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The Promise of Social Media for Humanitarian Action?

16 May 2012

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In this blog post for the Harvard University's Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR), Jason Cone, Communications Director at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) elaborates on social media as an emerging tool for humanitarian protection.

Most international humanitarian aid agencies use the latest techniques in brand and market research – prompted-awareness surveys, name-recognition studies - to neatly shape and refine their perceptions in societies where they are raising the bulk of their human and financial resources. 

A tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources are devoted to reporting on activities in the field for the benefit of private and institutional donors far from the people living in the communities we are trying to assist. All of this is done in the pursuit of accountability, but very little information actually reaches the beneficiaries of our aid programs. 

It is not surprising that aid organizations – Médecins Sans Frontières included – have capitalized on the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to expand their capabilities to report on their operations, mobilize awareness campaigns, raise funds, and even apply pressure on governments.

With fewer foreign bureaus, it is often much easier to send images from the field to expanding bases of followers on social networks than convince media outlets with dwindling resources to report on the health crisis in the Central African Republic.

Understanding How Humanitarian Aid is Perceived

Far less understood or exploited has been the uncertain promise of social media to facilitate communication with populations affected by humanitarian crises or improve the effectiveness of aid itself.

In absence of effective communication, whatever the means, people are drawing their own conclusions about humanitarian aid providers.

Recently, MSF co-published In the Eyes of Others: How People in Crises Perceive Humanitarian Aid with Humanitarian Outcomes and NYU's Center on International Cooperation. The book is a result of MSF’s attempt to better understand how our work and principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence - as well as the notions of transparency and credibility - are perceived by those who receive our emergency medical care.

The study – part of operational research aimed at improving our field practices – exposed important gaps in understanding among geographically and culturally diverse communities, ranging from Monrovia, Liberia to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. While most people recognize MSF’s medical nature, the project revealed that we have a long way to go to facilitate two-way communication with our beneficiaries. 

To that end, perception is increasingly being integrated from the start of each project and the study has provoked changes in thinking in operations, medical, human resources, and communications departments. It remains to be seen whether social media can be a relevant tool in helping our field teams to close these gaps in understanding. What is clear, however, is that the issue of perception can have important implications for the security and effectiveness of our aid programs. 

Social Media as a Means - Not an Ends
One of the first struggles of figuring out how to leverage social media to improve communication with populations receiving humanitarian aid, is the basic step of knowing what platform or tool to use.

It can be difficult to gauge the penetration of media – social or otherwise – in the regions where the greatest humanitarian needs exist today. 

These gaps in information also pose a challenge in making decisions about how much to invest in different forms of communication – whether new or old – to support programs on the ground.

Practically speaking, time and resources are precious commodities for operations managers in the field and at headquarters who are busy mobilizing aid, managing hospitals or clinics, and analyzing evolving security situations. 

Methodologies and techniques have been developed by groups such as Internews to assess information needs of target populations like Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, and the best way to deliver messages to these communities. The Internews-sponsored project infoasaid provides some simple diagnostic tools to assess information needs, and has done some impressive assessments of many countries in terms of mobile phone and radio penetration and mapping of media outlets.

MSF is still far from incorporating access to information within the scope of our emergency assessments. It is clear this is an important and under-appreciated aspect of meeting the needs of disaster-affected populations on top of the more tangible forms of assistance like medical care, water, food, and shelter.

Understanding how people access information, though, is a critical precursor to defining any kind of effective communications strategy targeting the communities intended to benefit from our assistance.

Assessments like the one done by Internews in Dadaab found that they can pinpoint critical gaps in information that make a difference in aid effectiveness. Most new arrivals to the camp lacked even basic knowledge of how and where to register for aid, which led to delays in receiving assistance that had a major impact on the health of this already weakened population fleeing war.  Radio was identified as the most important means of communication, with social media barely registering in the Dadaab assessment.

Aid workers need to be platform agnostic and actively assess the most relevant means of reaching and communicating with the populations we are aiming to assist. The end goal should be effective assistance and not simply deploying the latest technology or emerging social media platform.

Open Not Always the Answer
The open nature of social media is not always an asset when operating in dangerous and politically charged contexts like Bahrain, Somalia, and Syria. Communication technologies - more so than open social media networks - have been utilized in increasingly operationally relevant ways to facilitate humanitarian aid.

Tools like Blackberry Messenger and Skype have played important roles in facilitating medical referral networks and supporting tele-medicine efforts. Aid workers have been, albeit to a limited degree, savvy to exploit these tools to network and identify allies, just as citizen journalists and activists have used other tools like YouTube and Twitter to exponentially increase their impact.

Read more of the blog post...

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