The Promise of Social Media for Humanitarian Action?

[Editor's Note: In its efforts to enrich professional dialogue on contemporary challenges of humanitarian law and policy, the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University invites experts in international humanitarian law, humanitarian action, and associated fields to contribute their insights to relevant discussions. HPCR is pleased to welcome the contribution below from Mr. Jason Cone, Communications Director at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). He will be one of the expert panelists at the 10 May 2012 Live Web Seminar on "Social Media as a Tool for Humanitarian Protection".]

Most international humanitarian aid agencies use the latest techniques in brand and market research – prompted-awareness surveys, name-recognition studies -- to neatly shape and refine their perceptions in societies where they are raising the bulk of their human and financial resources.

A tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources is devoted to reporting on activities in the field for the benefit of private and institutional donors far from the people living in the communities we are trying to assist. All of this is done in the pursuit of accountability, but very little information actually reaches the beneficiaries of our aid programs.

It’s not surprising that aid organizations – MSF included – have capitalized on the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to expand their capabilities to report on their operations, mobilize awareness campaigns, raise funds, and even apply pressure on governments. With fewer foreign bureaus, it is often much easier to send images from the field to expanding bases of followers on social networks than convince media outlets with dwindling resources to report on the health crisis in the Central African Republic.

Understanding How Humanitarian Aid is Perceived

Far less understood or exploited has been the uncertain promise of social media to facilitate communication with populations affected by humanitarian crises or improve the effectiveness of aid itself. In absence of effective communication, whatever the means, people are drawing their own conclusions about humanitarian aid providers. Recently, MSF co-published In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid with Humanitarian Outcomes and NYU's Center on International Cooperation. The book is a result of MSF’s attempt to better understand how our work and principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence -- as well as the notions of transparency and credibility -- are perceived by those who receive our emergency medical care.

The study – part of operational research aimed at improving our field practices – exposed important gaps in understanding among geographically and culturally diverse communities, ranging from Monrovia, Liberia to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. While most people recognize MSF’s medical nature, the project revealed that we have a ways to go to facilitate two-way communication with our beneficiaries.

To that end, perception is increasingly being integrated from the start of each project and the study has provoked changes in thinking in operations, medical, human resources, and communications departments. It remains to be seen whether social media can be a relevant tool in helping our field teams to close these gaps in understanding. What is clear, however, is that the issue of perception can have important implications for the security and effectiveness of our aid programs.

Social Media as a Means -- Not an Ends

One of the first struggles of figuring out how to leverage social media to improve communication with the populations receiving humanitarian aid is the basic step of knowing what platform or tool to use. It can be difficult to gauge the penetration of media – social or otherwise – in the regions where the greatest humanitarian needs exist today.

These gaps in information also pose a challenge in terms of making decisions about how much to invest in different forms of communication – whether new or old – to support programs on the ground. Practically speaking, time and resources are precious commodities for operations managers in the field and at headquarters who are busy mobilizing aid, managing hospitals or clinics, and analyzing evolving security situations.

Methodologies and techniques have been developed by groups such as Internews to assess information needs of target populations like Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, and the best way to deliver messages to these communities. The Internews-sponsored project infoasaid provides some simple diagnostic tools to assess information needs and has done some impressive assessments of many countries in terms of mobile phone and radio penetration and mapping of media outlets.

MSF is still far from incorporating access to information within the scope of our emergency assessments. It is clear this is an important and underappreciated aspect of meeting the needs of disaster-affected populations on top of the more tangible forms of assistance like medical care, water, food, and shelter. Understanding how people access information, though, is a critical precursor to defining any kind of effective communications strategy targeting the communities intended to benefit from our assistance.

Assessments like the one done by Internews in Dadaab found that they can pinpoint critical gaps in information that make a difference in aid effectiveness. Most new arrivals to the camp lacked even basic knowledge of how and where to register for aid, which led to delays in receiving assistance that had a major impact on the health of this already weakened population fleeing war. Radio was identified as the most important means of communications with social media barely registering in the Dadaab assessment.

