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.

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.”

Indeed, prior to the quake, Internews had helped to develop a network of forty-one community radio stations (covering approximately 85 percent of the territory outside Port-au-Prince), which raised awareness about issues such gender-based violence, children’s rights, and civic education. The rural network, called RAMAK, was not Internews’s first priority following the temblor in January, however. As soon as its team arrived, it made contact with Radio One, a station in Port-au-Prince, which was still broadcasting and had national reach, and Signal FM, one of the most popular stations in the city. Within a week, twenty-one FM stations in the capital – in addition to Voice of America and Radio France Internationale – were broadcasting News You Can Use.

Now that a little more than three months have passed since the earthquake, the team is beginning to assess the technical and infrastructure needs of stations inside and outside Port-au-Prince. It is also providing humanitarian reporting training to local journalists.

The daily New You Can Use program continues, with twenty-seven stations typically airing it four to six times a day. Originally distributed by hand via CD, the program is now available for downloading off Internews’s Web site and an FTP server. Internews has hired about a dozen Haitian journalists (whose own offices were destroyed or disabled by the quake). One of their first tasks was to conduct street surveys asking locals where they were getting their information and what information they needed, and they continue to report on the evolving recovery and relief effort.

With the start of the rainy season last month, OCHA, the Haitian government, and other relief organizations began the arduous process of registering 700,000 people now living in tent camps all over Port-au-Prince. The goal is to relocate (or at least warn) those at risk from flooding, waterborne disease, and other threats. Internews and other CDAC partners have played in integral role in that process. Radio, television, and text messages have stressed the importance of registering and Haitians could, in turn, text or call members of the humanitarian community with questions and complaints (when Internews set up a text- and call-based feedback system for its radio program soon after arrival it received 800 responses within the first twenty-four hours).

“We’ve been able to see that we’re having an impact,” said Mark Frohardt, Internews’s vice president for health and humanitarian media. “One of our reporters was passing through one of the camps once evening and saw a man living in a shelter outside of some destroyed homes. The man was taking down his tarpaulin, so our reporter asked him if he was moving. The man said, no, he’d heard that morning on the radio how he needed to retie his tarpaulin so that it wouldn’t cave in during the rains.”

Until now, the same Internews team has been handling both its own responsibilities and those related to CDAC, but with the grant from OCHA it expects to hire two to three more people and split off a group that will deal exclusively with the latter. Ultimately, both Internews and CDAC would like to turn their Haiti operations over to entirely local staffs. “It’s about recognizing that people are agents in their own recovery and that they need to make choices – informed choices,” Wall said. “I hope that we will come out of Haiti never having again to make the argument that information matters in a disaster response, and that we will be able to deploy this service, CDAC, again and that it will gradually become a mainstream part of the recovery and relief efforts.”

[Clarification: The text of this story was changed to reflect that the Office of Transition Initiatives at USAID has been been Internews’s primary funder in recent months, and to reflect that the 9,000 radios it distributed were part of 55,000 total that were provided by the U.S. military.]

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.