Thursday, January 27, 2011

Putting Power into the Hands of People who Need it Most

I was lucky enough to be invited to TEDxGeneva to give a talk recently on the topic of using new technologies to better involve and engage people affected by disasters - a truly enjoyable experience for me - below is a sort of written summary of the main points of the presentation but if you prefer to see the presentation on YouTube and if you have 20mins to take a peep you can find it here. 

What's in a name? 
Head Down Eyes Open returns again to one of its favorite topics - or obsessions - the growing (and welcome) trend to harness the power of new technologies to improve the way we conduct humanitarian operations. And, the growing recognition that people affected by disasters and crises are not helpless victims but potential first line responders. They need to be treated not as objects of aid (mere beneficiaries benefiting from their benefactors) but as part of the team. They need to be what they are - the true owners of aid outcomes (more eloquently reasoned in a blog post from the wonderful Tales from the Hood).

One of the less welcome aspects of this development is the typically aid-wonk (of which I plead guilty) inclination to assign awkward nomenclature to perfectly straightforward activities. Thus, we have (the horrible) 'beneficiary communications' or (so long it's not even a descriptor anymore) 'communicating with disaster-affected populations' (or its cutesy acronym CDAC - that's see-dak folks). 

I'm increasingly leaning back towards my eighties education when we studied participatory video and dreamed about community outreach but also drawn to some terminology re-energized by social media such as engagement - which to me at least, is true to the essence of communication regardless of the technology. So, for the sake of simplicity let's call this wonderful new love affair between technology and aid - community engagement (this definition also allows for the continued and necessary inclusion of more traditional communication means such as radio, posters or even town hall meetings). Now I know there's nothing terribly original about this term and maybe that's why I like it. It has its roots in pure communication as well as in humanitarian (esp. public health) aims. And it stands a chance of being understood across a few generations. Sold?

Power (back) to the People
Anyway, community engagement, for me, is in essence about empowering people by strategically employing a range of readily accessible communication devices, technologies and channels to connect humanitarian programs with the people they are designed to support. It's another welcome symptom of the democratizing power of the social web. (Photo left from - he need's to be on the team!)

Community engagement must work right across the disaster environment from preparedness; early warning; disaster and post-disaster to monitoring, evaluation and so on. It has to also result in a greater quality and accountability of aid delivery and promote enhanced proximity, engagement and understanding between program managers and their clients (people in need).

Community engagement straddles the spectrum from (lo-tech) face-to-face communication to (hi-tech) SMS-based crowd sourcing. New innovations in social and mobile technologies are especially important factors that are driving the resurgence of interest in community engagement - why? Because they suddenly make it very cheap, easy, and possible - they even help us measure the value (donors are you listening?) They are taking away all previous 'excuses'. 

At its core, community engagement is a participatory approach that empowers communities by delivering potentially life-saving information into the hands of the people who need it most. Importantly, it is also about enabling disaster-affected populations to channel critical data about their situation and needs to aid agencies, thereby increasing the speed, relevance and effectiveness of aid. 

It's a truism that crucial information is often in the hands of aid agencies but remains unshared with those who need it most. Conversely, local populations often have critical knowledge at their finger tips but no way to share it for the greater good, or maybe even no clue about the value of the local knowledge that they possess. 

Community engagement therefore is about fostering and making systematic a genuine two-way communication flow and interaction that is as much about listening as disseminating. 

How might new technologies change disaster response?
The prevalence of new approaches that utilize, inter alia, SMS and Twitter; crisis mapping and crowd sourcing, raises a number of important questions for future disaster response and provides us with an important dilemma. 

In an evolving emergency (such as during the first days of Haiti) when data is scarce, but it is clear that the needs are both urgent and massive, how can aid agencies organize themselves to respond to individual requests for help? Indeed, is it efficient for aid agencies to organize themselves to respond to individual calls for help when maybe they would be more effective focusing on the urgent 'known knowns'? (photo Reuters / Eduardo Munoz)

Future Challenges and Opportunities

Here is a summarized version of what we can consider the main challenges/opportunities ahead if we are to truly be more effective at humanitarian aid by using available technologies to ensure people affected by disasters are more involved - that they become genuine partners in their own recovery. There are many more 'internal' institutional-type challenges which I won't go into here. If you feel some crucial points are omitted or contest those mentioned do join the discussion.

Some of these points are taken/inspired from a recent UN Dispatch blog post on a great new initiative that I'm sure will quickly become the basis for providing best practice, guidance and support for the aid community and communities affected by crises. Exciting times.

Relevance: is information being received directly from people – which includes third party curators – relevant information that is actionable? Can we do something with the information or is it just wasting valuable time?

