What a Feedback Loop Looks Like

When Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in October 2016, it was a devastating blow to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, still in recovery from the 2010 earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak. The areas hit were among the country’s most vulnerable, and overwhelmingly reliant on agriculture-related activities. More than one thousand people were killed, and the hurricane was responsible for an estimated $1.89 billion total damage.

There has been much written about the critical blunders made by the humanitarian actors in the 2010 earthquake response (‘The Big Truck That Went By’ by Jonathan M. Katz being a personal favorite), resulting in distrust and tension from Haitian communities. A lack of accountability was the loudest criticism, and it became apparent that ramping up two-way communication and feedback mechanisms needed to be a priority in future responses.

This time, everyone wanted to get it right. Coming off the heels of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, whose ‘Participation Revolution’ outlined a commitment to greater accountability to crisis-affected populations, the humanitarian community underscored a need for information and feedback to be integrated into emergency responses.

‘We’ve been waiting but no one has come back’

Despite these intentions, one month into the response, affected communities were sending clear messages to the humanitarian community. Survey fatigue was a prevalent theme within feedback we gathered: Haitians living in Matthew’s wake expressed their frustration as they observed humanitarian workers coming into their communities to conduct surveys with little return for them. Names were being taken for lists and there was no follow-up for aid delivery. People were tired of empty promises and it seemed to take a toll on the trust they had for humanitarian actors.

As one man in Jérémie told us: “There are a lot of different surveys that people are doing in the area, but no one ever comes with the results.”

Another man in the commune Les Irois echoed that sentiment: “People coming from organizations and the government came to see us, they talked to us, they took notes, and then they left. Since then, we’ve been waiting for them but no one has come back.”

Security concerns within aid distributions were highlighted as an issue, as was the fact that people living in remote areas did not have as much access to aid and services. People felt that in order to receive help, they would need to go to the nearest central town. “People on the outskirts don’t receive anything,” one woman in Les Irois said. “They have forgotten us.” Another woman in Jérémie — a larger town that was substantially affected by Matthew — noted, “Every day in Jérémie people receive metal sheets for their houses, pots to cook in, and food. People in remote areas receive nothing.”

Integrating communication into aid

One of the central ideas of ‘Communication with Communities’ (CwC) is that information — both its provision and collection — shouldn’t be a standalone activity; rather, it should be something that occurs continuously and is integrated into programming no matter the sector. Aid workers focused on health, nutrition, community and should all have a role in the ‘information ecosystem,’ as face-to-face communication is a widely trusted means to receive information and give their feedback.

Information was identified clearly as a great need from communities affected by the storm, who substantially prefer radio as a means to get information. Because of this, one of Internews’ first actions immediately post-Matthew was conducting an assessment to survey the damage incurred by local radio stations. In partnership with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, Internews was able to help get four radio stations in affected areas back on air.

Radio equipment inside a tent
A makeshift radio studio constructed in a tent, following Hurricane Matthew in Haiti.

Implementing a system that fostered continuous, two-way communication was the next step. Our aim was to react to information needs as they were expressed by affected communities, in their own words, and bring those concerns to humanitarians such that they could adapt their programming and interventions accordingly. While the approach seems straight-forward, this proved to be no small feat.

Setting up such a system takes coordination, capacity, and buy-in from the wider humanitarian community and local authorities. Because the affected areas were often hard to reach, and sometimes mired by security concerns, the feedback collection system we aimed to implement required partnerships with other agencies who had on-the-ground staff with strong relationships with affected communities.

Feedback was delivered to humanitarians and government authorities on a bi-weekly basis via Internews’ Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, an in-depth snapshot of what concerned affected communities the most, presented in a way such that the data could be as actionable as possible. Trends in feedback were highlighted by sector, always supplemented with analysis as well as voices from community members themselves.

A man stands by a easel in front of a classroom
Community liaison officer Wesly Jean training civil protection staff.

