In the days after Cyclone Nargis in Burma, survivor Kyaw Kyaw was desperate. His house had survived the cyclone – just. But what if more was coming? Kyaw needed to know. Desperately poor though he was, he and two other families scraped together US$5 – enough to purchase something they saw as vital after the disaster: a small transistor radio. "We don't spend a single day without listening to the weather report", he says.
In these days of saturation coverage when a major disaster hits, we are all familiar with what devastated populations need. Or rather, we think we are. Food. Water. Tarpaulins. Medical supplies, and expertise. All these things are critical. This list, however, has one critical omission: information.
It may sound trivial. But as everyone who has ever been caught in an emergency knows, the right information is crucial to being able to make the right decisions. What just happened to me? Which is the nearest open hospital? Is anyone coming to help, and what do I do till I get there? How can I find out what has happened to my family? Is it safe to stay indoors after an earthquake? We need information in order to act. And for people in remote areas of developing countries who may be cut off from help for up to two weeks – as was notoriously the case in Burma - if a disaster strikes, information is literally a life saving resource.
Knowing how to purify water safely, how to spot the early symptoms of diseases like cholera can be the difference between life and death. Using radio or mobile phones (especially text messaging) to deliver such information in the early hours and days of an emergency can make a massive difference. Through communications such as basic radio messages, it is possible to deliver crucial information even when nothing else is getting through. Kyaw was not alone in Burma: after the disaster, while the UN negotiated (Burma / Myanmar), thousands in the Delta were desperate for information: on basic health care, what was happening with the aid effort, where – if anywhere – they could get help. Fortunately, in this case, a dedicated 5 minute daily broadcast by the BBC World Service Trust in Burmese was airing within weeks, providing just such vital information. In future disasters, such services need to be at the heart of the response.
And this is not just an issue of one-way delivery of life-saving information, important though that is. In recent years, aid agencies have recognized that like it or not, they are going to have to get better at listening to local populations and involving them much more closely in planning, organizing and delivering aid.
New technology means that disaster affected populations are far more able to communicate with aid organizations to make their needs known. In the days after the Yogyakarta earthquake in Indonesia in 2006, for example, communities gathered lists of affected people and what they needed and posted them on websites. In Darfur, displaced people in camps use mobile phones to stay in touch with their home villages, using information received this way to make decisions about how they and their families move. As new technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, its potential for connecting aid organizations and affected populations in disasters grows ever greater.
As a disaster response moves from emergency into longer term recovery, these patterns – the need for information, the increasing ability of populations to demand it and the need for aid agencies to be better at responding – grow ever more acute. It is surprisingly easy to establish a project to help people get jobs – say, a job centre – and forget that if people don't know about it, they simply can't use the service. This also applies to decisions made by local governments who may not have the skills to communicate effectively with local populations – compensation packages, political decisions such as that made in Sri Lanka after the tsunami to restrict construction near the sea – all these cannot be accessed, contested or challenged by local people if they remain ignorant.
The good news for aid agencies is that better communication with local populations almost always results in better working relationships, better projects and ultimately better results. The idea that populations are capable, through new technology of gathering their own data and of analyzing their own needs, while not entirely unproblematic (disaster affected populates are as prone to exaggeration and political intrigue as any other group) actually represents a huge opportunity for all those seeking to alleviate suffering.
The improvement of communications and information is a key stage on the path to recognizing that disaster affected communities are and should be the architects of their own recovery, not merely passive recipients of international goodwill and money. The humanitarian world has made great strides in recent years in recognizing this. Making information a priority in a disaster is the key to making it a working reality.
A version of this piece was posted on OpenDemocracy as "After disaster: information for life" on October 26 2008. It is posted here, in the form above, with permission from the author.
Please also see the full report, from BBC World Service Trust, "Left in the dark: the unmet need for information in humanitarian response," and the related BBC WST Blog.