How “informed” is consent?

“We feel that by taking all the information for smart card, UNHCR is going to give the list to Burmese government.” 

Male, 60, Camp 1W – Flying News #4, December 2018 

A young Rohingya refugee is sitting in a shelter in Cox’s Bazar. A hot cup of tea warms her hands as the monsoon rains continue to dampen the camps. She’s working as a Community Correspondent for Internews and with her are two older women, sharing what is on their mind that day. Some concerns are manageable and can be relieved by providing information about how to add a family member to a ration card or perhaps where to get more soap. Others are bigger, harder for our Community Correspondent to answer, “what will happen in the future? Is it safe to share our information with this UNHCR?.”  

It is this broad spectrum of questions, some straightforward, others more difficult, nebulous, and ambiguous that Internews’ Rumor Tracking teams deal with on a daily basis. Since its first rumor project during the Ebola Crisis in West-Africa in 2014, Internews has tracked rumors across the world, from Nepal after the earthquake in 2015, during the Mediterranean Refugee Response in Greece in 2016, in Haiti in 2017, and in South Sudan, Uganda, DRC, Puerto Rico, Myanmar and across all continents during the COVID-19 “infodemic.” 

When our Internews team was working in Cox’s Bazar in 2017-2018 (as part of a consortium with BBC Media Action and Translators Without Borders) – we rolled out our rumor tracking methodology to collect the most relevant rumors circulating among the Rohingya refugee population, respond to them with actionable information and share the community data with humanitarian agencies to inform their decision-making. 

Rumors in the traditional sense? Well, yes and no. Ever since our first rumor tracking project in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the idea was to start paying better attention to un-prompted, not always elegantly formulated questions, concerns, criticism and, indeed, misconceptions circulating within communities. With a lot of information falling outside of the feedback-mechanisms set up by service-providers themselves, important, unsolicited feedback and challenges for communities are often missed. Rumors (as in “unverified qualitative community data”) are important because they give us an unfiltered insight into the thoughts, feelings, fears, and priorities of a community. And while humanitarian agencies might have mechanisms to address questions that are directly related to their own services, “rumors” in the broader sense are harder to deal with, as they can often fall between the cracks of mandates, project indicators, clusters and sectors.  

And while Internews’ focus has been on misinformation and rumors, the underlying goal has always been to set up systems that provide an extra avenue for people in affected communities to set the agenda, influence decision-making and to ensure that the information they get in return is tailored to their needs. This is the reason why we refer to our rumor-tracking methodology as an “agenda-setting” methodology, rather than a “fact-checking”-methodology.  

So, when we were talking with people in the camps in Cox’s Bazar in 2018 and they shared their concerns about the data UNHCR was collecting, we used this as an opportunity to reach out to UNHCR to allow them to provide more information and create more transparency about their intentions, processes, and policies. The answer of UNHCR at the time, after explaining the practical use of the data? 
“The government of Bangladesh may share parts of the information collected with the Government of Myanmar ONLY with consent of the card holder, to establish the identity and right to return” 

Fast forward to 2021 and Human Rights Watch releases a report which claims “UN shared Rohingya data without informed consent” (full report here). The “rumor” or rather concern we had picked up within the community was clearly justified.  

This report results in a momentary spark of the older debate on what data humanitarian agencies should collect, the protocols that are in place to protect that data and the relationships between the UN and the governments it works with during a humanitarian crisis. (for instance this article in The New Humanitarian).  

What it also highlights, is the complexity of “consent” in a humanitarian setting. While this is an old concept and everyone in the humanitarian sector is aware of the complexities of it (in that you can’t really speak of consent, when people don’t really have a choice), something that might not always be taken fully into account is that “informed consent” benefits from having a community-wide conversation. Unfortunately, the increased efforts that are happening under the “community engagement and accountability” banner still do not ensure that this influences decision-making – pointing to “a need for stronger buy-in at senior leadership level” (as pointed out in the ODI article evaluating the Grand Bargain, five years after it was signed in Istanbul). One suggestion of the writers seems particularly relevant here, where they suggest that “Affected people themselves should be supported to understand their entitlements and the commitments humanitarians have made on their behalf, and to demand answers – publicly and embarrassingly if necessary – when these are not met.” 

The Rohingya were asking these questions three years ago. And Internews and other CEA-partners helped them to put it on the agenda. But as the ODI-article also points out: “right now, humanitarians remain heavily focused on participation as a means to improve their projects, not to truly share or hand over power.”  

If we are really serious about consent, and making sure it is, indeed, well-informed, we need to increase our communication efforts, to make sure that it goes beyond a tick-box exercise, between an over-worked aid-worker and someone who is not provided with a real choice.  We need to know that when the community puts something on the agenda, that it has a legitimate chance of being addressed.  
Communication is not just as an add-on to the work that humanitarians do, but it should be a commitment to become more transparent, willing to explain not just what has been done yesterday, but also what is being discussed today, with whom and what the impact might be tomorrow.  

The humanitarian sector also has to become more comfortable with the presence of third-party actors, including community-based organisations and local media. These organisations can contribute to organise the conversations that are happening within the affected communities, not as “implementing partners” of international agencies, but independently, and as such help amplify the concerns that are emerging within the community and hold the humanitarian actors to account. This should happen while it’s happening, and not 3 years later, so the people who are most affected by the decisions that are made, can at least be part of the debate.  

Internews will keep working with other agencies to make sure accountability is not just a box that can be ticked when a “common feedback mechanism” is in place, but help design a framework that articulates a commitment to be responsive to questions, regardless the channel through which they are being shared. And it will keep working within the platforms like Results Group 2 on Inclusion and Accountability of the Inter-agency Standing Committee to find ways to turn the commitments of the Grand Bargain into actions.  

Let’s also acknowledge that trust is more than reliance on what seems to be the only option available (more on the dynamics of ‘trust’ here) and allow local actors (including local media) to fully play their part in holding humanitarian actors (including local government) to account.  

And if the humanitarian sector is really serious about accountability and truly wants to #shiftthepower, it would be a good start to be as accommodating to concerns and questions articulated by the people they claim to serve, as they are to the requests for information coming from governments.