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When traditional communications outperform digital technology: Rohingya refugees

Community radio projects in the world's biggest refugee camp in Bangladesh demonstrate the significance of context-specific humanitarian responses and the power of effective communication. 

lead 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.

About the author

Anastasia Kyriacou works for AidEx, the world’s leading event for international humanitarian aid and development professionals. She explores issues that instigate crucial sector dialogue among the community and beyond.

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