A team of media-development experts that has been working with radio stations in earthquake-damaged Haiti to provide critical information to people in need is, in the process, fundamentally improving the delivery of humanitarian aid, according to officials from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
On January 12, a 7.0 temblor struck near Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Within three days, Internews, an international media-development outfit with experience in crisis situations, dispatched a six-member team of communications experts to the island nation. Its goal was to help local news outlets, many of which had been crippled by the quake, deliver and receive crucial information about the emergency response and humanitarian relief efforts. One of the most interesting aspects of the team’s work was that it relied heavily on information provided by people affected by the quake in order to inform its broadcasts.
By January 21, Internews was producing and distributing, via CD, a daily radio program called Enfomasyon Nou Dwe Konnen—Creole for News You Can Use—to eleven local radio stations (the number has since grown to twenty-seven). The program provides information about water and food distribution points, public health advisories and services, openings in camps for people who’ve lost their homes, and tips on creating safe and reliable shelter. To ensure that Haitians could receive the broadcasts, Internews says that in its first month in Port-au-Prince it also distributed nearly 9,000 out of 55,000 wind-up radios provided by the U.S. military (the military was handing out the radios at food distributions whereas Internews distributed them through radio stations in order to reach people who were not attending the former, “and also to reinforce the position of stations within their communities.”)
In late February, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) rewarded Internews’s efforts with a $750,000 grant – a large chunk of the roughly $2 million Internews has raised for its efforts in Haiti (although the group’s principal funder in recent months has been the Office of Transition Initiatives at USAID). It was the first time a media outreach and communications campaign had received money from a U.N.-administered emergency response fund (the grant came from a donor-funded pool).
Internews is not just shouldering its own work in Haiti, however. A few days after its team’s arrival in Port-au-Prince, Internews was asked to take the lead on a collaborative project it had helped found last year. The project was an informal working group called Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC), whose mission, as the wonky name implies, is to improve emergency response after natural disasters by spending more time listening to the people who need help. The group had just conducted its second meeting in December, a month before the quake. Haiti was CDAC’s first deployment, and Internews its first field commander.
Imogen Wall, a communications officer for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and chair of CDAC Haiti, said that her office realized that the lack of a deliberate effort to communicate with the victims of natural disasters was a “systemic gap” in past relief missions. “The opportunity was there [in Haiti] to address that,” she said.
Oliver Lacey-Hall, the chief communications officer for OCHA, and Wall’s boss, said that by connecting groups like Internews with the providers of humanitarian assistance, CDAC could fundamentally improve the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The News You Can Use radio program demonstrates how the two-way communications highway between affected communities and humanitarian groups works. When the U.N. World Food Program set up a voucher system to distribute rice and other staples, Internews explained what the vouchers were, how and where to get them, who was eligible, and so on. Once vouchers began circulating, Internews reported on what was working and what wasn’t. People wanted to know how long they would have to wait for vouchers, for instance, and when scam artists started faking them, Internews provided valuable information about what the fakes looked like and where they were turning up.
In an excellent video report about Internew’s work in Haiti for Time, independent film producer Natasha del Toro keenly observed that, “Running a radio station seems low on the list of priorities in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where thousands are homeless and hungry. But in a country where many news outlets have been destroyed, these radio broadcasts provide a vital source of information.”
“We are supplying information because information saves lives,” Yves Colon, a Haitian-born journalist who teaches at the University of Miami and has been working for Internews in Port-au-Prince since after the quake, told del Toro.