asked for money.
Time to listen
All agree that the biggest challenge of beneficiary communications is making sure that those most in need also have their say. “It’s easy put information out,” says Reader. “What has taken more time to set up is how to get information back.”
To that end, Reader is now working on a small pilot project with a Haitian company called Noula that establishes a telephone line where residents of the Annexe de la Mairie camp can call and make shelter-related complaints. They can also ask questions to people on the other end, who respond using a list of standard questions and answers. When the respondents don’t have an answer, they pass the information on to the Red Cross, which can then follow up.
And then there’s radio. Every Wednesday at 15:00, the IFRC produces Radio Red Cross on Haiti’s Radio One network. It’s a call-in show, a fairly new concept here, with invited experts and a different theme every week. The radio show has been so popular that Reader plans to air the programme twice weekly. (The Pakistan Red Crescent Society has also launched an interactive weekly radio show and a 30-minute television show.)
One day this winter, two of Reader’s Haitian colleagues, Moralus Joseph and Johnson Hilaire, produced a show on cholera. They carried their laptops to a container office at the Red Cross base camp, plugged in a mixing board and a couple of microphones and a few minutes later, were on the air. Joseph asked his guests (a Haitian Red Cross doctor and a director from the National Society’s health department) various questions, Hilaire played a few pre-recorded spots and jingles (including a song about soap and water), then they opened up the phone lines.
The calls started slowly and picked up as the hour moved along. “How long will purified water stay clean?” one caller asked. “If I get cholera once, can I catch it again?” asked another. “If you have diarrhoea does that mean you have cholera?”
Some questions, such as “When is cholera going to leave?”, didn’t have an easy answer. But the programme allowed people to ask tough questions, to give voice to their fears and to feel like others out there were listening.
By Amy Serafin
Amy Serafin is a freelance journalist based in Paris.