(This story was originally posted on Medium.)
When the earthquake hit on April 25th last year, my aunt, like most people in Kathmandu, camped out in the open for days. While thousands of people lost their lives and many more lost their homes, my family were shaken but fortunately unscathed.
When asked how she coped during those first days my aunt said she was scared but lucky that neighbors came together and supported each other. They pitched a communal tent, took turns to cook food, and tried to occupy their children with music and games.
Still camped outside, she heard a rumor that the zoo had collapsed and the animals had escaped, including a tiger. Her house is only a couple of kilometers away from the zoo and when her youngest son, who is only six, heard this he wanted to return home. With large cracks on the kitchen wall and frequent aftershocks, she knew it wasn’t safe to go inside. The rumor compounded stress and fear on her already traumatized and scared family.
Trusted Information is an Immediate Need
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, even small rumors can create unnecessary stress or worse, be a matter of life and death. The need for timely and factual information is acute. In Nepal, Internews conducted needs assessments in Chautara and Sindhupalchowk immediately after the earthquake and found that people didn’t have clear information about whom to turn to for support.
Despite numerous organizations’ visible presence in the community, the planning, discussions and operations were often run from Kathmandu and those in the field were not always equipped with the latest information people were looking for. Many people felt that no one seemed to be able to provide any information that pertained to their life directly, for example: When will the distribution of tents begin in our area? Why are the relief trucks not stopping in our villages?
In this context Internews launched Open Mic Nepal to provide information people needed at the local level. The project was designed to enhance existing, centralized information channels, by listening to what people in the communities needed and then providing information locally through volunteers, local media and local officials. We found that the preferred channels of communication were local media and face-to-face communication. We worked with two partners, Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group, who had volunteers on the ground, to assist earthquake-affected communities access services.
Building on rumor projects in Gaza and Liberia, Internews worked with volunteers to not only provide information, but also capture rumors and concerns among the affected population. The Open Mic team then geo-located, analyzed, and reported on the most pressing or common concerns. We published the rumors and concerns alongside verified facts and answers in a weekly bulletin in both English and Nepali that was disseminated to volunteers, journalists and NGOs to help them provide updated and practical information to the communities they served.
Local radio stations used the information from the Open Mic bulletin for story ideas and to produce in-depth reporting. Eighteen community radio stations used Open Mic content in their programs, as well as the national broadcaster Radio Nepal.
Some community radio stations, such as Radio Sindhu and Radio Gorkha, produced programs or segments focusing entirely on rumors and facts. These quickly became popular and both radio stations started receiving phone calls from listeners with questions of their own. The radios also verified and channeled relevant information back to their listeners, closing the feedback loop at the local level. Another radio, Radio Langtang, started producing a program in Tamang language following mentorship from Internews.
Tracking and Debunking Rumors
It’s always hard to find the source of a rumor, but after collecting hundreds of rumors, in the different Internews projects, one thing is clear: whenever something changes, or whenever there are different approaches for different people or when humanitarian agencies or the government do not properly explain changes, people will try to find the logic behind the decision, often connecting the wrong dots, between hope and reality.
Open Mic volunteers reported a rumor that the distribution of the temporary shelter grant was delayed in Dolakha because people had been issued white victim ID cards instead of red ones. There was also a rumor that if they had been issued a red card, they would have been eligible to travel abroad for work.
Open Mic contacted the local government department responsible for disbursement of the grant and verified that this was a rumor. The Department of Foreign Employment verified that the government had no special plans to assist earthquake-affected individuals to secure work abroad.
Internews provided this information to the Chief District Officer of Dolakha. He sent a memo to all of the village secretaries asking them to share this information among the community. A community radio station also produced a story confirming that the red card was not more “valuable” than the white.
A Product of Collaboration
Over the seven months since its launch, 33 issues of Open Mic were produced. On average, Open Mic Nepal issues are based on face-to-face conversations with an average of 376 people in a week in the 14 affected districts (12,418 people in total). The volunteers of Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group were crucial in gathering this information.
The weekly bulletin was distributed to more than 400 journalists and 1000 representatives from humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations. Humanitarian actors and organizations used it to inform their staff about government policies, demonstrating that it is not just communities that are lacking in authoritative information.
Some organizations used the bulletin in communications products of their own, such as Oxfam, which was producing an hour-long program in Radio Sindhu focused on serving the needs of the local community. Realizing the value of Open Mic and its community engagement model, Oxfam also provided funding to continue our work.
The information collected through Open Mic Nepal was shared with the Inter-Agency Common Feedback Project. More recently, the Housing Recovery and Reconstruction Platform and the National Reconstruction Authority have consulted the Open Mic bulletin to glean frequently asked questions about reconstruction from the community.
Why it Worked
By presenting the community’s concerns and questions in the same language and format we received as part of the information product, Open Mic Nepal continually put community at the center of its work and addressed their concerns and questions without judgment or filtering. The popularity of the question and answer format in the community radio stations shows that people need and want opportunities and platforms to ask questions and share their views.
The dynamic Open Mic model reinforced existing structures of accountability in both government and non-government by providing communities with contacts for relevant officials and helped them navigate the system. This contrasts with many projects that create unsustainable parallel structures and weaken accountability.
Most importantly, Open Mic Nepal created a platform for people to share views and concerns while informing local media, governments and humanitarians of the needs of earthquake-affected communities. This means people can better access services and avoid the unnecessary stress created by rumors such as tigers on the loose.
Another reason why it works: even though people love to spread rumors, people also love a good night’s rest. In my aunt’s case, it turned out that although some of the walls at the zoo were damaged in the earthquake, no tigers or other animals had escaped.
Open Mic Nepal was conducted in partnership with Oxfam and with #quakehelpdesk, implemented by Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group. Support for Internews’ post-earthquake work in Nepal was provided by the The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., GlobalGiving, The Skoll Foundation, and Oxfam.