Aid workers need to be platform agnostic and actively assess the most relevant means of reaching and communicating with the populations we are aiming to assist. The end goal should be effective assistance and not simply deploying the latest technology or emerging social media platform.

Open Not Always the Answer

The open nature of social media is not always an asset when operating in dangerous and politically charged contexts like Bahrain, Somalia, and Syria. Communication technologies -- more so than open social media networks per say -- have been utilized in increasingly operationally relevant ways to facilitate humanitarian aid.

Tools like Blackberry Messenger and Skype have played important roles in facilitating medical referral networks and supporting telemedicine efforts. Aid workers have been, albeit to a limited degree, savvy to exploit these tools to network and identify allies just as citizen journalists and activists have used other tools like YouTube and Twitter to exponentially increase their impact.

Setting the Bar – Improving Aid Effectiveness for People in Crisis

Much has been made of the power of open-source technologies and platforms to help humanitarian aid workers emerge from their technology slumber. These assumptions have largely been based on the emergence of volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) during the Haiti earthquake response and with some other notable and important initiatives like the community-driven mapping effort in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

In many respects, post-earthquake Haiti is more of an outlier than the norm for a humanitarian emergency. The disaster in Haiti was almost unprecedented – a massive earthquake in one of the poorest and most densely populated urban settings – where the challenge was less about identifying needs than scaling up aid. Like other first-responders in Port-au-Prince, MSF teams needed to only walk several meters outside the collapsed remains of one of our trauma hospital to find patients requiring emergency medical attention.

V&TCs offer a robust and committed group to support aid efforts. There were some important lifesaving collaborations between these groups and search and rescue teams. Geospatial mapping has also been leveraged by some MSF teams in the field as well. But an overflow of information and data can be as paralyzing as the absence of it when it comes to mobilizing an aid response. Legions of “crisis mappers” won’t be able to replace the need for more aid workers – or ideally national authorities -- operating on the ground to verify needs and formulate responses.

Right now most aid agencies – MSF included -- lack the human resources to build, monitor and analyze the kinds of data sets that can be produced from the convergence of social media and geospatial mapping programs. Paul Conneally of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has highlighted this critical gap.

But it is just one gap. Improved data collection and analysis – whether fueled by social media or not -- is far from the only missing link in a better international humanitarian aid system. A recent study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene touted the ability of twitter and other social media to detect the cholera outbreak before conventional epidemiological surveillance methods.

Ultimately, however, detection and information awareness was not the most significant problem during the cholera outbreak. Haitians received millions of text messages about the dangers of cholera but had little access to clean drinking water, sanitation services, oral rehydration points, or treatment centers for weeks after the start of the epidemic. More than a month after the outbreak had been declared in Haiti, it was the inability of the aid system to effectively mobilize the most fundamental and well-established cholera prevention and treatment measures and not the dearth of information or analysis that posed the greatest challenge.

At the end of the day, humanitarian aid workers will need to be on the ground assessing needs, dealing face-to-face with armed actors and community leaders, making hard choices about how much and what kinds of aid can be delivered in life-or-death situations.

In conflict zones and politically charged contexts, the same challenges of negotiating access, assessing security risks, and navigating difficult compromises to the fundamental principles of independent, impartial, and neutral aid will remain, regardless of the evolution of social media and technology.

Even the practice of simply “listening” to conversations -- let alone engaging in those conversations -- on sites like Twitter to glean an understanding of the perception of aid organizations is incredibly time intensive as MSF has learned through various Arab Spring revolutions.

While aid agencies may be slow to capitalize on the perceived potential of social media and emerging technology, this may not be as dire a state of affairs as some social media evangelists would profess it to be. We should strive to use all the tools at our disposal to provide better assistance victims of wars, epidemics, and other crises.

Ultimately, though, the usefulness of social media tools to humanitarian action should be judged on the basis of their impact in improving the quality, relevance, and effectiveness of aid – not the speed at which the tools themselves are adopted by the humanitarian community.