Humanitarian Information in Nepal — from Crisis to Agency

Along with the democratization of technology has come a new level of information overload, full of rumors and misinformation. Internews’ deep experience with local media and humanitarian communications offers ways to get people the information they need. Internews Senior Vice President Mark Frohardt explains.

In a humanitarian crisis, information is everything. From the moment the quake hit, the world for those in Nepal changed irrevocably. Survivors wanted to know what was happening with their family, their home, their neighborhood. The questions went on from there. Where is it safe? How, when and where can they get food, water and medical help? People are asking their neighbors, checking their mobile phones and social media, and turning on their radios, trying to track the situation and understand how to best make their way forward.

At the moment that the need for timely, hyper-local, trusted information is highest, the established networks are disrupted. Trust can begin to decay and things can begin to go downhill quickly. As the New York Times recently reported, there is a “widespread belief that the foreign assistance was plentiful and being hoarded by officials.” With people living in temporary shelters in the pouring rain and others fleeing the capital, rumors like this can quickly go from damaging to dangerous.

Double information jeopardy

In a heartbeat, the information needs of the affected population have doubled and their access to the information they need has dramatically decreased.

In the aftermath of an earthquake, there is an immediate dearth of information. The electricity may fail, and mobile phones and other means of connectivity may stop working. People are in shock and information on safety and resources is scarce. Then, the situation moves from a dearth to a glut as people fill the void with conflicting information, rumors and frustrations around unmet expectations. While social media and other ICT tools can provide critical assistance (for example, reuniting families), they can also amplify an information chaos and provide fertile ground for more confusion.

Into this pours the international humanitarian response, confronted with the challenge of coordinating multiple services in a chaotic situation. Dozens of organizations begin to send messages regarding their services through a variety of channels — SMS, radio, TV, print. If this information is not coordinated, it can serve to further confuse communities and complicate their already disrupted world with overlapping or conflicting messages. While these messages are critical to the relief effort, ensuring that communication is two-way and opens up a space for questions and dialogue is not a primary focus.

Four people in Nepal look at damage from the earthquake
A man looks inside his damaged house for leftover belongings after an earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal April 27, 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Listen first

Making sense of the inevitable information chaos in a crisis starts by listening to the affected population. It is critical to find out what information people need and what they are not getting. A parallel track of inquiry examines the local context, what we call the information ecosystem. This local ecosystem will have its own particular nuances, strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps most importantly, its areas of trust and influence.

For example, in Haiti a number of local radio stations survived the earthquake. In order to calm the disruptions taking place at local distribution points, one station put local musicians on air instead of government officials, knowing that these sources would resonate more with the local population. In other situations, we found that people did not trust the local radio station, but they did trust their local pastor. Even though he received his information from the same station, he verified and contextualized the information before he passed it on to the community. The pastor was a critical influencer in this situation.

Diagram of the Eight Critical Dimensions of Information Ecosystems
The information ecosystem model offers a powerful way to understand information flows in a community. Credit: Internews

Finally, we need to understand what people are doing with the information. We need to understand its impact. For this, we believe it is critical to set up feedback loops with local communities.

Community radio offers a powerful and relatively simple way to do this. By sending community broadcasts out with a number that people can text to, it is possible to see trends in questions and understand how people are responding to the information. This enables stations to respond quickly and deal with rumors and misinformation if their broadcasts are misunderstood. Areas of information saturation will become apparent, as will signs that things are getting better.

When people stop asking about food and health issues and start asking about education, you know things are looking up. “When can my kids go back to school?” is a wonderful question.

If journalists didn’t exist, we would have to invent them

In every community, it is critical to work with locals who know the community well, understand how it works, and have been sensitive to community concerns long before the crisis. What we have found, again and again, is that our partners — the local media — are often the best-placed to work with. As radio can reach the largest number of people, local radio journalists are often critical elements in crisis and recovery communications.

But these local media are often not equipped to report in a crisis, and may be unfamiliar with accessing and engaging the international community. In this context, we work with them to gather and share information on community needs to build a common understanding of the situation on the ground. We also connect them to the humanitarian community, so that they can begin facilitating a dialogue on how the assistance and recovery effort is, and should be, conducted. They become the bridge between the two sides.

As these journalists are often affected by the crisis as well, we support them to do their work without worrying about their families. This can be supplying them with batteries, extra phones, charging facilities, or extra stipends to pay friends to stand in distribution lines to collect aid while they work as journalists.

Nepal is considered a pioneer in the local FM radio movement, with the first FM station established in 1996. Since then, small radio stations have come up in the most remote villages, operating on interesting sustainability and community engagement models. Such a network affords tremendous opportunity in understanding and addressing humanitarian needs in even the most rural areas.

People line up to get food supplies
Local villagers sit next to relief supply at Gorkha, Nepal April 28, 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

From aid to agency

Although challenging during an emergency response, enabling a local population to have a say in critical aid decisions also increases its ability to be stronger and more resilient after the crisis. Our philosophy is to give communities the capacity to take the future in their own hands as soon as possible. In the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, there were valleys in the mountains where refugees had gathered that could not be reached by existing radio stations. In addition to bringing in radio equipment, we helped to create a Pakistani association of five emergency radio stations to reach those valleys. Long after the earthquake, those stations continued to operate and provided critical support to communities, including during the 2007–2008 internally displaced persons (IDP) crisis and the 2010 floods.

If communications in a crisis period are handled correctly, the nature of the dialogue between the humanitarian community and the affected population becomes more informed and constructive. It moves the affected population from passive recipients of aid to active participants in their own recovery.

By ensuring free flows of trusted, local and useful information, we can give communities agency. When we improve the capacity of local radio stations, we find that they naturally evolve from reporting about aid to reconstruction, and then to government accountability and larger political and social issues. It may be hard to think that far ahead when the country is still in crisis mode, but our experience shows that if we manage this stage correctly, the long term outcomes will lead to more resilient communities.

Internews currently has staff on the ground in Nepal conducting an information landscape and media assessment. Results of this assessment will be made widely available. Support Internews’ work through Global Giving.

Mark Frohardt has extensive humanitarian communications experience. For twenty years prior to joining Internews, he worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fred Cuny’s Intertect, and the Center for the Study of Societies in Crisis. Frohardt directs the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning.

Banner photo: People survey a site damaged by an earthquake, in Kathmandu, Nepal, April 25, 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS/Navesh Chitraka