Haiti and the Tyranny of Technology

How quickly we forget what has come before us. Is it because our technologies are so new or different that recommendations in the disaster literature don’t apply to us? The technology community repeatedly emphasized the unprecedented nature of the response in Haiti, particularly with respect to communication with disaster effected populations. Was is it really a complete departure? To a large extent yes, but were there really no guidelines available?

The challenges that materialized in the response to Haiti included:

  • Raising of expectations
  • Lack of formal complaints mechanism
  • Absence of downward accountability
  • Coordination and clarity of messaging

Guidelines to address these challenges do exist. I’ll draw on two documents that are both 4 years old. The first is my colleague Imogen Wall’s study “The Right to Know: The Challenge of Public Information and Accountability in Aceh and Sri Lanka”. The second is the Final Report of the Global Symposium+5.

Here are some of the main points to take home from Imogen’s 60-page study:

  • Many organizations are still paying for mistakes made in communicating with communities in the early days of the tsunami recovery effort, resulting in what many call the ‘broken promises’ phenomenon. The inherent problems of managing expectations were exacerbated by a widespread use of translators and jargon and the extreme levels of trauma experienced by beneficiaries.
  • Confusion about policies, an inability to report misuse of aid, ignorance about where to turn for assistance, cynicism and anger stemming from broken promises about aid, and mismanaged expectations were all noted in the 2004 Tsunami. But while cases of actual broken promises undoubtedly occurred, the majority of perceived broken promises actually seem to have resulted from communications problems.
  • Managing communications with communities is key to successful community-driven development. Knowledge is power: without information, communities cannot participate, make choices, or ask questions. Good communication is also about trust and partnership, and is thus at the heart of successful community partnerships.
  • Putting communities at the center of disaster response requires that adequate provision be made for community access to information about projects, channels through which they can ask questions, and mechanisms by which they can register dissatisfaction or complaints. Such efforts both supply information and create space for dialogue between communities and aid agencies, a two way information flow tht is beneficial to both parties. No accountability and transparency system is complete without a strong complaints mechanism. Complaints mechanisms have an important role in conflict mitigation at a community level and in the prevention of violence.
  • Donors must require downward accountability and communications strategies in projects they fund and by exploring ways in which they can receive feedback on projects from beneficiaries.
  • Until information is properly shared with beneficiaries, they will never be equal partners. And until they are provided with a voice and the ability to judge a project’s viability, organizations will never be able to claim that they enabled survivors to rebuild and move on to a as bright a future as possible.
  • Primarily, beneficiaries want practical information that explains what aid is available, what assistance they can expect, how to apply for it, when aid will arrive, why what they have received might differ from their neighbor, and what to do if they are not satisfied. They are not interested in materials that simply promote a particular organization. Secondly, they are very interested in hearing how the aid effort is going, how money is being spent, what problems are being experienced elsewhere, and what solutions are being found.
  • Low-tech solutions are almost invariably better. A simple bulletin board can  do more to enhance transparency and accountability towards beneficiaries than any website. All IDP locations should be required to have a bulletin board, and aid organizations should be required to display basic project information and contact details.
  • Broadly speaking, the aim of public relations (PR) is to promote an organization; the aim of public information (PI) is to channel information to the relevant audiences. But most communications expertise within international aid organizations is geared toward public relations.
  • Aid organizations have a tendency to regard communication with beneficiaries as an optional extra rather than seeing information as a vital commodity and a humanitarian right, the key to empowerment, better relationships with beneficiaries and a more effective recovery effort. There has also been a failure to understand that information deprivation causes stress and exacerbates trauma.
  • Organizations should consider, where appropriate, incorporating some form of community-bsaed monitoring and evaluation systems into their projects.
  • Written community contracts between organizations and beneficiaries should be adopted wherever possible.
  • There will always be questions regarding how much information can or should be shared with beneficiaries. Communities should be the driver of how much information will be shared.
  • Always leave a contact name, number and address, ideally of the liaison person responsible for the community.
  • With text messaging, a simple, short message can be sent to a list of phone numbers simultaneously. And while it is easy to compile a list of phone numbers of key people in beneficiary communities, collating and managing wider lists of numbers and making them available to aid organizations could be undertaken by a body such as OCHA’s Humanitarian Information Centers.
  • SMS is a powerful medium that can be harnessed for otherwise very difficult tasks, such as providing information quickly that is available only at the last minute, such as times for aid deliveries or changes in a medical clinic’s arrival time in a certain area. The list of recipients can be easily tailored to include only those in a certain geographical area, enabling messages to be very precisely targetted.

The Final Report of the 2006 Symposium+5 event that I participated includes a review of lessons learned, best practices and recommendations on the topic of communicating with disaster affected communities. Here are the main points:

  • Programs designed to enhance two-way information-sharing and communication with affected populations are not mainstreamed into all phases of the humanitarian continuum or the UN cluster system. More needs to be done to financially support the establishment of these projects in the preparedness and early response phase.
  • Provide easily understandable information to affected communities to encourage and empower people to take action to build and strengthen their resilience. The information should be developed with affected populations, incorporate relevant traditional and indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage and be tailored to different target audiences through both media and non-media communication channels, taking into account cultural and social factors.
  • Provide funding and support to local media and journalistic organizations that have a role in providing information to affected populations in all phases, from preparedness, during response, and into recovery and reconstruction.

Yes, we have new integrated platforms that allow for 2-way communication with disaster affected populations in near real time. But do these new tools render the above lessons learned and recommendations obsolete? If not, then why did the technology community not draw on them to guide their work in Haiti?

Patrick Philippe Meier

10 responses to “Haiti and the Tyranny of Technology

  1. Why did the technology community not develop tools for two way rich communication with disaster affected populations?

    Because the current paradigm of communication via SMS atomizes information to the level of the individual. In a context where informal or formal organizations do not designate leadership over geographic space, then atomized communication is the best we can achieve, unless individuals can be trusted to represent and be accountable to the needs of their immediate social networks.

    What is needed is a way to strengthen community social structures in Haiti to the point where an individual or group of individuals can adequately represent it and be consistent and dependable contact points for information dissemination and solicitation, thus facilitating two-way communication between self-identified community groups and disaster-response organizations.

    We at REGIONAL are working with Digital Democracy to build on the copious informal indigenous community structures of Haiti as the basis for legitimizing communities as agents for autonomous redevelopment, and as active long-term participants (monitoring, reporting etc.) in larger-scale development efforts.

  2. Pingback: » What We’re Reading (and watching)

  3. Pingback: Tesat - ICT4Peace Foundation

  4. Pingback: Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s? « iRevolution

  5. I’ve always been fond of tech blogs… Found you from google search….. Thanks for such a great post! I liked your way of writing!

  6. Pingback: Calling 911: What Humanitarians Can Learn from 50 Years of Crowdsourcing | iRevolution

  7. Pingback: Finally, A Decision-Support Platform for SMS Use in Disaster Response | iRevolution

  8. Pingback: Finally, A Decision-Support Platform for SMS Use in Disaster Response | iRevolution

  9. Pingback: Launching: SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response | iRevolution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s