Publication Date
April 1, 2017

"There is broad agreement in the humanitarian sector, both at the practitioner and leadership level, that communication and community engagement contributes to greater effectiveness and value for money. Despite many organisations and governments committing to this, action to make this happen as part of preparedness and response is not undertaken systematically."

One of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network Strategic Aims for 2016-2021 is to strengthen collaboration to make community engagement in crisis efforts more effective. Prepared with support from the United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development (DFID)'s Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme, this policy paper outlines the potential role of collective platforms, services, and tools to support communication and community engagement in humanitarian preparedness and response. It describes benefits, gaps, and challenges in current approaches. It highlights existing frameworks and commitments and provides a brief overview of good practices. Finally, it offers recommendations to highlight and enable operationalisation of collective platforms, services, and tools.

There are various global frameworks and commitments with components specific to communication and community engagement; they are identified on page 8 of the report along with examples of donor requirements in relation to communication and community engagement. A range of partners are already involved in different intentional efforts to improve communication and community engagement, including the United Nations (UN), the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, international and national non-governmental organisations (I/NGOs), media networks, telecommunications and technology companies, civil society, and the private sector. Several examples and lessons learned are presented in the report. Some collective approaches to communication and community engagement been established in sudden onset disasters (e.g., Haiti earthquake/hurricane; the Philippines in Typhoon Bopha and Haiyan; Nepal earthquake); others in conflict (e.g., Yemen; Iraq; South Sudan); and, still others in readiness for smaller-scale cyclical disasters (e.g., 'Shongjog', the Multi-Stakeholder Platform for Communicating with Communities in Bangladesh). Each mechanism has different contextually-relevant goals and objectives. "There remains the need however, for further consideration as to how collective services can be structured and sustained in diverse contextual environments as well as throughout protracted crises (including those with regional and multi-country implications) and crises which receive limited funding and resources."

According to the paper, there has been limited lesson-sharing between response teams and a lack of systematic inclusion of collective approaches at the operational (inter-sector) and strategic (Humanitarian Country Team) levels, throughout the stages of the Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC). Reasons for this include: a lack of understanding of the added value of collective approaches (both for affected communities and implementing agencies); belief that collective models imply "additional and parallel structures"; and the need for specialised personnel - all at a perceived cost and complexity that is not appealing. Other reasons include: individual agency desire for data ownership; competing mandates; limited flexibility to adapt programming based on feedback; and potential protection concerns. "Furthermore, the use of different terminology creates misunderstanding and confusion within and between agencies and with affected populations. Key phrases used are accountability to affected populations (AAP); communicating with communities (CwC); community engagement and accountability (CEA); and communication and community engagement."

Despite these acknowledged challenges, there are clear benefits to collective models of collaborative action in the CDAC Network's eyes. These include: the potential for collective development and standardisation of tools; improved coordination and efficiencies; ability to have greater outreach and therefore increased understanding of trends and issues affecting populations; potential to reduce confusion, tensions, and conflict with and between communities through consistency of messaging; and stronger advocacy based on collective messages.

Different examples of good practice and lessons learned from multi-agency initiatives include: the establishment of collective platforms in a range of contexts; the establishment of preparedness activities; development of guidance; and use of standard formats and templates for gathering feedback. (See also Annex 3, which provides concrete examples of good practice in multi-stakeholder collective platforms at country level.) Key elements of collective communication and community engagement include:

  • A common and coordinated approach, so that affected communities are provided with timely, relevant and actionable information through the most relevant communication channel.
  • Use of the most respectful and appropriate approaches to listen to communities' needs, feedback, and complaints, ensuring they can actively participate and guide humanitarian action.
  • Ensuring that humanitarian actions and decision-making processes are informed by constructive engagement with affected communities throughout the humanitarian response cycle.

In reflecting on the critical role of information and communication technology (ICT) in enabling communication with and between affected populations in disasters, the CDAC Network notes: "It is vital that aid agencies recognise that technology continues to change rapidly and that developing global tools for today's disasters may mean that agencies are not prepared for tomorrow. Equally important is the need for humanitarian organisations to ensure that the use of technology in communication and community engagement is inclusive, supportive of local economies and does not perpetuate existing divisions - or create new ones."

As a whole, this paper makes the case that the establishment of collective approaches to communication and community engagement - at national and global levels - is required. At the national level, the shape and functions of mechanisms will vary but should undertake preparedness actions to ensure that response actors are well-placed to integrate communication and community engagement. They should be able to ensure the collection and analysis of feedback data in order to highlight trends that can inform activities. They should act as a service to existing and emerging humanitarian architecture, particularly those that support government-led and localised responses. They should never be considered a stand-alone sector. At the global level, a collective service would support national ones and would involve: gathering and disseminating good practice; developing standard materials for adaptation at country level; and providing guidance and advice.

Overall recommendations include:

  1. International humanitarian organisations should recognise and use existing local and national mechanisms for collective communication and community engagement mechanisms.
  2. All humanitarian actors should understand and analyse local communications contexts and stakeholders to prepare for or pre-position context-specific platforms at the national level with support through a global service until fully integrated into the humanitarian architecture.
  3. All NGO, UN, and Red Cross entities should integrate communication and community engagement throughout their organisational humanitarian programme cycle as well as in collaborative processes such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC) and Emergency Response Preparedness (ERP) Plans.
  4. All humanitarian actors should promote, operationalise, and strictly adhere to organisational and system-wide commitments and principles on quality and accountability.
  5. Donor agencies should meet their commitment to improved communication and community engagement through increased and flexible humanitarian financing.
  6. All humanitarian organisations should integrate collective actions on communication and community engagement into emergency preparedness.
  7. The CDAC Network should consolidate and disseminate good practice on communication and community engagement.
  8. Humanitarian organisations should include communications technologies and media actors in communication and community engagement fora both nationally and globally, including in key coordination or inter-agency initiatives in a response.

This paper supports CDAC Network's ongoing advocacy on collective approaches. It links closely to the "Communication and community engagement initiative", which has a multi-stakeholder steering group convened by CDAC Network and currently co-chaired by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). It is envisaged that the paper will be used as a key reference by the group as it tests a number of models for collective working across the globe.

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Posting from Martin Dawes to The Communication Initiative's Development Networks group Consultation: Global Mechanism for Communication, Media, Social and Behaviour Change, June 28 2017. Image caption: CDAC Network Earthquake Simulation Training Dhaka [Bangladesh]