We were also able to address key information gaps by providing affected communities with critical or life-saving information. Through our rumor and concern-tracking outputs, Internews responded real information needs in a timely and relevant matter. We published a bi-weekly bulletin called “Sak di Sak Vre,” which means ‘what is said, what is true’ in Haitian Créole, that addressed rumors and concerns that were expressed by Haitian communities to Internews and partners.

Throughout the response, rumors and concerns from affected communities addressed subjects like the weather (“They say that there will be three days of strong rain and three days of darkness. The rivers will flood and will inundate the town,” said one woman from the Dame-Marie commune of the Grand-Anse); bureaucratic questions about documents lost in the storm; distribution of humanitarian aid; and health issues relating to cholera and other conditions.

Internews partnered with the popular Haitian blogging platform Ayibo Post, which has a wide readership not only in Haiti but also in the Haitian diaspora. Jeffrey Dumont, the website’s co-founder, led a team of multimedia journalists to produce high-quality short videos responding to rumors and concerns.

Internews also recorded a weekly radio program with Radio Ginen, which boasts 1.2 million listeners and is the only national radio station that reached hurricane-affected areas. Rumors and responses from Sak di Sak Vre were shared through popular WhatsApp networks and Facebook.

Closing the loop: Rumors, Water and Response

AquaTabs are a common brand of water-treatment tablets distributed to affected communities after the hurricane, and they were often mentioned in our feedback data, related to efforts to prevent cholera. People knew what they were for and why they should be using them. But, they weren’t always using them.

One man in Port Salut gave feedback to this effect, “People drink the water from the river. There are some who treat the water by adding an AquaTab. There are others who, despite the fact that they know they have to treat it, don’t.”

As the response continued, we received more rumors, concerns, and questions relating to AquaTabs. In another edition of Sak di Sak Vre, we included a rumor from a woman in Chantal, who said “If you put an AquaTab on a piece of clothing it will make a hole on it; no need to tell you what it can do to your intestines.”

On January 27, we published a short video which addressed fears of AquaTabs, featuring an interview with Jean Hughes Henry, a prominent physician, who responded to the fact that some people said that they were hesitant to use AquaTabs to treat water because it caused abdominal pain or discomfort. He assured viewers that, if directions were followed accurately, AquaTabs have no adverse effect on health.

We also included this issue in the following edition of the Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, to convey to the humanitarian community the potential severity the spread of this rumor could have on affected communities. We included the AquaTab rumor, and underlined that the feedback reflected confusion regarding the proper use and dosage of the tablets.

ACTED, a humanitarian organization active in hurricane response, reported that they used the Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin to brief incoming staff and in planning programs and interventions, as to ensure that the needs expressed by affected communities themselves were being taken into consideration.

As one of the actors most active in the distribution of AquaTabs, ACTED signaled to us that since we highlighted the issue of rumors and concerns around dosage and health, they focused heavily on providing more information about AquaTabs.

In the following weeks, the prevalence of AquaTab-related feedback fell off in our data, indicating that rumors and concerns had abated.

Feedback — whether it be in the form or a question, rumor, or a seemingly banal observation — should be collected, recorded, and analyzed so that it can inform the way that a humanitarian response is conceived. An emergency response isn’t meant to be a static pillar; it’s a mutable organism that should adapt to the ever-changing needs of a population in crisis. And those needs are often readily expressed by affected communities. We just need to be there to take them seriously.

Rose Foran was a Humanitarian Liaison Officer with Internews in Haiti. Internews has had a presence in Haiti since 2006, and enjoys strong relationships with humanitarian agencies and NGOs, the Haitian government, Haitian civil society, as well as national recognition from its Enfòmasyon Nou Dwe Konnen (ENDK) “News You Can Use” radio program that was on airwaves across the country after the 2010 earthquake. Because of this, Internews was identified as a key actor by the Haitian Government, notably by the COUN (Centre des Operations d’Urgence Nationale), the Haitian state’s emergency coordination body. Internews was asked by the COUN and the “Pool de Communication” to be a key participant of the CwC Working Group for Hurricane Matthew, and to support the government in drafting the initial strategy for the Pool. Internews’ work in response to Hurricane Matthew was supported by UKAID.