Pioneering better emergency communications in Haiti

Published: 19 October 2011 9:05 CET

An independent evaluation into the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) beneficiary communications programme in Haiti has shown just how critical information is to people in the aftermath of a disaster.

Of the thousands of Haitians interviewed, 74 per cent reported receiving information from the Red Cross. Of these, 96 per cent said the information was useful, 83 per cent reported taking action based on it and 73 per cent shared the information with somebody else.

Over the last 18 months the beneficiary communications programme has provided information on a wide variety of topics, from health, hygiene and cholera, to weather alerts and hurricane preparedness tips. It has also evolved and increased its focus on two-way communications as a way of giving Haitians a voice, ensuring their needs and opinions are represented in the recovery process.

The programme uses a variety of old and new technologies. For example a unique SMS system has been used to reach millions of mobile phone users, a weekly radio show broadcasts live to the nation, posters are used in camps, and a local call centre provides beneficiaries with a questions and complaints line.

The evaluation, carried out in June 2011, sought to understand what impact these activities were having on Haitians, as well as to get a general understanding of how people like to communicate.

While face-to-face communication was people’s preferred method, radio and SMS came a close second. In Haiti, the IFRC is pioneering the use of SMS to reach people with practical, simple messages, such as how to make home-made oral rehydration solution, or how to prepare your shelter when a hurricane is coming. People identified health and weather information as being most valuable to them, with many saying they weren’t getting this kind of information elsewhere.

Thanks to a partnership with Trilogy International Partners, who own the Voila network in Haiti, 50 million SMS messages have been sent since January 2010. A quarter of people interviewed reported receiving information from the Red Cross through their phone; 95 per cent found the information useful and 90 per cent reported that they changed some aspect in their life as a result of Red Cross information.

Allowing beneficiaries to ask questions about the services the Red Cross provide is critical, and a partnership with a local call centre lets water and sanitation and shelter recipients ask questions and log complaints. 85 per cent of people interviewed were happy with this service and appreciated the chance to ask questions.

However, only ten per cent of respondents had communicated back with the Red Cross and this is an area identified as needing more focus. Already measures are being taken to address this. The introduction of a new Interactive Voice Response (IVR) phone line in November will provide people with recorded information and a free and easy way to give their feedback, through surveys they can take part in by pressing buttons on their phone.

The lessons learned in Haiti, and highlighted in this evaluation, will have a global impact for the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Tools such as the SMS and the new IVR have the potential to be deployed in emergency situations. Haiti has changed the way the Movement communicates with its beneficiaries forever. The evaluation report was launched yesterday (Tuesday 18 October) in Haiti at an event brining together Government, UN and a number of NGOs.