Privacy: much of the personal information gathered by aid workers in the course of their duties is personal and confidential information. In some contexts, more than we might imagine, such information needs to be treated with utmost sensitivity and confidentiality. Protocols on the handling of personal data gathered and disseminated by SMS technologies (for instance but others too) should be developed much in the way confidentiality is practiced by the time-tested protocols of the ICRC's Tracing Agency.

Verification: is the information accurate? Is it true? Is it a ruse? Could it create a security problem?

Duplication: are we the only ones who received the info? Is someone else dealing with it? Do we need (yet again) new coordintion mechanisms?

Access: do the people who own the aid outcomes i.e. the most vulnerable people, do they have access to the information channels created by new technologies, better use of SMS portals etc?

Expectations: Are we creating excessively high expectations which we will not be able to manage? That is, by gathering so much date and info from people are we contributing to a misperception that all these needs will be addressed?

Proximity: Mobile technologies and satellite communications are bringing everyone—humanitarian organizations, international institutions, volunteer technical communities, and the affected populations—ever closer together. More often than not, victims of disasters and conflicts have cell phones and can communicate via SMS in real time. 

Speed: As a result, information flows are accelerating, raising expectations around increasing the tempo of information management and coordination in emergency operations.

Duality: At the same time, the methods for data and information exchange are moving from document-based systems to flows of structured data via web services. This movement from the narration of ongoing events in long stretches of unstructured prose to streams of data in short, semi-structured formats require humanitarian staff to perform double duty. They are simultaneously working within an existing system based on the exchange of situation reports while filtering and analyzing high volumes of short reports arriving via SMS and web services.

Thanks for reading this far. A last word - there is nothing really new here except the momentum driven by new opportunities. But it's not about technologies only. It's about how we use them to really put power into the hands of the people whose destinies we (as aid workers) directly influence. Would love to hear your comments. Power to the People! 


Monday, January 24, 2011

Sudan: looking to a new future

Southern Sudan is voting for its future and is widely expected to usher in full independence from Khartoum, splitting the largest country in Africa and the Arab world in two. The referendum that guides this process is the culmination of years of peace talks and treaties – especially the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005 brokered chiefly by the UN and IGAD – that sought to end decades of violent and divisive conflict.

Whatever the final outcome of the referendum, expected to be announced between the 07th and 14th of February, the fact that it has happened at all is already a triumph for the Sudanese people. Many observers - including Head Down Eyes Open - feared the worst but thankfully the dominant, dire predictions of a return to war and violence have been largely disproved.

The mostly trouble-free lead up to the referendum did bring with it some unforeseen developments however, including a larger-than-expected movement of Southern Sudanese people from the north to the south which presented a range of logistical, health and humanitarian challenges. Masses of people decided to return for the referendum and will now possibly choose to remain to build the world’s newest country.

Returnees are reported to be still journeying south in a jubilant mood, sensing the historic era of a newly independent state, but with little else to sustain them. The end of voting is of course only the beginning. It is going to be a massive challenge to provide people returning to the South with the health and social assistance that they need, not to mention assisting them to secure ways of earning a living. The existing vulnerabilities of the local population also need to be factored in so a balanced support is provided that avoids triggering tensions between returnee and resident populations.

Strong Civil Society 
Our partners working with the Sudanese Red Crescent (est. 1956) are quiet possibly the only civil society organization that has remained unified and operational throughout the entire territory of Sudan, including in the Red Sea State in the east and the troubled region of Darfur. Continued partnership and support to this national society will be a top priority now and, we would argue, should also be for the international community.

When, as expected, independence is chosen by the electorate, the process of transition will start – a period of some six months. Special attention will be given not only to the process of forming a new state but a brand new national society which is poised to become the latest member to the Red Cross and Red Crescent global network of 186 national societies.

Any future national Red Cross society in an independent Southern Sudan will need to be fully resourced and supported as they will play a grassroots role in building stability, supporting communities as well as being a key contributer to peace-building south and north of any future borders. There will be enormous legal, logistical, resourcing and political challenges but an ‘amicable divorce’ is certainly achievable.

Caution instead of Complacency
Although indications at this stage are that we will not be facing a large-scale humanitarian emergency triggered by the referendum’s result, the situation remains fragile and unpredictable. This is Sudan after all - big country, big problems. Numerous unresolved issues between Sudan’s north and south – from citizenship to oil exploration - may lead to escalated crises or localized conflict, and violent tensions between some fifty tribal communities within Southern Sudan itself can also be easily exacerbated.

