Aidex Voices

In part two of our overview from HNPW 2020, we share key findings from ambassadors and academics about the various means of communication required to meet humanitarian needs.

Operationalising the participation revolution through government-led preparedness platforms

Localisation and participation

Discussing the overarching architecture of government led disaster responses, Geneva’s Ambassador for Fiji, Nazhat Khan highlighted the absolute necessity for strong ties between communities and the government when responding to disasters.

“In Fiji we have learnt as a country the way we communicate with communities had to change – talking to people not traditional leaders. This has had a transformative effect on Fiji as a nation.”

Following the devastating Cyclone Winston, a media unit was established to ensure rural women’s voices are heard. This is important, Khan says, because “if we are going to respond well to disasters, we need as broad spectrum as possible from community representatives of different groups.”

A communications cluster also ensures people are aware of a disaster as soon as it happens – a process that has also helped to improve inclusiveness and encourage ongoing discussions on climate change synergy with disaster risk management.

Importantly, Khan contends we must be willing to hear the stories from communities which are negative and don’t reflect how well we responded to the last crisis in order to improve future responses.

Trust and investment in local leadership

Australian Ambassador representing Geneva, Sally Mansfield made the case for systematic communication and localisation.

“The more local a response can be the more effective it is likely to be in helping the most vulnerable. Local information is more authentic” she explains, “so we must work to support those structures.”

Mansfield believes early engagement across all levels is necessary, and we must champion participation in policy engagement because strengthening engagement with crisis effected communities is critical to the outcome.

When investing in disaster management programmes, Mansfield advises prioritising the ones who uphold participation and accountability to encourage and empower partners to employ good practice, and also to ensure community engagement is embedded in the response to begin with.

She highlights the huge issue of “death by project”, where short timeframes from donors for projects make it difficult to implement thoughtful and sustainable programmes. The ambassador argues multiyear funders initiated by the Grand Bargain are key for flexibility.

Three ways to improve disaster response:

  • Fulfil the Grand Bargain by building trust with long term investments.
  • Work across all levels to find out what is most effective and build capacity of local level partners.
  • Evidence-based lessons-learned from previous crises and comprehensive data analysis.

Disaggregated data she said is critical to supporting women, and especially women with disabilities.

Mansfield also asserts the win-win argument for effective crisis responses. “If we don’t get it right the long-term, adverse effects afterwards mean there are good business reasons to get it right.”

Head of Disaster and Crisis at the IFRC Jono Anzalone agrees, remarking on how “we have a lot to learn from the private sector”, referencing businesses like AirBnB who implement models based on accountability and best practice using concrete methodology.

Traditional technology still has value

Whilst Anzalone champions AI tools like the IRC’s virtual information management group platform SIMS which helps resolve complex problems, he comments how a pluralistic approach to solutions is integral, because “some of the most basic technologies like a radio room in Bangladesh are still very relevant”.

“Don’t take away technology that is still useful,” he says.  

Top takeaways:

  • Communication is essential in delivering humanitarian outcomes.
  • Donors have a responsibility to finance this, support local communities and address their needs.
  • We need to learn from governments with strong leadership in this area.

Media influence on humanitarian donors  

Given the current needs-driven humanitarian finance system, it is necessary to understand how the media influences the body’s funding disaster response. Examining whether the media’s role is overplayed, academics Kate Wright, Martin Scott and Mel Bunce presented their findings so far.

Studies to date have exposed a correlation indicating that by covering some crises and not others, the media has the power to shape policymakers’ decisions through their influence on the audiences who influence them. However, cautious of the correlation between quality of coverage and quantity of aid, there is question of whether quantitative analysis is an accurate determinant.

Annual budget decision making vs emergency funding

The research so far suggests the media’s impact is dependent on where funding is coordinated. 80% of the annual budget is fixed and allocated once a year. Scott says in this instance, “the media appears to have virtually no influence over this decision, because donors are overwhelmingly influenced by humanitarian principles; scale, severity and unmet needs.”

These needs assessments are indicated by an evidence-based approach which considers data from the Global Humanitarian Overview, Humanitarian Response Plans, embassy analysis and the like. Geopolitics and diplomatic relations also play a major role in diluting pure humanitarian needs based decisions.

Public opinion is not a significant variable when it comes to making annual decisions for budget allocation because according to the findings, civil servants don’t think the public care enough about issues not directly related to their life.

“To conclude, the media is not used to assess need levels in different countries or in annual decision making for proxy of public opinion,” Scott states.

Where the media can seemingly have strong but indirect influence is emergency funding. During rapid-onset crises, parliament may be responsive to media. Some national aid departments like DFID for instance have considerations where media is written into policy. One of the conditions is: ‘are stories relating to the event appearing in the mainstream UK media?’ Individual ministers may also choose a stance which will reflect their personal positive profile. However, even in these cases the media is only one amongst other conditions.  

Director of the New Humanitarian, Hiba Aly reinforced the message that we should not let media drive-decision-making, saying “it should be one influencer amongst other evidence-based variables.” Although Aly does believe non-profit specialist media have a role to inform donors of humanitarian needs.

In consensus, Bunce remarks on how “specialist media acts as a knowledge broker to other specialists”.

The media at the end of the day has an accountability role, but journalists are taught simplistic values for capturing news agendas, such as novelty issues, change in status quo, news around well-known elites. “Unfortunately, these values are poorly suited for capturing people’s interests around humanitarian crises,” Bunce says.

Issuing advice for humanitarian communications professionals, Wright offered useful points of practice to capitalise on when trying to influence media and consequent funding for crises:

  • Have an opportunistic approach when there are:
  • Rapid-onset crises
  • Unspent reserve funds at end of year
  • Target ministerial visits
  • Employ long term strategic approaches if you want to promote aid by:
  • Targeting specific donors where aid is a political topic, there are receptive ministers, greater discretion
  • Focusing on mainstream news, national news in specific languages
  • Framing an issue in a way that creates urgency e.g. ‘four famines’

Advice for restricting media influence

  • Advocate good practice
  • Evidence-based allocation models
  • The Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative
  • CERF Central Emergency Response Fund
  • Training
  • Demonstrate how mainstream news coverage is not in line with public opinion
  • Educate journalists about Humanitarian Principles

The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs & Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator for UN OCHA Ursula Muller urged for continued humanitarian reporting, despite the shrinking space for journalists. Muller says it is imperative for the public to be aware of what and why they are happening, and “mainstream media is a vital plater in catalysing attention and response.”

Overall it was clear at the UN event in Geneva that our world’s future rests on how well we can respond chiefly to climate change and conflict; challenges that demand better collaboration and communication across all levels, ages and spaces. After all, a global struggle is one that requires a global effort.