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Filling Another Need for Haiti - Information

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

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.

Unfortunately, in many post-conflict and disaster situations, the media and communication sector is one of the last to be addressed in systematic fashion. Typically, communication interventions are inserted awkwardly into the reconstruction process, with purely tactical and/or expedient choices taking precedence over strategic decision-making. While this is to be expected in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, it tends to persist even well into the sustained period of reconstruction and recovery.

As assessment teams begin to roll out and long-term plans are laid, donors have a chance to think strategically about the role of media and communications in Haiti’s recovery and longer-term development. This means not merely setting up emergency public information units, but thinking about the long-term impact of media such as emergency radio stations; how these stations and other crisis media can or should form a bridge to a future revitalized media sector; and how a revitalized media sector can support good governance and development for Haiti in the years to come.

This may seem like a lot to digest, especially now while people are still dealing with the terrible reality of death and destruction. But donors are already considering long-term development issues as they prepare assessment and short-term stabilization teams. This is an area that should not be overlooked.

For more information, see last year's CommGAP paper "Towards a New Model: Media and Communication in Post-Conflict and Fragile States"


Photo Credit: United Nations Development Programme (on Flickr)


Submitted by Zeeshan on
Shanthi, this is quite a timely blog post! We in the EAP Disaster Management Team are quite excited about our recently published Handbook on Housing Reconstruction ( which actually contains a chapter on communications in the context of natural disasters. Thanks for shedding light on this important topic!

Submitted by Sanket on
Shanthi, This is an excellent post. While communications and media need to figure in post-disasters assessments and planning, a BBC article discusses how people are already using innovative communication technologies and social media (text messaging, Skype, Facebook, shared mapping software) Tech tools offer Haiti lifeline By Jason Palmer Science and technology reporter, BBC News The collapse of traditional channels of communication in Haiti has again highlighted the role of social media and the internet in disasters. Twitter is being used as a prime channel for communications, while sites such as Ushahidi are providing maps detailing aid and damage. Both Google and Facebook are producing missing persons lists. Satellite networks are also diverting resources to provide communications to aid agencies and the military. The very first images to escape from the region after Tuesday's earthquake came from citizens, capturing video with mobile phones. But landlines near the epicentre have been wiped out, and mobile phone service has been at best intermittent - a fact that has already hampered rescue efforts. The UN body Telecoms Sans Frontieres, which maintains a network of telecommunications engineers and mobile equipment worldwide, has deployed two teams in the region. The World Food Programme . "When we arrive in the country, we establish a telecoms centre for the humanitarian community, for them to be able to communicate and have access to internet and phone," said Telecoms Sans Frontiere's Catherine Sang. “ I am starting to run - literally, run - every time an aftershock hits. Seen far too many bodies. Don't wanna add to that number ” Tweet from Firesideint "We also operate a humanitarian calling operation for the population, so they can call their family and friends in the country or abroad," she told BBC News. Ms Sang said that the teams have as yet been unable to set up the network for the general populace due to security concerns. Inmarsat, a UK-based firm that operates a network of satellites, received word from the UN just an hour after the initial quake, and has begun re-allocating satellite time to the region. For those with satellite-enabled equipment - namely aid agencies and the military - such extra capacity is vital when traditional communication channels have been damaged or cut off altogether. Community service However, for the ordinary people in the worst-affected areas of Haiti, as well as loved ones desperate for information about them, the most relevant sources of information are civilians on the ground with some familiar technological tools at their disposal. Just seconds after the earthquake, people began to send messages from Haiti through Twitter. Since then, the Twitter group tagged "#relativesinhaiti" has been flooded with traffic from relatives trying to find out about their loved ones from abroad, while "#rescumehaiti" is being used to direct rescue efforts where trapped survivors have been located. The Red Cross, CNN and the New York Times are compiling missing persons databases, but the Facebook group "Earthquake Haiti" has more than 160,000 members. Pierre Cote is a journalist based in Haiti who has been contacted by a number of news organisations in the wake of the disaster, and who is broadcasting from a studio over the web. He conducted an interview with the BBC via the service Skype, popular for making voice and video calls over the internet, and spoke about his role in communicating about the disaster. "If I'm not doing it, no one will do it - the traditional media won't do it," he said. "The community need it so for me it's a service to the community to bring it all together." Another web-based tool that has recently become crucial in disaster relief and information dissemination is Ushahidi. Initially the service made its name following the disputed Kenyan elections of 2007. It provides an open-source, free service which can overlay maps of affected regions with data gathered from a raft of sources. Detailed maps can show, for instance, where aid will be delivered, where running water has been cut off or restored, or - as in the case of Haiti - where aftershocks have been reported. Data checking However, recent experience with the unpoliced nature of these vast streams of data has made clear that not all information can be trusted. Among the pictures circulating around the internet in the wake of the Haiti disaster, one claiming to be of a Haitian bridge was actually taken in Japan following an earthquake in 2006. The risks of such misinformation in the aftermath of a disaster - in particular for those cases that involve divisive politics or propaganda - have already been identified in a report compiled by the UN Foundation/Vodafone Foundation technology partnership in December. The founders of Ushahidi are working on a verification system that can independently assure that information coming in is corroborated and accurate. Taken together, the flow of information via these tools, alongside compiled by services that make sense of it, means that dealing with the aftermath of disaster is quicker, more integrated, and more visible to those inside and outside the affected area. However, no such efforts can fully replace a functioning, full-scale infrastructure, and that will leave many people both inside and outside Haiti anxious for answers. There are initial reports that some of the local phone networks have managed to restore some capacity. Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS and a specialist in mobile telecoms in emergency situations, said that once people realise the networks are back up they are likely to become very congested. "It will be like New Year's Eve as everyone tries to get through," he told BBC News. "SMS is more likely to get through, even if it is delayed."

