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! 



  1. Beneficiaries, victims vs right owners, actors

  2. this motivation help poor peoples a lot.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.