Communicating with communities during conflict - “mediated” avenues to inform those in need

Communicating with communities during conflict – “mediated” avenues to inform those in need

At times of crises, establishing effective communication with the population is crucial in order to ensure that aid delivery meets the actual needs of those affected. Through the use of the media and other channels, humanitarian organisations and local communities can engage in a communication exchange that allows them to both convey and receive information as part of a two-way process. This approach, which is increasingly being adopted in humanitarian work, asks us to re-think ‘communication’ and to expand our view on what we regard as ‘media’.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Dr. Valentina Baú

Towards a new “communication philosophy”

When it comes to conflict and post-conflict environments, passing on information to the population based on what is needed by those who experience the crisis is a vital and yet challenging task for aid organisations. According to the European Interagency Security Forum, humanitarian communication has been recognised to include ‘[…] technical capacity building; information collection and dissemination; preparedness activities; and/or data analysis for the purposes of saving lives, alleviating suffering, and protecting the dignity of crisis-affected populations when performed in accordance with international standards of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence’ (p.2). This type of communication used to be primarily an instrument to fill the gap in communication at the time of the crisis, delivering information to communities which would help them to stay abreast of decisions in relation to their circumstances. In the light of evaluations of recent disasters, however, both aid organisations and donors have begun to recognise a lack of ‘information from’ and ‘communication with’ those who are affected by the crisis.

Communication at the grassroots level appears therefore to have been one of the missing pieces of the puzzle in humanitarian interventions, which has left communities’ needs unmet during the response. According to a publication from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), by not facilitating a mechanism for a two-way flow of information between humanitarian actors and affected communities, the opportunity to generate crucial feedback on an intervention is lost. This tells us that the importance of community feedback mechanisms in humanitarian work should not be sidestepped in the overall goal of a programme. Engaging communities can strengthen the quality of humanitarian programming and allows people to share their experience of the conflict with relevant actors.

In addition to that, the Global Public Policy Institute has highlighted how, within the context of insecure areas, local authority figures often become the gatekeepers for aid delivery, as agencies rely on their support to have access to and operate within particular communities. Consultations carried out by agencies too often appear to involve mostly ‘key informants’, which is a system that mechanically excludes a great part of the community members, leaving especially more marginalised groups invisible and without a voice in the process. Hence, even in the humanitarian field, actors have begun to look at communication as a two-way process, and the concept of voice has started to be regarded as a crucial element even in crisis response.

As BBC Media Action highlights in one of its reports, ‘[e]ffective information and communication exchange with affected populations are among the least understood and most complex challenges facing the humanitarian sector in the 21st century’ (p.2). The academic literature on communication and information during and after emergencies is wide. Scholars who have worked in this area (Wenger and Friedman, 1986; Quarentelli, 1989; Coombs, 1995; Noll, 2003; Jefferson, 2006, among others) have looked in particular at crisis-response strategies either from a media and communication studies perspective or from a disaster management perspective. Yet, progressively, we have begun to acknowledge that ‘disaster victims need information about their options in order to make any meaningful choices about their future’ (BBC Media Action, p.2). This means that, even from a communication perspective, responding to a crisis is still part of the broader humanitarian and development effort, and that the essential principles that work in these fields must be applied to the way we choose to employ media and communication channels in those types of interventions. While creating and managing channels that help to assist communities with their immediate needs, adopting this approach can be crucial in preventing further conflict, as the element of communication provides the opportunity for participation and feedback that is needed to strengthen relationships, trust and dialogue.

Therefore, as crisis response enters the recovery phase and often meets or overlaps with development efforts, listening to the voices of those who are affected makes a significant difference in planning a response that is more relevant and tailored to what the real needs of communities are. These ideas have given rise to the field of CwC: Communicating with Communities. As a team of researchers from Goldsmith University of London and the University of Leicester have reported:

‘giving people the opportunity to make their voices heard can facilitate two-way communication between humanitarian responders and affected populations with the potential to democratize the humanitarian process and correct the asymmetries on which it is based. […] improved feedback structures can [also] empower local communities to hold aid agencies accountable’ (2015, p.3021).

