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Left in the dark: The unmet need for information in humanitarian response

Time (GMT +00) 12:30 14:00


Imogen Wall - Project Managers, BBC World Service Trust

Lisa Robinson - Project Managers, BBC World Service Trust

Mark Harvey - Director of Development, Internews Europe

Leigh Daynes - Head of Media and Public Affairs, British Red Cross

Koko Aung - Producer, BBC Burmese


James Darcy - Director of Humanitarian Programmes, ODI  

James Darcy (Chair)

1.      James Darcy welcomed the audience, introduced the speakers and said that the Humanitarian Practice Network – managed by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI – was pleased to host the launch of this excellent policy briefing by the BBC World Service Trust.

Imogen Wall

2.      Imogen Wall, a co-author of the paper, began by introducing the study and explaining how it came about. Recent evaluations of disaster responses, particularly Pakistan, Burma and the Indian Ocean tsunami, show the repeated failure of humanitarian agencies to address the information and communication needs of affected populations. In parallel, recent research illustrates the extent to which affected populations disasters prioritise information and communication needs immediately after a disaster (Mary Anderson’s listening project in Washington is an example).

3.      She emphasised a focus on ‘communications with affected populations’ rather than on standard public information or advocacy. The term aims to convey the idea that information should flow both ways and that it should be targeted not only at those immediately affected by disaster but at local governments, civil society networks and other institution who have information needs.

4.      This type of communication has benefits for local populations:

·         Access to emergency information can, in many instances, save lives. It should therefore be considered a humanitarian deliverable in its own right. Burma is an example where information communicated through basic channels helped many survive in the first critical weeks after cyclone Nargis hit, telling them how to purify water, treat minor ailments, identify serious medical problems and build basic shelters.

·         Information can also help people apply for and access compensation in the longer term.

5.      There is a general trend within development and humanitarian agencies to empower those affected by disasters and make them equal partners and architects of their own recovery. Communication is critical to delivering this since being informed and being empowered go hand in hand.

6.      There are considerable benefits for agencies to engage in this type of communication as well. Case studies reveal instances where the two way flow of information has allowed organisations to identify where there are gaps (lack of electricity, rotting tents) and has also yielded better working relationships with affected populations.

7.      Ms. Wall explained that the paper looks at what has been done to date and what can be done by the humanitarian community in the future in order to start addressing this need. She suggested that the issue should be mainstreamed and incorporated in every level of humanitarian response but also said that the following important questions need to be answered in order to move forward:

·         Where does communication with affected populations fit within the current architecture?

·         Whose responsibility should it be?

·         Who should lead this process?

·         What can be done within individual agencies?

8.      She concluded by mentioning the range of actors who are already doing work on this topic – such as the BBC World Service Trust, InterNews, and Reuter’s Alertnet – and stressed that these projects need sustained funding as well as collective will and political support. She also said that communications should not be seen as synonymous with media. There are a wide range of community channels which should utilised such as women’s networks, messages via mobile phones and bulletin boards.

Mark Harvey

9.      Mark Harvey spoke specifically about InterNews’ work in Pakistan in response to the 2005 earthquake. The level of disruption to local media was massive. Printing presses were destroyed and some local media staff were killed. Due to the fact that the information flow around the quake zone (particularly around Pakistan controlled Kashmir) was state controlled, 70% of the population were reliant on information via word of month. This essentially meant an information vacuum for almost 3.5 million people. Ironically, while international broadcasters where able to file their stories out, there was no information flow within the zone.

10.  InterNews’ response was to intensively lobby the country’s media regulator and persuade them to issue 8 emergency radio licenses. With DfID funding, an hourly radio show was then established to draw together and communicate information from international aid agencies, Pakistani organisations involved in the response, and affected populations. Importantly, information was translated, synthesised and fed back to agencies working on the ground. Local media were also trained up to report the recovery operation more effectively and a radio set distribution project was executed.

11.  The project had a major impact in terms of improving access to information; quashing potentially devastating rumours; spurring responses from government and provincial bodies; identifying corruption and misuse of aid; bridging the gap between the international operation and local communities; and providing a platform for the voices of affected populations.

12.  Mr. Harvey concluded by outlining some of InterNews’ key challenges in this operation:

·         The project had to be entirely self-supported as there was no money to fund these specific information-related activities.

·         Initial contact with the key humanitarian personnel was difficult due to the lack of an up-to-date roster.

·         The lack of stockpiled radiosets for use in disasters meant distribution was delayed by three months.

·         The reconstruction phase was complicated by the fact that donors centralised funds into a government relief agency who were apprehensive about working with InterNews. In fact, emergency broadcast licenses were revoked after 10 months.

Lisa Robinson and Koko Aung

13.  Lisa Robinson explained that the BBC World Service Trust is the international charity of the BBC and is externally funded. While BBC News reports about affected populations, the Trust provides information to and for them. The Trust’s humanitarian work focuses specifically on strengthening media infrastructure to allow countries to re-develop communication capacities in the face of disaster; and on providing life saving information for those who are affected.

14.  The Trust’s key challenges are similar to those of InterNews. They include:

·         Lack of standby funding making it very difficult to be on air instantly after a disaster.

