WDR 2005 - Chapter 1: Data or dialogue? The role of information in disasters

This year’s World Disasters Report considers the quality of communication between aid givers and receivers, and what impact this has on vulnerable people. The report examines how information is handled before, during and after disasters. It analyses thematic issues such as consulting with affected people, assessing needs, mapping risks and sharing information. And it looks at the role of both local and international media, and the impact of information and communication technology on humanitarian relief.

Information is a vital form of aid in itself – but this is not sufficiently recognized among humanitarian organizations. Disaster-affected people need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources. It may be the only form of disaster preparedness the most vulnerable can afford. Yet aid organizations focus mainly on gathering information for themselves and not enough on exchanging information with the people they aim to support.

Early warning of disasters is the most obvious way in which accurate, timely information can make the difference between life and death. In Cuba, for example, a high public awareness of disasters has ensured that death tolls from hurricanes are far lower than in neighbouring countries. Cubans understand the warnings issued by their meteorologists and relayed by the media. They know what to do and where to go. Vulnerable communities keep in close contact with government at all levels – unlike in Haiti which, undermined by political violence and deforestation, suffers many more disaster deaths.

Cuba’s success shows that scientific knowledge alone isn’t enough – information only becomes useful when it’s shared with people at risk. Those with the best information about the oncoming Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, for example, were scientists in the Pacific. But they were unable to communicate warnings to those people in the path of disaster.

After disaster has struck, emergency relief should be based on a thorough assessment of survivors’ needs and capacities. However, numerous evaluations have shown that agencies often base initial relief distributions on guesswork, without establishing accurate information on needs. The reasons for this include: competition between agencies, pressure from the media and donors, and the arrival of planeloads of relief items which need shifting into the field. As a result, the needs of some vulnerable groups can be missed. A key lesson from the tsunami is that agencies must find better ways of combining emergency response with rapid, participatory needs assessments.

Another lesson from past disasters – including the tsunami – is that poor coordination between agencies in the field leads to duplication of assessments. Less than a quarter of the 200 agencies present in Aceh a month after the tsunami had provided UN coordinators with activity reports. International agencies are bad at sharing information with themselves, let alone with disaster-affected people. But civil society in affected areas can lead the way. In south India, for example, local NGOs set up the Nagapattinam coordination cell to capture and convey information between 100 tsunami-affected villages and disaster agencies.

During disaster response, consultation and transparency are key principles governing relations between aid agencies and survivors. However, evaluators of the tsunami response in Aceh found no consistent consultation with beneficiaries. Relief workers were unsure what kinds of information should be shared, especially with traumatized populations. Communication was undermined by the perceived urgency of the response, high amounts of ‘unrestricted’ funds available, lack of strategic planning, the need to quickly stake claim to ‘operating niches’, and limited knowledge of how to consult local populations or why it was important.

Slow-onset disasters provide better opportunities for consultation. During Zimbabwe’s food shortages in 2003, Save the Children (UK) set up feedback committees through which children could express their views and influence aid distribution. The transparency this created proved vital in building trust between the agency and affected people.

As well as limitations in gathering feedback, aid agencies could do more to give information to affected populations – doing so can help meet survivors’ psychological needs. Some agencies helped people trace relatives and friends missing after the tsunami, using satellite phones. In Sri Lanka, the Belgian Red Cross explained the scientific causes of the tsunami to survivors, to help dispel their feeling that the disaster was a ‘punishment from god’. Local media can play a critical role in supplying survivors with vital information, but they received little outside help after the tsunami.

Radio in particular is a very accessible medium for poor people – especially women in their homes. Apart from radio’s uses to supply information after sudden onset disasters, skilfully produced radio dramas can be used to help reduce ongoing disaster risks. In Afghanistan, for example, a long-running BBC soap opera in local languages has been shown to change listeners’ attitudes and behaviour towards risks such as landmines and infectious diseases.

Turning to the role of international media, some aid workers blame journalists for not doing more to highlight the world’s ‘forgotten crises’. The tsunami dominated news headlines for weeks, leading to record public donations. Meanwhile chronic disasters caused by war, drought and disease attract little attention. However, few aid agencies have themselves focused on places and people in greatest need. Instead, they tend to follow the flow of media coverage and donor resources.

Evidence suggests the media are giving more coverage to disasters than in the past, but there is insufficient dialogue between humanitarians and journalists. As the translators of humanitarian need to the wider world, aid organizations could do far more to highlight neglected crises with donors, journalists and the public.

News journalism has been transformed by advances in digital technology and the Internet, but aid organizations risk being left behind. Information technology presents exciting new possibilities as a form of aid in itself. Early warning, disaster relief and risk reduction have all been revolutionised by the growing availability of mobile phones. After Gujarat’s 2001 earthquake, for example, the local women’s union SEWA distributed 200 handsets to its staff, enabling them to communicate without returning to headquarters. SEWA also used satellite TV to conduct video-conferences with its field staff and to broadcast public interviews with government officials.

The tsunami marked a turning point in the role of information technology in disasters. New forms of ‘people-to-people’ communication, including ‘blogging’, have shown their effectiveness. Aid agencies could make blogging sites more effective by providing their own information to bloggers as well as demanding more information from them about needs and responses. Agencies should sponsor wider access for vulnerable communities to such technology.

To conclude, the flow of information and communication between aid agencies and affected people during disasters remains very poor. Yet the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief specifically calls on agencies to involve local people in decision-making. And the Sphere Standards have effectively granted people a ‘right to information’. Meanwhile, as local NGOs increase in number and competence, they are demanding more consultation. Technology is putting more power into the hands of vulnerable people. Information is itself a form of power. Do international organizations use information to accumulate power for themselves or to empower others? Recommendations to improve communication between agencies and beneficiaries are as follows:

  • Recognize information alone as a form of disaster response;
  • Communicate the urgency of neglected crises to donors, journalists and the public;
  • Share information from disaster assessments;
  • Promote public auditing of disaster response;
  • Support better access to technology for vulnerable communities;
  • Build information-sharing partnerships with local government and civil society networks

Zimbabwean children claim right to reply

Jessica Pedzura, 17, lives in Mutorashanga, a Zimbabwean community afflicted by food shortages. In 2003, Save the Children UK (SCF) began distributing emergency food aid. When evaluating their work, SCF found that many in the community, including children, felt marginalized by the way the programme had been implemented. Recipients had not been adequately informed about their rights and responsibilities. Villagers were reluctant to dispute undeserving cases during community meetings, for fear of being victimized. Children complained that distribution points were too far away, the loads were too heavy and distributions took place during school hours.

So, in September 2003, SCF set up children’s feedback committees to channel complaints. Children were chosen to lead information collection and dissemination because they were principal beneficiaries and they could identify issues that adults were unwilling or unable to see.

Over eight months, 70 children collected invaluable feedback from their peers. Foster children said their guardians denied them rations or forced them to work long hours for a share of the aid. They complained of guardians selling off food to buy beer. The committees called for vigorous promotion of children’s rights within the community. According to Jessica, “Our community now knows a lot more about abuse and I believe awareness is now higher about the rights of children. I have not heard of ill treatment of foster children in Mutorashanga since the child feedback committees were established.”

Principal contributor to Chapter 1 was Tony Vaux, who worked with Oxfam for 27 years, including nine years as the organization’s global emergencies coordinator. He is now an independent consultant specializing in disaster response evaluation and conflict issues. This box was contributed by Chris McIvor, of Save the Children UK