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When traditional communications outperform digital technology: Rohingya refugees

Screenshot:”We trained boradcasters in Bangladehs to make these shows.” BBC Media Action, February, 2018.

As Bangladesh braced itself for the monsoon
season, humanitarian organisations faced a multitude of challenges in
preventing further tragedy for Rohingya refugees living along the Cox’s Bazar
district, which has rapidly become the world’s biggest refugee settlement. Since
August 2017, approximately 671,000 Rohingya people had been forced to flee
their homes in Myanmar to seek refuge from persecution. Many landed in
overcrowded camps and makeshift settlements, where 300,000 refugees were
already residing under tarpaulins on steep, sandy slopes. The high risk of
landslides threatened to make roads impassable, trapping refugees in hazardous
locations and blocking them from aid delivery and medical services.
Gender-based violence, waterborne diseases like diarrhoea and skin disease – all
posed a great danger to the population.

Local host communities who initially
responded with tolerance have been becoming increasingly hostile as legitimate
concerns for their own livelihoods grew, regarding issues such as access to
education for their children and job opportunities. For international NGOs,
issues around security, data and trafficking are also prevalent, while everyday
operations such as accessibility restrictions and a ‘coordination crisis’
between agencies, make aid delivery all the more challenging. Despite
being described as ‘the most urgent refugee emergency’ facing the world by
UNHCR chief Fillipo Grandi, relief funding for the Rohingya crisis continues to
wane, with no sign of Myanmar being safe enough or in an appropriate condition
for Rohingya to return home anytime soon. In April, the UN reported that only nine per cent of a
$951 million joint agency response plan had been secured, with Cox’s Bazar
specifically facing a shortfall of almost $151 million of the $182 million that
was allocated. Aid agencies have been working tirelessly to ensure many
refugees are provided with basic amenities such as toilets, baby care, water
and food.

But within this humanitarian context,
a notably significant improvement has been seen in the past five years around
communication infrastructure. People have better access to communication now
than ever before, according to Bangladesh Country Director for BBC Media
Action, Richard Lace, whose organisation stresses the importance of responding
to crises by improving access to life-saving information.

How communication has been
translating into aid 

Communication as a form of aid is a
growing consideration for international organisations using it as a means to
enhance accountability through empowering community voices and improving the
quality of data collation. A BBC Media Action project in partnership with
UNICEF is a good example of this. They support two local daily radio programmes
in Cox’s Bazar camps and host communities. This serves to help Rohingya
refugees stay safe and protect their health by providing them with both a voice
and essential information. 

Beggunor Lai, translating, ‘For
Everyone’, broadcasts locally on Bangladesh’s state broadcaster, while Radio
Naf acts as a community station and produces programmes such as Shishur Hashi
for children, who make up over half of the displaced people from Myanmar. Run
by Bangladeshi broadcasters who have been trained by BBC Media Action over the
past five years, the programmes give listeners regular updates on food
distribution and vaccination access, while also creating spaces for discussions
on topics such as what it means to get vaccinated. Hosting the shows in a local
dialect understood by both Rohingya and the host communities facilitates
inclusivity, which can also help to ease tension between the two groups. 

An evaluation report based on
feedback between December 2017 and January 2018 identified highly positive
community engagement, stating that, ‘listeners found the information provided
by the programmes to be trustworthy, relevant and useful.’ Many reported using
the hygiene, child protection and health advice and recommended the programmes to
friends and family members, while also discussing the content with them and
encouraging them to apply the advice. This in effect has helped to spread
awareness around issues such as the link between handwashing and diarrhoea.
Participants felt motivated to attend listener groups to engage with the
programmes, as they felt the information shared was critical in keeping them
and their families safe.

To overcome limitations in radio-set
access, which was initially low, listener groups were set up in camps where
media and other information sources were scarce. At least 250 facilitators were
trained to provide the content based on the radio broadcasts and lead guided
discussions. Although listenership was low, the study found that Rohingya
refugees’ primary source of receiving and sharing information was through word
of mouth. 

Research finds face-to-face channels
most impactful

Lace says: “We have definitely found
that face-to-face methods are the ones that resonate most. We found that people
trust this way of communication more than they do electronic channels. People
are more comfortable and engaged in those settings because media access in
Rakhine was very limited, making the discussion element the key to ensuring
people get the right information they need, and getting their voices heard by
everyone, especially service providers like the UN and NGOs.”

Using discussion to translate
knowledge into action is proving integral to creating change. This could happen
on a social network, but in Bangladesh at present, face-to-face is most
effective. Informing pregnant women about antenatal care and then giving them a
space to discuss their experience of being pregnant with other women for
example, you soon see positive behavioural changes.
Utilising local capacity is essential, as the evaluation study shows that
community leaders selected by camp coordinators, known as Majhis, are seen as
critical informers of relief services, while doctors are most trusted with
regards to delivering health advice. 

Due to the nature of the Rohingya
dialect which is unwritten, combined with low literacy levels in general, it
was necessary to produce materials that could inform and incite conversations
by other means. In addition to radio programmes, BBC Media Action also worked
with Action Against Hunger to scale information hubs which also sit within
nutrition facilities with new technology like projectors and iPads to look at
basic animations, short video, films and other media-rich and interactive
content, as a way of encouraging people to use them. 

Although the mechanisms facilitating
communication in a humanitarian context are notably improving and positively
impacting behaviours particularly in regards to health, Lace asserts the need
to standardise these practices and do more with the data coming out of those
systems in order to achieve better feedback:  “Every agency is now saying
voices of communities are a key feature in the decision-making process, which
is heartening to see, as that has not always been the case. The intention is
there, but more needs to be done to implement the practices”, Lace says. 

How traditional technology is
transforming sustainable development

Radio communication for Lace trumps
other technologies in response to humanitarian crises for the foreseeable
future, due to the ease of setting it up and disseminating information quickly.
Radios are cost-effective and require only one transmitter that can be put
anywhere. Where mobile and internet does not work, radio can. Lace says radio
does not have all of the answers as it is a predominantly one-way
communication, but it can give people necessary information at the beginning of
an emergency. Similar projects have been used in Nepal, Pakistan and in East
Africa. 

Programmes have in the past developed
into something that fits the long term nature of a response. Such is the case
in Nepal, where BBC Media Action’s show transitioned into longer term development programmes
about reconstruction following the earthquake in 2015. This is
only possible however through working with local partners. Investing in the
local people enables them to acquire the skills needed to independently run the
programmes once international organisations withdraw. 

More than anything, it is vital to
understand how context-specific humanitarian responses must be. In Lebanon and
Jordan, BBC Media Action made much more use of the mobile because Syrian
refugees had better access to technology and were tech-literate. The
Bangladeshi population has not got anywhere near as much access to smartphones,
and connectivity is less advanced. 

Learning about who your audience is
lies at the heart of effective communication, as it indicates which channels
are most appropriate. In Lace’s words, “it is about choosing the channel that
is right for the people you are trying to serve.” Which is why the strength of
local volunteers on the ground who are supported by national and international
organisations, is precisely what makes these communication programmes so
effective.