·         Difficulty coordinatingwith aid agencies

·         Communicating the distinction between the Trust’s work and the more visible work of the BBC’s news section

15.  Koko Aung introduced himself as the lead producer of a Burmese Service project (co-sponsored by the BBC World Service Trust) called ‘Healthy today, stronger tomorrow’ and played a video which described the programme in more depth. When cyclone Nargis hit, the programme addressed the immediate information needs of affected people (i.e. where to go, where to get help). It then moved on to try to address medium term needs such as how to drain sea water from rice fields to allow for cultivation and what to survive on in the interim.

16.  Information for the daily show was provided by NGOs on the ground and donors. Burmese government bodies were also involved but were sceptical of the programme’s links with the BBC. Information was sent via short wave radio and a range of interactive activities were put in place using telephone, limited internet access and ‘snail’ mail.

Leigh Dawes

17.  Leigh Dawes began by highlighting the fact that in 2005 the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Society dedicated its annual world disasters report to the theme of information in emergencies. The report contains excellent independent analysis and case studies. He explained that he would give a perspective on communication with affected populations from a communication practitioner’s point of view.

18.  Communication is what allows international aid organisations to be accountable and transparent – both to beneficiaries and to donors. But there has been a failure to invest in creating a common communications culture – or reaching a common understanding of communications – that serve those audiences effectively. There are a number of reason for this:

·         In an effort to capture the donor pound, a lot of investment has been put into ‘professionalising’ fundraising using marketing or corporate-like methods. These have a tendency to be very aggressive and to set the communications agendas of many organisations whilst overlooking one of their most important audiences – those whom they are seeking to serve.

·         In not-for-profit sectors, communications has always been seen as something that is entirely secondary to the real work happening on the ground. This gives rise to the notion that it is not integral, creates missed opportunities and has the potential to generate unnecessary barriers. It also fails to see communications as a principled activity in its own right – as something that involves communicating about what we know, when it is right to do so and to the right audiences in order to affect change.

·         The mainstream media often dictates what the story should be which can make it difficult to find space that is dignified in which to tell the humanitarian story. Organisations like the BBC World Service Trust and Reuters Alertnet have sought to redress this balance and should be commended.

19.  Mr Dawes then outlined a number of possible ways forward:

·         Innovate: Communications campaigns do not need to be expensive. In fact, they can be cost effective if devised in the right way

·         Invest: aid agencies continue to sideline communications activities investing only a fraction of their large incomes.

·         Integrate: Make communications with affected populations something that belongs to the whole organisation and bring the professional communicators in to help.

The following issues/questions and responses arose in the floor discussion.

20.  Whether these communications activities can be measured effectively. Panellists said that assessing impact could, sometimes, be tricky but it has been possible in the projects they have worked on. In Pakistan, provincial officials were dismissed due to reports of aid diversion.In Myanmar, formal information assessments have shown clear shifts in reception patterns as a result of communications projects.In Sudan, UNICEF reported that vaccination rates doubled in a specific region as a result of radio announcement.

21.  How to communicate with affected populations in restricted or sensitive environments whilst not compromising the safety of implementing partners. Panellists acknowledged the difficulties of working in certain contexts – especially where media is state controlled. They were keen to stress, however, that communications is much broader than just media and that there are many ‘under the radar’ ways to get messages across including using civil society networks; drawing on in-country PR and marketing capacity; and harnessing the growing use of mobile technology. Profiling information consumption and access patterns in disaster prone countries (i.e. Bangladesh) could also be done beforehand to avoid complications. In many instances though working with government authorised groups is still essential.

22.  What type of technology to use in situations where electricity supplies have been badly affected. Innovative solutions such as wind up radios work well but, since there are not huge amounts stockpiled, procuring them can take weeks. Other ‘low tech’ solutions were discussed such as notice boards and SMS messaging.

23.  How best to coordinate with aid agencies to get accurate – and non-conflicting – information in contexts where many programmes are being run simultaneously. The panellists recognised that coordination is essential and spoke of the need to mainstream communications at all levels. They said that ensuring agency buy-in from the beginning could result in more cost effective and successful campaigns. Agencies must also be made aware of the importance of information from affected populations in helping to shape their programming.

24.  Next steps? Many ideas were shared including:

·         Incorporating relevant questions into existing needs assessment questionnaires such as ‘Is there a radio station standing?’, ‘Is it working?’, ‘What is needed to get it back on air?, ‘Do a large majority of the affected population have mobile phones?’, ‘Do they have radios?’. 

·         Linking similar communications initiatives – such as Reuter’s new Emergency News Agency – together and continuing to participate in events like these to share experience and build support.

·         Lobbying donors for appropriate funding for these important projects.



When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May of this year, it was weeks before a valiant local effort was reinforced by a massive international response. But one lifesaving commodity was able to get through from the outset: information. Dedicated radio broadcasts helped many to survive in those first critical weeks, telling them how to purify water, treat minor ailments, identify serious medical problems and build basic shelters. It confirmed the power of information to save lives and the vital importance of communicating with affected populations in a successful response to a natural disaster.

The humanitarian community consistently fails to understand or meet the information needs of affected populations. Why is this? And what has to change? At this Humanitarian Practice Network meeting, the BBC World Service Trust launched a new policy briefing that analyses the information needs of affected populations and shares examples of where these needs have been successfully addressed. Communication specialists from the BBC and Internews explained how broadcast media has been used to provide emergency 'lifeline' information, and seasoned humanitarian agencies outlined how other 'low tech' communication solutions, such as bulletin boards and newsletters, have also played a critical part. The meeting looked at how such responses can be mainstreamed and built into the architecture of a humanitarian response.