Humanitarian Communication – A double-edged sword?


How does communication help and how can it possibly do harm in humanitarian contexts?

By Sian Bowen

Communications in the humanitarian sector have changed massively over the last 15 years since the introduction of new technology and the arrival of digital platforms, and social media. Nowadays, everything happens in real time, and anyone can report on a disaster or conflict, including those affected. In this way, humanitarian communications have essentially been democratized. This change brings advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, updates on disasters and crises reach humanitarian actors much quicker than before. On the other hand, the quality and veracity of the information received can be compromised, or even be fake.

Communication is understood in different ways by humanitarian actors. Communication can be described as a service, a skill, an area of expertise, an activity and a tool. Our Humanitarian Encyclopedia analysis of humanitarian documents identified four different definitions of communication, which explain communication as:

  • The key to success and the path to understanding
  • A social and cultural process
  • A basic human need
  • A two-way process requiring all participating parties to know one another

Humanitarian documents refer to multiple definitions of communication. One explanation says, “good communication is the key to success and the path to understanding”. Other explanations focus on communication as a process. One such description explains that “because communications is a social and cultural process, international expertise alone is unlikely to be sufficient.” Another emphasises the double nature of the communication process, stating that “communication is a two-way process, requiring that all parties get to know one another”.

In a humanitarian context, we also need to consider how unique principles including humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence interact with communications, particularly when information and communications technologies (ICTs) are increasingly becoming a defining component of contemporary humanitarian response.

ICTs are used in many different ways to support humanitarian response, including:

  • Remotely collecting and analysing social media, geospatial data and other sources of data;
  • Communicating information to improve situational awareness and dispel rumours;
  • Connecting affected populations to response activities.

Coupled with the purpose of the communications – to educate, to warn, to get feedback – these examples make clear that humanitarian communication is an integral element of operations, and thus should also be closely guided by humanitarian principles. Indeed, an organisation’s description of the purpose of humanitarian communication should strike a close resemblance to what we might expect as a description of their humanitarian endeavor as a whole, such as: “to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of man-made crises and natural disasters, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for the occurrence of such situations”.

According to European Interagency Security Forum, the three “Ps” – Principles, Population and Purpose, when combined provide the following definition: “Humanitarian communication is technical capacity building; information collection and dissemination; preparedness activities; and/or data analysis for the purposes of saving lives, alleviating suffering, and protecting the dignity of crisis-affected populations when performed in accordance with international standards of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence”.

But what happens if the all three ”Ps” are not present. What if the principles are not heeded? More private companies are now engaged in humanitarian response, plus there is more involvement of military actors in peacekeeping, which often looks like a humanitarian response. In addition, what happens if restrictive governments or military groups use communication for their own purposes, to censure or control? What if these entities do not adhere to the humanitarian principles? In such cases, information technology could be used to track or target vulnerable populations, or technologies could be interrupted on purpose to prevent information reaching affected populations, including internet blackouts and censoring of social media. The result of this can be that access to people in need could be prevented, or they could be denied life-saving information and programmes.

Therefore, agreeing what the common definitions of communications, and particularly “humanitarian communication” is needed, so that there is widespread understanding and acceptance of what is appropriate and legal, and what is not.

In conclusion, the humanitarian sector, and all stakeholders within it, or working alongside it, need to review and agree on the role of communications within today’s modern and complex humanitarian settings, and ensure it is used for good, and not for gain, manipulation or exploitation.

This week’s Humanitarian Encyclopedia Newsletter looks at communication in further detail.

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