Saturday, February 6, 2010

Messaging Millions in Haiti

In Haiti we are working hard to have a real two-way flow of information with people affected by the earthquake who are in need of support from aid agencies such as the Red Cross. This is part of a committment to ensure people are real partners in their own recovery. It is as much about quality and accountability of aid delivery as it is about open and transparent communication. If we are to avoid building back pre-existing vulnerabilities then the people who really matter need to be fully involved every step of the way. Joe Lowry reports from Port-au-Prince.

In Haiti the Red Cross and national mobile phone company ComCel have teamed up to take so-called beneficiary communications to a new level. For the next ten days more than a million ComCel subscribers per day will receive health, shelter and sanitation messages to reduce their exposure to epidemics (photo shows a man with a phone-charging business on the streets of Port-au-Prince).

“The threat of epidemics is very real, even in the current dry season,” says Dr. Richard Munz, head of the health team working in Haiti. “This initiative allows us to do with the push of a button what would normally take an army of volunteers several days to do.”

As a mass vaccination campaign is planned for the coming days, the first message “Haiti Red Cross says vaccination campaigns help prevent epidemics in the community; it is important to attend them” is timely. Future messages will concentrate on hygiene, sanitation and malaria prevention”.

“This brings community mobilisation to new dimension. It complements and perfectly reinforces more traditional methods like leafleting, using megaphones, town hall meetings, passing messages in the local market and so on, which has been the traditional Red Cross role,” says Munz.

ComCel, which had already donated 300 mobile phones to the aid operation, is pleased to be playing such a key role in the relief effort. “There was never any question of us charging for this service,” said Segun Solanke, CEO of ComCel. “This is to help the people of Haiti.”

What is known as the “SMS Blast campaign” is just part of an integrated strategy for communicating with disaster-affected communities which will form part of the plan of action. Irish Red Crosser Will Rogers is working closely with Haiti Red Cross to ensure the National Society can take full advantage of the latest technology.

“We’ve been planning this with Haiti Red Cross every step of the way”, says Will. “They were quick to get on board and are making some great suggestions. And the campaign is not stand-alone – we are already planning to use SMS blasts during the hurricane season as an early-warning device.”

Beneficiary communications should not just be seen as a way to communicate with affected people, it should be recognised as an essential service, one that we as humanitarians take to the next level.

Will and his media colleagues in Port-au-Prince are also working with InterNews and BBC Miami to broadcast interviews with Haiti Red Cross staff all across the country, and there are plans to widen the SMS initiative using other providers and to set up a Red Cross hotline (all free of charge of course).

“Down the road we could be using wi-fi in the temporary camps, doing our own radio programmes, TV, you name it. The technology is there and the Haitian Red Cross has shown they are keen to move.”

In the coming days and weeks the team will work with Haiti Red Cross to get a website up and running. The omens are good – the test Facebook page, which has no content yet, already has almost 1,500 fans.


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