The people of Sudan are pointing the way forward. They have taken an incredibly difficult road to get to this juncture. The vital political milestone of the referendum has passed and this needs to be celebrated as a victory for peaceful dialog - of which, importantly, a regional organization (IGAD) played a major role. But it is only the start. We would be wrong to deceive ourselves into thinking that the toughest test is over – any complacency now would be a mistake. Let's hope, after the Jubalation calms down, that the world resolves to stick with Sudan - north and south - for the long haul.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Stepping Up a Gear in Haiti

One long year after the earthquake that has crippled Haiti humanitarian needs are still urgent and the road to recovery is strewn with rubble. Even the most seasoned aid workers I know have never witnessed a disaster as daunting as the Haiti earthquake. 

The Red Cross boss on the ground, Marcel Fortier, said in an interview with the BBC that in more than thirty years working in disaster zones all over the world he had never witnessed anything of similar complexity or magnitude - and this from a man who played a key role during five years operation for Tsunami relief and recovery. 

The most immediate challenges start with the sheer scale of urgent needs where basically the entire country is in need of some form of assistance and the central authority has been seriously weakened. The earthquake brought the Haitian government to its knees in an instant, and it has understandably struggled after 20 per cent of its workforce was wiped out and almost all its buildings reduced to rubble.

Early on, we in the Red Cross Red Crescent identified sanitation as the number one threat to life in Haiti and set about tackling this as our overriding priority. In the absence of fully functioning national agencies, we continue to lead a metropolitan-wide response that is vast in magnitude and provides access to sanitation services and clean water to more than half a million people every single day.

And yet, the spectre of cholera still hangs over the people of Haiti. The outbreak was born largely as a result of the country’s almost entirely collapsed infrastructure. By all accounts, it is clear that our collective efforts are not enough - an opinion voiced forcefully by our colleagues from MSF. By the standards of other major disasters and crises, it is a flashing indicator about the limitations of the humanitarian system.

Not for the first time, we call attention to the fact that this is a situation which is neither acceptable nor sustainable. Aid agencies are stretched beyond capacity and are not designed to be a substitute for municipalities or national governments.

The Haitian authorities must receive the funding that has been pledged to them and all the support required to rebuild their capacity to provide, as a priority, the basic sanitation services that the Haitian population so desperately needs and deserves. 

As if predatory cholera was not enough, more than a million people in Haiti, especially the residents of Port-au-Prince, have had to endure an extremely difficult year living in makeshift shelters in dangerous camps. The challenges of finding real shelter solutions have been numerous and are mostly linked to the fact that shelter is not just about structures. Shelter encompasses important legal, economic and social aspects that must be fully taken into consideration in close collaboration with the local community.

The rather tricky and often grey area of land tenure has been particularly testing in Haiti where an informal system of property rights is mostly based on verbal contract. Even when tenure issues are resolved, the availability of adequate parcels of land is rare. Sourcing sites to rebuild that are acceptable to the community – especially finding sites with access to economic opportunities, schools and healthcare – is also a major challenge, which means many people opt to stay in or around the rubble-strewn streets of the capital city.

Rubble removal itself is a colossal and all-too-visible physical obstacle – one which humanitarians are ill-equipped to deal with effectively. Essentially, we’re trying to rebuild on a mess – to repair a tyre on a moving vehicle.

Everyone needs to step up a gear. The next Haitian government must appoint a single minister responsible for rehousing and designate a single agency to lead the process. It should decide what to do about the legal uncertainty over land tenure. And, if land is needed for temporary homes and available in or near neighbourhoods being reconstructed, it must be willing to step in and buy it at a fair market price, perhaps with assistance from donors. 

Wealthy landowners must play a more collaborative role to resolve the stalemate and not wait for windfalls as their compatriots suffer. 

The humanitarian community itself must do more to collectively influence the pace and effectiveness of the response. We have not done enough to tackle and resolve the most significant obstacles such as land and shelter.

Together, we must commit to ‘build back better’ and enforce standards in reconstruction.

Despite all the significant challenges, we cannot lose sight of the huge amount that has been achieved. The generous billions donated by ordinary people and communities the world over have been, and continue to be, critical in providing life-saving care and support, restoring livelihoods and delivering numerous other humanitarian services to the people of Haiti.

We understand only too well what needs to be done – the need to overcome seriously complicating factors such as political turmoil, cholera, floods and hurricanes. The recovery process will take years, perhaps even a generation, but it is our best chance to turn Haiti’s fortunes around.

One year on, we mourn in solidarity with the people of Haiti. It is only by working closely with the Haitian people and genuinely engaging them as real partners in their own recovery that we can be sure to pave the road to a better future.