In the wake of the massive and horrific natural disasters in Myanmar and China, it is important to examine how the provision of humanitarian relief relates to issues of voice and accountability. In a general sense, communication should be an absolutely vital element of any relief effort. Broadcasting or otherwise circulating crucial information about unsafe areas, survivor resources, and important health and public safety issues can help prevent further outbreaks of disease and post-disaster traumas. Apart from providing humanitarian information, an independent media sector (in tandem with civil society) can ensure that rebuilding efforts are consultative, transparent and accountable. Over the long term, humanitarian communication efforts can eventually stimulate the development of a healthy public sphere, even where none has existed before.
This is not to say that public sphere issues are always emphasized in humanitarian assistance. Often, the "information and communication" aspect of humanitarian relief becomes compressed in the face of what are seen to be more pressing immediate needs. Moreover, in many countries around the world, governments clamp down on information in the wake of natural disasters or other incidents, particularly under circumstances in which they feel any "leak" might be harmful to the country's image, or when they feel the freer circulation of information may lead to unacceptable social and political consequences for the government in question. In these situations, an already difficult situation for the survivors becomes even worse: people are cut off from each other and from the outside world, with rumor displacing reliable information as the basis for life-and-death decisions.
This blog "Burning Bridge",  written by a colleague with direct experience in these situations, contains an excellent discussion of these issues, including the idea of treating information and communications infrastructure/access not just as an political right, but as a key element in development and public safety policies.
Photo Credit: Flickruser Sarvodaya.org