Nepal | March 30, 2020

Modern humanitarian response: How communication can help

Surendra Pokharel

At the outset of a major disaster, relief agencies often rely on the media to get firsthand information, to provide humanitarian message and to inform the outside world of the disaster and its impact

Listening to news. Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

Listening to news. Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

Communication has been identified as one of the most important things the disaster affected population needs. Communication with the population affected by a disaster, such as earthquake, has increasingly received prominence in the world among the relief workers and organizations. The communication media plays an important role in communicating with the affected populations.

People affected by disaster seek information on the issues relevant to them, including the information related to their survival, and the media can feed their requirement during and after emergencies. It is important to note that international human rights instruments have recognized the importance of information acknowledging it as a fundamental human right. Information in these situations has the potential to save lives.

The development and growth of the information communication technologies (ICT) in the recent past has dramatically changed the scenario providing more opportunities for the individuals and organizations to share information and connect with one another. The use of the technologies, especially mobile phones and the internet, has helped the service providers to understand the needs and their own response.

Communications has always been important part of humanitarian response. However, in the past, communication with the affected population was not given much consideration, but the studies of the response efforts in more recent disasters have highlighted the need to communicate with the affected communities to make responses meaningful and effective.

Lack of communication with the affected communities to inform and address their immediate needs has often been the feature of emergency responses. Inadequacies of important information, as well as the inaccurate information, have not only intensified the suffering of the disaster affected population but also been the cause of the failure of emergency responses.

Communication with communities helps “to improve the quality of humanitarian response by maximizing the amount of accurate and timely information available to humanitarian responders and crisis-affected populations through enhanced communication between them in an emergency.” Humanitarian communications have always been an important feature of humanitarian response.

Media has the potential to influence the activities and the agencies that carry out activities through their presentation of the disasters. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, a joint evaluation of the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, formed in 2005 following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami concluded that much of the aid efforts by the international community did not correspond to the needs and capacities of actors in the affected countries. It asserted that the victims were often represented as “passive victims” waiting for aid to arrive.

Communication with affected communities is not only providing information or message to the affected communities, but also receiving information from the communities. It is essential for disaster affected communities to know where assistance and services are available. A well targeted systematic communication campaign should provide the communities with the information they seek and need.

On the other hand, information obtained from the affected communities helps the humanitarian agencies and responders to understand their requirements and assess their own campaigns. Feedback mechanisms established by the humanitarian agencies and/or media allow the affected communities to express their grievances.

At the outset of a major disaster, relief agencies often rely on the media to get firsthand information, to provide humanitarian message and to inform the outside world of the disaster and its impact. The media also helps these organizations to raise funds in order to respond to the disaster.

Domestic and localized media are often viewed as having the potential to save lives during emergencies. They do so by transmitting warnings about dangers or announcements about where to seek various kinds of assistance. Domestic media could be valuable sources of information about the affected communities.

They can play an important role in fighting rumors during or after disasters, the kind of rumors that made the life of the affected population in Nepal worse. Local media, especially radio stations, could provide valuable information about the affected communities’ needs during or after emergencies. The affected population wants to know the answer to myriad questions such as information about their loved ones, condition of the roads, availability of the shelters, medical facility in the nearby areas,and in case of an earthquake, also the intensity of the quake, the epicenter, etc.

It is important that future disaster management efforts of the Government of Nepal, including the mechanisms, take care of this relatively newly developed yet indispensable part of humanitarian response. It is important for the decision makers to understand why disaster management plans, programs and strategies of the States and humanitarian organizations increasingly tend to integrate this approach.

A version of this article appears in print on February 12, 2016 of The Himalayan Times.

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