Image: United Nations COVID-19 response

In times of disaster, the need to engage with affected communities to ensure useful, timely and accurate information is mutually shared is increasingly recognised as essential.

As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) describes it, community engagement “implies a more pro-active process that should sit with all responses programming, distinct from conventional public information and advocacy.”

Putting community engagement into practice, however, requires far more change in traditional humanitarian responses than many organisations expect, when most such organisations have established emergency responses that prioritise food, water, shelter, and safety. All of these are absolutely essential, but communication is still at the heart not only of making sure the right responses go to the communities who need them, but that the communities themselves are respected, empowered, and made more resilient.

Enabling communities to be seen and heard is what WACC is all about – not just in humanitarian crises but as a central requirement for sustainable development and community resilience.

This is why, in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, WACC has highlighted and supported the efforts of community media who reach often vulnerable and marginalised communities in languages and channels their audiences can use and trust. We have stories and examples of how creative and effective these media can be when supported to translate official information, tackle local rumours and misinformation, and apply health guidance to local customs.

In the Covid-19 response, which relies so much on accurate information, international organisations – from multilateral organisations to humanitarian agencies to international journalism networks –  have produced a huge amount of information, including well-meaning and well-designed posters in multiple (but not necessarily local) languages, polished public service announcements and long lists of factual information and sources for journalists.

Much of this is good – but when done without community engagement and leadership, the messages and the methods may not be as effective as they could be, and the sheer volume and variety of information makes it difficult to find what is most useful and relevant. As noted in a recent meeting of media practitioners, community media should be considered leaders in the response, not just channels for others’ messages.

WACC’s conviction and experience is mirrored in the CDAC (Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities) Network, of which WACC is a member. Their 2019 annual report articulates the ways in which their global alliance of many of the world’s biggest humanitarian and media development organisations are trying to put “the power in humanitarian action back in the hands of communities”.

As the report states simply, “We believe that, when communities have the information and the resources to make their own decisions, they have the capacity to find solutions to even the most challenging problems.”

As countries and organisations respond further to the pandemic – or move into the post-pandemic “new normal”, enabling communities to lead their development and contribute meaningfully to national and international debates must be part of the lessons learned.

Photo credit: United Nations COVID-19 response