Communication and Community Engagement - Key to Disaster Response

Communication and Community Engagement - Key to Disaster Response

by Yash Saboo September 12 2018, 1:59 pm Estimated Reading Time: 3 mins, 27 secs

"I've got six new blankets piled up," said a Nepali man after the horrific 2015 earthquake in Nepal while what he really needed was some water and food. Time and again, such situations prove that communication is one of the most important things the disaster-affected population needs. Communication with the population affected by a disaster, such as an earthquake, has increasingly received prominence in the world among the relief workers and organizations.

“We asked particularly for water pipes and they didn’t give us those. We have to go far away with a basket to collect water,” echoed a woman's voice.

“One organization delivers blankets; then another also delivers blankets. One organization distributes rice, and then another also distributes rice," said a man. There are a number of key problems at the root of this absurd situation.

Among them, the perpetual issues of coordination and professionalism. When lots of agencies are planning to help people, it’s clear that there needs to be a basic discussion on which agency does what, and where. In fairness, things have come a long way in the aid sector since high-profile humanitarian response fiascos of the 90s, such as the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, led to an increasing professionalization of aid and steadily better coordination. In all big humanitarian responses, there are now frequent coordination meetings where these important conversations happen and do make a difference. But there are still gaps, as in the case of Nepal.

The other problem lies in not listening to the people you are trying to help.


It has taken the aid world a long time to realize that there might be value in putting the needs and views of affected people at the heart of decision-making. According to BBC, listening to people can be time-consuming, especially if they don’t speak your language, and it gets all the more inconvenient when what you hear does not match with your preconceived ideas about what you should be doing. It’s far easier to make assumptions about what to give people, dole out whatever you previously promised your funder you would deliver, and measure success in terms of total numbers of blankets and bags of rice distributed.

But how can we hope to really help the people we are serving if we don’t find out what they need?

Lack of communication with the affected communities to inform and address their immediate needs has often been the feature of emergency responses. Inadequacies of important information, as well as the inaccurate information, have not only intensified the suffering of the disaster-affected population but also been the cause of the failure of emergency responses.

Communication with communities helps “to improve the quality of humanitarian response by maximizing the amount of accurate and timely information available to humanitarian responders and crisis-affected populations through enhanced communication between them in an emergency.” Humanitarian communications have always been an important feature of humanitarian response.

This issue is at the heart of the still-emerging field of what is increasingly referred to as Communication, Community Engagement and Accountability (CCEA). The past few years have seen big strides towards recognising that crisis-affected people need timely humanitarian information, are able to participate in decisions that affect them, and have access to responsive complaints mechanisms.

There are organizations working towards the betterment of this mechanism. In 2013 BBC Media Action began work in Bangladesh (funded by the UK Department for International Development) to better prepare media and aid agencies to communicate with affected people in emergencies. Among the outcomes was the creation of a working group for Communication with Communities, chaired by the Bangladesh Government’s Department of Disaster Management. With a fresh grant through the global Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, this later evolved into Shongjog – a national platform focused on Communication with Communities.

What is needed now is a more systematic application of these standards, more people with the skillsets to implement them and - underpinning it all – more dedicated funding. But the humanitarian community has learned a lot and there are encouraging examples of progress.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.