This item from Radio Australia looks at some of the lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Pam. One that is not discussed is the importance of communication and information sharing. There has been a lot of confusion and insecurity in the wider community as a result of the NDMO/VHT not providing a regular supply of authoritative, credible information about what they are or are not doing. In the very early stages an activity of this type was hampered by lack of access to communications including radio, social media and text messaging. However, as we know, those services were restored in parts of Port Vila relatively quickly and are continuing to come back on stream elsewhere in the country with each passing day.
The government and partner agencies have of course been very busy doing humanitarian relief and this does not leave a lot of time for telling people what you are doing. But there are significant risks associated with leaving an information vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum and if people are left to fill an information vacuum then they are almost certain to fill it with a bad news story not a good news story. We have seen that happen in the days since the response to Cyclone Pam commenced. Based on what I have talked about with many people plus what is being circulated in traditional and social media, the following things seem to have happened because people simply did not have access to the right or enough information:
- People in different parts of the country have no idea how this storm affected other parts of the country and so find it difficult to accept that some areas are more in need of assistance than others.
- Particularly in urban and peri-urban areas, people are confused about whether they have been included in the assessments undertaken to determine relief needs, whether they are entitled to food aid or other kinds of relief and how to access relief that they are entitled to.
- Rumours have been able to start and spread which might lead you to believe one or more of the following: no aid has been distributed anywhere and is being stockpiled at NDMO where it is raided by NDMO employees; all of the aid has gone to Tanna because that is where the prime minister and the chairman of the National Disaster Committee are from; no aid has gone to Tanna; the aid agencies know what to do but the government won’t let them; the government knows what to do but the aid agencies won’t tow the line. There is no single source of quality information that people can be directed to that can act as a counter to this rumour mill.
The importance of maintaining good information flows goes way beyond simply getting the PR right. It is important from the point of view of transparency and it is a key aspect of maintaining social cohesion in times of stress. It is also important in order to counter a very unhelpful narrative that ‘the government isn’t doing anything’ which in the long term can undermine a population’s (already somewhat tenuous) confidence in the state to provide for them at all. It is also necessary to assist with managing expectations. If people know that their community is expected to receive relief supplies in 5 days time, they can plan for that. Admittedly they may not be happy about the wait but if they receive no information then they are more likely to feel forgotten about or abandoned, either of which would be worse.
Working with the media is one way of keeping people informed about what humanitarian responders are or are not doing. On the other side of things, a mechanism for collecting, collating and distributing inward flows of information would likely assist NDMO/VHT in doing their work even better. There does not appear to be any means for people to deposit information they have gleaned from family and other networks with NDMO/VHT (other than being able to talk your way in to speak to someone who is already so busy that they have difficulty understanding what you are saying). This type of mechanism can help add to responders’ knowledge about what is happening on the ground, including in some very remote areas where every bit of local knowledge would assist in ensuring that relief efforts are appropriate, effective and well managed. Given that a lot of the people assisting government with this response effort are new to Vanuatu, their task would surely be made easier if they had access to updated credible information that was being collected and collated from as many useful sources as possible.
There have certainly been some instances of NDMO using opportunities to communicate with stakeholders and the wider community and I am particularly pleased to see that they recently convened a meeting with all of the country’s politicians. These people are now able to perform a great service to the country by using their networks to give people some concrete facts about what the government is and is not doing in response to Cyclone Pam.
But in terms of ‘lessons learned’ I recommend that NDMO/VHT invest in developing an appropriate communications strategy that will support and strengthen this work in the future.