How it works

A BBC Media Action report explains that, typically, information needs for communities affected by crisis follow a definite progression. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, needs consist of basic information concerning the events that have occurred, the availability of food or services, and the situation of family and friends. Addressing these needs can prevent panic and enhance survivors’ ability to act; however, information at this point is often unreliable. As time progresses, information needs such as the availability of medical services, food and water supplies, advice on disease prevention or shelter provision become critical, and ineffective communications at this stage can lead to misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations. In the subsequent phase, service and compensation entitlements become one of the primary information needs. This is also the time when issues of accountability begin to gain importance: suspected misuse or diversion of aid are to be exposed in order to understand how and why certain needs have not been met. Finally, in the longer term, needs change from simply wanting to know to seeking to communicate. After having basic needs met, people become interested in identifying and reaching the agencies responsible for the delivery of aid. At this point, establishing two-way communication channels can be extremely useful not only for individuals but also for agencies, in order to carry out operations smoothly and in coordination with communities themselves.

Within this context, the aim of CwC is to address the gap in communications between humanitarian and development agencies and beneficiaries, which leads to inappropriate delivery of aid and/or harms the long-term development process of local communities. Research from BBC Media Action also shows that communication interventions in contexts of peacebuilding are either rare or based on attributions whose reliability can be questioned. Yet, despite this lack of evidence, the need for incorporating a planned communication approach into their work has been recognised by development and aid agencies as an important strategy for enhancing their programmes’ impact. The introduction of the concepts and ideas belonging to CwC is confirmation of a move in this direction, and of the intention to explore the power and complexity of communication further. As another team of researchers from the University of California-San Diego have put it when discussing realities affected by disasters:

‘The social challenges that arise with communications within and between ephemeral groups must also be considered. An understanding of human activity and communication behaviour models should be incorporated into communication system design. Important areas include human behavioral models and their impact on emergency communication and affordability, availability, and applicability of emergency communication solutions’ (p.52).

An example of this is the work done by the CDAC (Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities) Network on capitalizing indigenous knowledge. This stream utilises CwC to endorse local capacity and the ability of South Sudanese communities to resolve internal crises. The focus is on the issue of raiding and violence in and around cattle camps, which is one of the long-standing causes of conflict in South Sudan. Within this context, youths from selected cattle camps are targeted. Ethnographic research techniques are used to uncover what peacebuilding, conflict prevention or early warning techniques are employed by the youth in order to avoid such violence. Findings are then passed on to other communities’ young members who are also affected by cattle raiding problems. This is done through peer-to-peer dialogue and interactive or narrative communication for example through storytelling and theatre. Moreover, scenario-based learning tools and media modules are developed as training and advocacy material for international organisations working in areas affected by this issue.

Studying the ways in which different groups and actors communicate, and the interactions they have with both traditional media and new media technologies is an important step into innovating the humanitarian field and its approaches to crisis-response. Increasingly, collaborative research initiatives (such as, for example, the CDAC Network and ALNAP) have further opened up the discussion on the use of information and communication during a crisis, examining the role of social media, and discussing the ability to create networks that overcome the limits of physical boundaries. These ventures are vital to see the growth of CwC as a new humanitarian practice, embedded in both aid and development interventions, and to ensure that experiences are documented while lessons are being learnt. Ultimately, while a targeted use of an array of media and communication platforms is available and also critical in specific contexts, the complex political and social dynamics as well as the infrastructural challenges that characterise conflict-affected realities require deeper exploration of what truly works within the local environment. This is a task that both research and development organisations should tackle together in their future work.

Dr. Valentina Baú works as a Lecturer & Researcher at the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia), where her work as both a practitioner and a researcher has focused on the use of the media & communication in international development.

This article was originally published by Peace Insight and is available by clicking here.  The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


CDAC (2016) Communicating with Communities in South Sudan, Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, London

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