If the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami off Indonesia in 2004 have shown us anything it is that large scale natural catastrophes are not rare. Calamities that claim tens of thousands of lives happen with regularity (about every four years on average). Many others claim a smaller number of lives but are equally devastating to local communities. The claims that these disasters are unique “100 year events”, which cannot be predicated and therefore cannot be planned for, are increasingly hollow.
As the Bank and others prepare their response plans for Haiti, it is worthwhile taking a moment to stress the importance of media and communication in the aftermath of the disaster, as well as in the more long-term post-crisis reconstruction period.
In both post-conflict and natural disaster situations, donors focus on filling people’s basic needs: shelter, sustenance, medical care. But there is another basic need that people have in emergencies: information. People need to find out if their loved ones are safe, and if so, how they can communicate with them. They need to find out where they can access basic services. They need to find out if it is safe to go back to their homes, and if not, where they can stay. And in the longer term, they need to reconnect with others in society, to come together to rebuild a nation.
For the record, I don’t believe the hype that people are only interested in bad news. I think as humans we are intrigued by “dramatic” – but not that this has to be necessarily “negative”. I proved it to myself recently.