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Communicating with beneficiaries – Haiti shares its lessons with Liberia

News and Press Release
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By Gennike Mayers, IFRC

On 21 March the Government of Guinea confirmed a suspected Viral Haemorrhagic fever outbreak that had been developing since early February as Ebola. As of 10 April there have been 66 laboratory confirmed cases of Ebola and outbreak response activities have been ramped up significantly in Guinea as well as neighbouring Liberia. Communities in all three countries are at risk and initial cases have already been detected in the Lofa county in Liberia, resulting in three deaths.

To date there have been 22 suspected cases, with 5 being lab confirmed so far.

It is in this high risk context that the Liberian Red Cross Society has appealed to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for intervention from the multi-disciplinary Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT) to support the mobilisation of its volunteers in five counties. Specialists in health, water and sanitation, logistics, psychosocial support and beneficiary communications are being deployed, the latter being sought from Haiti.

Among these specialties, psychosocial support and beneficiary communications are imperative in addressing fear and panic in the community. The Liberian Red Cross Society, with its extensive network of trained volunteers and good community connections established through their violence prevention and reconciliation work, will no doubt boost its beneficiary outreach capacity through the addition of innovative communications tools.

“Four years after the earthquake, Haiti is sending out its expertise in beneficiary communications to support a sister society in Liberia,” said Alexandre Claudon de Vernisy, Country Representative, IFRC in Haiti. “This expertise was acquired and developed in Haiti through the earthquake operation which benefitted from a significant deployment of Regional Disaster Response Teams from Africa. The deployment of a Haitian member of staff is highly symbolic. Haiti is now extending its hands across the ocean to give back to Africa some of what it received.”

The Haiti earthquake operation marked the first time in the history of the Movement that beneficiary communications was established as a stand-alone department based on lessons learnt from the East-Asian Tsunami operation in 2004; the major lessons being that information is aid and the need to engage with communities on their terms. Since 2010, the Movement operation in Haiti has integrated communication with beneficiaries into all its programmes whether health, water and sanitation, relief, violence prevention or shelter to ensure that the humanitarian assistance provided corresponds to the real needs expressed by the population.

Beneficiary communications in Haiti evolved largely thanks to the evolving needs expressed by the population. Among them was the need to communicate with beneficiaries in the way that was most accessible to them, namely through radio broadcast, mobile SMS and most recently through an Interactive Voice Response system using mobile telephone technology. This has driven the IFRC to seek innovative partnerships with technology service providers such as Trilogy International Partners (Trilogy), Digicel, and Vocantas in order to communicate effectively with beneficiaries.

IFRC Beneficiary Communications Global Coordinator, Will Rogers said: “The lessons learnt in Haiti are now being applied globally. Such was the case in the 2011 Tsunami operation in Japan, in the response to Sri Lanka floods in 2012, in Cyclone Haiyan operation in the Philippines in 2013, the Aceh tsunami response in January this year and in the current response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa where aid workers need to be particularly cautious in their sensitization activities due to the high sanitary risk.

“In Haiti, we have developed technological tools that enable us to reach millions of people with life-saving messages. This technology has the potential to save not only the lives of our beneficiaries, but also to protect Red Cross volunteers from unnecessarily dangerous exposure in Guinea and Liberia.”

The overall coordination of the Ebola outbreak response is being handled by the Liberian Ministry of Health with strong guidance and support from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Red Cross representatives will be a key part of this taskforce.

Moralus Joseph, beneficiary communications senior officer at IFRC Haiti delegation said: “I am proud and happy to be part of the Red Cross team responding to this health crisis in Liberia. I joined the Red Cross Movement in 2010 just days after the earthquake. I have grown personally and professionally thanks to the Red Cross operations in Haiti and specifically in my work in beneficiary communications. My country received help from around the world when we were on our knees in 2010. Now it’s my chance to say thank you and give back some of what the world has given me and my country.”