Section 7: Programming in Emergencies


Communication with disaster-affected communities

What is communication with disaster-affected communities?

When disasters strike, people need information as much as they need shelter, food, water and safety. By providing the right information, at the right time, from the right source, lives and livelihoods can be saved.

At the same time, if people have access to useful information during disasters they can make their own choices and decisions, and become more active participants in the process of their own recovery and claiming their rights. They can feed back, complain, voice their opinions and, in doing so, hold agencies like ActionAid – and other bodies like local and national government – to account.

Communication with crisis-affected communities is a critical component of humanitarian response. From earthquakes to armed conflicts, human survival can depend on knowing the answers to some critical questions: what is the extent of the damage? Where can I get clean water? Is it safe to go back home?

As well as needing access to timely and accurate life-saving information, affected communities have the right to ask questions and get answers from humanitarian responders. They have the right to voice their needs, ideas and feedback and to take an active role in relief and recovery efforts in their country. When people are not given the opportunity to voice their opinions and provide feedback, it exacerbates their dissatisfaction, anger and frustration.

Communication with affected communities is a cross-cutting function that facilitates greater accountability and effectiveness of aid delivery; enhances resilience building; and promotes understanding between humanitarian organisations and the communities they serve. Yet despite its potential to save lives and improve aid delivery, communication with affected communities has not been given sufficient attention by humanitarian organisations and is not systematically institutionalised within the humanitarian sector. Its importance to quality programming is not widely recognised and rarely implemented effectively. This gap has been recognised in recent reviews of humanitarian response:

The people who are on the receiving end of our assistance are rarely, if ever, consulted on what they need or are able to choose who will help them or how. Whilst this has been long recognised as an issue, too little has been done about it.

- Humanitarian response review, executive review, 2011. DFID – Source: For more information see CDAC Network in brief

To understand why ‘communication is aid’, watch this short film from the CDAC network.

Ways of communicating with disaster-affected communities?

The key thing to remember is that communication should be two-way. It is not just about delivering information to people affected by disasters; they should also have a chance to share information with aid providers and express their views and feedback. There are many different ways to communicate with people, and lots of tools that have been developed to support this.

The important points when considering how to communicate are:

  • Consider information needs at the rapid and needs assessment stage (see tools below) to understand the information gaps people face and how they prefer to receive information.

  • Use a range of different communication channels to ensure you reach different parts of the community, including the most vulnerable groups.

  • Understand community preferences for communication channels (including cultural factors, accessibility factors such as literacy levels, access to electricity, coverage and uptake of different forms of media such as newspapers, mobile phones etc.) and think about how this varies for different groups (women, older people, children).

  • Consider the availability of communication channels, taking into account damage to infrastructure following a disaster.

  • Consider how communication channels can be used for two-way communications (for example if you are using radio, can you incorporate listener phone ins, or community listening groups).

  • Collaborate – it is important to link with clusters and other co-ordination mechanisms to ensure that the messages are coherent and communities are not overwhelmed with lots of disjointed sources of information. Also, think about how you can work with partners, including local media organisations.

Tools and resources

There are lots of useful tools and guidance available to help you design and implement activities to communicate with disaster-affected communities. Many of these are listed in ActionAid’s accountability in emergencies toolkit (under development, draft versions can be requested from IHART).

Some of the best places to start are:

Infoasaid media and telecoms landscape guides

The online guides provide comprehensive and detailed information on the media and telecommunications landscape in 22 countries, including details of coverage and community usage of radio, television, newspapers, mobile phones etc. These were developed by the Infoasaid project, which has now ended but their website archives lots of useful learning and tools.

Infoasaid message library

A searchable database of pre-developed and approved messages on a wide variety of topics, including cholera, gender-based violence, mine prevention etc., developed in collaboration with different clusters. These can be used to disseminate critical information to affected populations in an emergency.

Infoasaid diagnostic tools

Tools and guidance on assessing information needs and capacity, including rapid information assessment.

CDAC 101 seminar series

Series of reports from introductory ‘101’ seminar series on communicating with disaster-affected communities. Includes using SMS in emergencies, using radio broadcasts, and humanitarian financing information.