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When Communicating Matters: How Haiti Changes Disaster Response

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In the minutes after the ground stopped convulsing in Haiti one year ago, the world's airwaves started thundering with the news. An unfathomable catastrophe from within had exploded onto the world stage, and with that coverage most of the world became instantly well-informed of the extent of the horror.

In Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, news throughout the city was hard to come by. With transmission towers toppled, radio stations collapsed, reporters killed, and power lines cut, the local media was a casualty as much as any other. The capital and surrounding areas went from a fairly robust news hub dominated by radio to static in a few seconds. Signal FM was the only local station broadcasting through the first frantic days, and with the vast majority of the media silenced, many survivors were cut off.

In many disaster-stricken countries the ability for affected communities to have access to reliable information and to have their own voices heard is rare. Yet a revolutionary, coordinated information response program in Haiti has elevated how aid organizations talk with -- and listen to -- populations. I believe that this will forevermore be a central aspect of humanitarian response.

Haiti has been the first-ever humanitarian operation where a collective, multi-agency initiative known as Communicating with Disaster Communities (CDAC) has been operational. Hosted by Internews and supported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), CDAC Haiti brings together aid organizations, local media and representatives of the Government of Haiti in a systematic effort to disseminate lifesaving information via local media and other communications channels.

Because of this unprecedented coordination, Internews is able to broadcast daily humanitarian radio shows in Creole, produced with Haitian reporters since the very first days after the quake. It has continued and grown, as media outlets came back online, to this day to 41 radio stations.

This program, whose title in Creole translates to "Information We Need to Know," ensures a two-way communication between those providing the aid and those receiving it. We ensure this through a process that seems simple but that is, in fact, revolutionary by any newsroom standard.

Every two weeks, an Internews research team visits camps and neighborhoods to assess if and how people's information needs have changed. The results of these surveys feed directly into the newsroom planning for Internews' daily programming, which reaches up to 70 percent of the Haitian population via some 40 radio station partners.

By creating such a two-way information flow between a newsroom and its audience, the broadcast has consistently mirrored the population's changing information needs. Immediately after the earthquake, people sought information on the location and availability of health services. In February, their concerns shifted to food, food distribution and education. By spring, the relocation of displaced communities as well as hurricane concerns was the dominate topic. By summer, audiences wanted more information about the elections, health and the World Cup. By autumn, it turned to life-saving information with the dangerous and rapid spread of cholera.

In addition to this unprecedented way of delivering news and information in a crisis zone, Internews and others have also employed cutting edge technology in our efforts. We crowd-sourced information and geo-located messages from survivors with partners such as Ushahidi and Noula, pushed millions of SMS text messages with critical aid information with the Thompson Reuters Foundation, and more recently about cholera prevention with the IFRC.

In fact, a new report offers insights into the media's lessons learned from one of the largest ever humanitarian responses to a natural disaster.

"Lessons from Haiti," the report produced by Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC), with support from Internews and funding from the Knight Foundation, critically examines the role of communications during the crisis, and offers recommendations for better utilizing the media in future disaster recovery efforts. New media and technologies, in particular, were used in unprecedented ways, the report said.

CDAC also distributed 9,000 wind-up radios from the U.S. Government, produced a traveling caravan with music, drama and public debates that traveled to disaster-affected areas, and conducted outreach and education on cholera prevention in internally displaced persons' camps.

In Haiti and beyond, no matter the disaster, we still face a challenging mindset that suggests providing information to people within a disaster zone creates an "added burden" on humanitarian responses. Collectively, the aid world fails to realize that humanitarian responses are too often undermined precisely because people's information needs and participation are considered a low priority.

Without information, communities cannot participate, ask questions or make informed decisions, and that is simply and purely wrong, and there can be no doubt it has cost lives.

There is a very long road ahead in ensuring that communicating with affected communities is a critical and properly supported part of standard humanitarian responses. In that effort, all of us are concerned and are equally responsible. People out there in the camps or under tents, are ready. Whether in Haiti or the next disaster somewhere else that we can't even begin to foresee today, they will be waiting for all of us to deliver life-saving information in a coordinated, reliable and robust way.