The humanitarian community seems to agree. “We have a terribly fractured community that’s trying to keep itself together,” said Dimitry Léger, a Haitian-born communications officer for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in a phone interview from Haiti. “Information is as important as water.”
The UNFPA focuses on women’s health and security, and Léger praised CDAC and Internews for opening lines of communications between his group and women affected by the quake. “We cannot overstate the power of the media,” he said. “They played an important role in making people feel that they were not alone. And when I went to the camps people were aware of what the UNFPA was doing. Not only was that good for them, it was also good for me, because they were more willing to be open and talk to me about their concerns, whether that was rape, or pregnancy, or family planning.”
The News You Can Use radio program is not the only arrow in CDAC’s quiver, however. In addition to Internews and the U.N.’s humanitarian affairs office, CDAC Global’s steering committee includes the British Red Cross, BBC World Service Trust, Irish Red Cross, Save the Children Alliance, Thomson-Reuters Foundation, and International Media Support.
A number of those groups and their affiliates are also in Haiti helping with the relief effort. International Media Support, for instance, is helping local broadcasters deliver important information, and has provided a house in Port-au-Prince where journalists can work. Thomson-Reuters and others launched a text-messaging service for distributing information to mobile phones. The Red Cross set up an online family reunification service. CDAC assists and promotes such efforts, but also spends a lot of time making sure that various groups are working in concert.
“It’s about coordination,” said Wall, the OCHA communications officer. “Making sure information about a vaccine campaign is the same when it goes out on radio as on SMS, for example, so we’re not telling people three different things. I’ve seen it happen in past disasters.”
It was because of such frustrations that CDAC was formed. Wall, Lacey-Hall, and their colleagues in the humanitarian office began thinking about how to close the “communications gap” while working in Indonesia after the Indian Ocean tsunami laid waste to many islands and coastal areas in the region. “My original exposure to the problem came in Banda Aceh, spending too much time in [displaced persons’] camps where people had no idea what was going on and no idea how to find out what was going on,” Wall says. “And then I found out Internews was running the most fabulous program in Aceh, doing a daily radio show. The problem was, when I went to the humanitarian community and said, ‘People really need to know about this,’ there was very little interest in or understanding of these concepts.”
Four years later, Wall published a policy briefing for the BBC World Service Trust (an international charity and media development organization) called “Left in the dark – The unmet need for information in humanitarian responses,” in which she argued that the humanitarian system was “not equipped with either the capacity or the resources to begin tackling the challenge of providing [and receiving] information to those affected by crises.” What was needed was “a clear locus of responsibility for understanding the information needs of beneficiaries in emergencies, devising strategic responses to meeting them, and providing the focal point for implementing them…”
Wall quickly followed her own advice. After BBC World Service Trust’s launch party for the paper, she and group of colleagues were sitting around in a bar (“in true journalistic fashion,” she says) and decided that a policy paper was not enough. By the time the earthquake struck in Haiti, CDAC had formed its steering committee and forty other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had signed on as active participants supporting the group’s mission statement. Wall says that the group wouldn’t have been able to deploy to Haiti if it weren’t for the progressive work that many of the organizations had already done.
“The opportunity was there,” she says. “The NGOs – Internews and others – had been working very hard in the interim to build a system that could actually deliver. So, it wasn’t just a question of deciding to support new communications efforts. The system had to be there for us to support.”