Aidex Voices

Country Director for BBC Media Action in Bangladesh, Richard Lace, explains how community radio projects in the world's biggest refugee camp demonstrate the significance of implementing context-specific humanitarian responses through supporting local partners, and the power of effective communication.  

As Bangladesh braces itself for monsoon season, humanitarian organisations face a multitude of challenges in preventing further tragedy for Rohingya refugees living along the Cox’s Bazar district, which has rapidly become the world’s biggest refugee settlement.

Since August 2017, approximately 671,000 Rohingya people were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar to seek refuge from persecution. Many landed in overcrowded camps and makeshift settlements, where 300,000 refugees were already residing under tarpaulins on steep, sandy slopes. The high risk of landslides threatens to make roads impassable, trapping refugees in hazardous locations and blocking them from aid delivery and medical services. Gender-based violence, waterborne diseases like diarrhoea and skin disease also all pose a great danger to the population.

Local host communities who initially responded with tolerance are becoming increasingly hostile as legitimate concerns for their own livelihoods grow, regarding issues such as access to education for their children and job opportunities. For international NGOs, issues around security, data and trafficking are also prevalent, while everyday operation such as accessibility restrictions and a ‘coordination crisis’ between agencies, make aid delivery all the more challenging.

Despite being described as ‘the most urgent refugee emergency’ facing the world by UNHCR chief Fillipo Grandi, relief funding for the Rohingya crisis continues to wane, with no sign of Myanmar being safe enough or in an appropriate condition for Rohingya to return home anytime soon. The UN reports that only nine per cent of a $951 million joint agency response plan has been secured, with Cox’s Bazar specifically facing a shortfall of almost $151 million of the $182 million that was allocated.

Community watch group using diphtheria messages

Community watch group using diphtheria messages

Aid agencies have been working tirelessly to ensure many refugees are provided with basic amenities such as toilets, baby care, water and food. Although a notably significant improvement seen in the past five years within a humanitarian context has been around communication infrastructure. People have better access to communication now than ever before, according to Bangladesh Country Director for BBC Media Action, Richard Lace, whose organisation stresses the importance of responding to crises by improving access to life-saving information.

How communication is translating into aid

Communication as a form of aid is a growing consideration for international organisations using it as a means to enhance accountability through empowering community voices and improving the quality of data collation. A BBC Media Action project in partnership with UNICEF, is a good example of this. They support two local daily radio programmes in Cox’s Bazar camps and host communities. It serves to help Rohingya refugees stay safe and protect their health by providing them with both a voice and essential information.

Bangladesh Betar presenter and guest

Bangladesh Betar presenter and guest

Beggunor Lai, translating, ‘For Everyone’, broadcasts locally on Bangladesh’s state broadcaster, while Radio Naf acts as a community station and produces programmes such as Shishur Hashi for children, who make up over half of displaced peoples from Myanmar. Run by Bangladeshi broadcasters who have been trained by BBC Media Action over the past five years, the programmes give listeners regular updates on food distribution and vaccination access, while also creating spaces for discussions on topics such as what it means to get vaccinated. Hosting the shows in local dialect understood by both Rohingya and the host communities facilitates inclusivity, which can also help to ease tension between the two groups.

An evaluation report based on feedback between December 2017 and January 2018 identified highly positive community engagement, stating that, ‘listeners found the information provided by the programmes to be trustworthy, relevant and useful.’ Many reported using the hygiene, child protection and health advice and recommended the programmes to friends and family members, while also discussing the content with them and encouraging them to apply it. This in effect has helped to spread awareness around issues such as the link between handwashing and diarrhoea. Participants felt motivated to attend listener groups to engage with the programmes, as they felt the information shared was critical in keeping them and their families safe.

Briefing imams so they can brief their communities

Briefing imams so they can brief their communities

To overcome limitations of radio set access which was initially low, listener groups were set up in camps where media and other information sources were scarce. At least 250 facilitators were trained to provide the content based on the radio broadcasts and lead guided discussions. Although listenership was low, the study found that Rohingya refugee’s primary source of receiving and sharing information was through word of mouth.

Research finds most trusted channel is face-to-face

Lace says: “We have definitely found that the face-to-face methods are the ones that resonate most. We found that people trust this way of communication more than they do electronic channels. People are more comfortable and engaged in those settings because media access in Rakhine was very limited, making the discussion element the key to ensuring people get the right information they need, and getting their voices heard by everyone, especially service providers like the UN and NGOs.”

In the radio studio at Bangladesh Betar

In the radio studio at Bangladesh Betar

Using discussion to translate knowledge into action is proving integral to creating change. This could happen on a social network, but in Bangladesh at present, face-to-face is most impactful. By informing pregnant women about antenatal care and then giving them a space to discuss being pregnant with other women for example, you see positive behavioural changes. Utilising local capacity is essential, as the evaluation study shows that community leaders selected by camp coordinators, known as Majhis, are seen as critical informers of relief services, while doctors are most trusted with regards to delivering health advice.

Due to the nature of Rohingya dialect which is unwritten, combined with low literacy levels in general, it was necessary to produce materials that could inform and incite conversations by other means. In addition to radio programmes, BBC Media Action also worked with Action Against Hunger to scale information hubs which also sit within nutrition facilities with new technology like projectors and iPads to look at basic animations, short video, films and other media rich and interactive content, as a way of encouraging people to use them.

Although the mechanisms facilitating communication in a humanitarian context are notably improving and positively impacting behaviours particularly in regards to health, Lace asserts the need to standardise these practices and do more with the data coming out of those systems in order to achieve better feedback:

“Every agency is now saying voices of communities are a key feature in the decision-making process, which is heartening to see, as that has not always been the case. The intention is there, but more needs to be done to implement the practices”, Lace says.

How traditional technology is transforming sustainable development

Radio communication for Lace trumps other technologies in response to humanitarian crises for the foreseeable future, due to how straightforward it is to set up and disseminate information quickly. Radios are cost-effective and requires only one transmitter that can be put anywhere. Where mobile and internet does not work, radio can. Lace says radio does not have all of the answers as it is a predominantly one-way communication, but it can give people necessary information at the beginning of an emergency. Similar projects have been used in Nepal, Pakistan and in East Africa.

UNICEF information centre

UNICEF information centre

Programmes have in the past developed into something that fits the long term nature of a response, such as is the case in Nepal, which saw BBC Media Action’s show following the earthquake in 2015. This is only possible however through working with local partners. Investing in the local people enables them to acquire the skills needed to independently run the programmes once international organisations withdraw.

More than anything, it is vital to understand how context-specific humanitarian responses must be. In Lebanon and Jordan, BBC Media Action made much more use of mobile because Syrian refugees had better access to technology and were tech-literate. The Bangladeshi population has not got anywhere near as much access to smartphones, and connectivity is less advanced.

Learning about who your audience is lies at the heart of effective communication, as it indicates which channels are most appropriate. In Lace’s words, “it is about choosing the channel that is right for the people you are trying to serve.” Which is why the strength of local volunteers on the ground who are supported by national and international organisations, is precisely what makes these communication programmes so effective.

Photo credits: BBC Media Action