Excellent points, Shanthi. One must start consideration of this now, even if we are overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the emergency aid that is needed in Haiti. While the magnitude of the longer term development assistance will likely not live up to the figures now being thrown around, there will be substantial assistance in rebuilding, as you point out. But even when we talk good governance and development, the voice of the citizen is often not heard when strategies are devised, programs created, and programs implemented. A rebuilding media in Haiti, community radio in particular, can and will give voice to the people and help them participate in deciding Haiti's future. If support for local media is combined with support for empowered local communities and civil society, one has some hope that Haiti will recover.

Submitted by Marion on
On the day the earthquake hit Haiti, the WBG Library and Archives of Development had co-sponsored a panel presentation on ‘The Wired Library’. We learned that with the expansion of broadband access, public libraries were “anchor institutions” in many communities in the developing world and provided access to vital information. I wonder what happened to the public library in Port-au-Prince and whether it is in a position to provide any kind of communication, even if it is still standing. Hope libraries will be part of the infrastructure developoment during Haiti's reconstruction.

Dear Shanthi, Thank you very much for an interesting and timely blog posting. Haiti’s recovery process is not going to be easy to tackle and will require a lot of effort both from the international community and from local people. Therefore, it is important not to forget lessons learned from the previous disaster responses and to integrate them into work in Haiti early on. The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) has prepared a note on the World Bank Group Response to the Haiti Earthquake: Evaluative Lessons. The note points out that the situation in Haiti is especially overwhelming because of the breakdown of social order and a fragile security situation, the near-complete loss of governance structures, and the failure to impose even minimum quality standards on the construction industry. Some of the main lessons highlighted in IEG’s note are the following: • Temporary shelters need to preserve existing social relationships. For instance, the layout of temporary shelter structures can reduce crime and violence against women if care is taken during the relocation process to ensure that as many doors as possible face a common and well-lit area. • Providing survivors with employment and cash transfers early on has had good results. For instance, taking the time to ensure that all usable building materials are recovered and recycled is a way to ensure that the poor will be able to afford to rebuild. The general population can be helped to recover emotionally through this process with paid work. • Donor coordination has always proved to be vital. Ways must be found for involved donors to work together or in parallel – in the short term – on a clearly defined set of activities with the same eligibility requirements and benefits. • Design of disaster projects should be simple, based on local participation and taking into account local capacity. • Streamlined decision-making and procedures for contracting civil works will help avoid delays. For instance, either a high-powered unit developed for the purpose or existing institutions can provide continuity in planning, coordination, and monitoring. • Damage assessments need to be simple and tailored to local construction types, with damage awards closely tied to actual costs. • Post-disaster operations need to include measures to reduce long term vulnerability and deal with land ownership issues. Reaching agreement on mitigation measures with the government within the first three months is important, because it becomes harder to get politicians to focus on disaster once the memory of the emergency recedes. • Owner-driven housing construction can be more effective than the use of contractors. • Leveraging existing private sector capacity is critical for effective emergency response. The private sector can play a key role in infrastructure and logistics, local banking, and provision of physical capacity. To read the full version of the note, please click on the following link:

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