Whether by mass SMS campaigns or face-to-face conversation,
getting information to beneficiaries can be critical to their
survival. Technology offers new tools. But old questions
remain: are they getting the message and how well do we listen?
SEATED AT HER desk at the IFRC base camp in Port-au-Prince,
Sharon Reader brings up a Google map of Haiti on her laptop
computer. Scattered over the map are tiny blue markers representing
cell phone towers. She selects a group with her cursor, then
types a message in Creole and hits “send”. In
less than an hour, nearly 24,000 people in the northern town
of Port-de-Paix receive an SMS from the Haitian Red Cross
Society reminding them to wash their hands thoroughly with
soap to protect against cholera.
Ten minutes away in the camp known as La Piste, a Haitian
woman with a cheerful smile and blonde braids, Nicolette
Bernard, walks up to a woman washing laundry at the entrance
to her tent. She introduces herself as a Haitian Red Cross
“What do you know about cholera?” Bernard asks
the woman. As they start to chat, she reminds her of ways
to protect her family from catching the disease.
These two very different communications tactics — one
hi-tech, one face-to-face — not only share a common
message, they are a critical part of the effort to improve
the delivery of humanitarian aid through communication. By
talking and listening to beneficiaries, the reasoning goes,
aid organizations can target aid more effectively while giving
the recipients a greater role in their own recovery.
“There’s a huge need to include beneficiary
com-munications in any development plan,” says Leonard
Doyle of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “You’ve
got a million people who have been living in tents for a
year. Does anybody know what they need, what they think,
what their problems are? You need to include them in the
conversation. Otherwise you’re blindly wandering around
assuming you know the right answers.”
This basic idea of talking to victims is not new. It’s
been around for as long as people have sought to help others
in need. But the concept of beneficiary communications, as
it’s now known, has taken on new dimensions in recent
years after several major disasters — particularly
the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — highlighted the need
for improved warning systems and aid that better reflects
people’s requirements on the ground.
In response, a number of international relief and development
organizations and media agencies created a working group
called Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities,
which supports and encourages those working in the humanitarian
sector to communicate with the people they’re aiming
Now beneficiary communications, or ben comms, is part and
parcel of many operations, from flood-ravaged Pakistan to
famine-afflicted Mongolian herding communities. But the scale
of the Haiti earthquake brought the Movement’s beneficiary
communications efforts to a new level. For the first time,
the IFRC hired a full-time ben comms delegate, while the
British Red Cross and Canadian Red Cross both created similar
“Getting information is as important as getting water,” says
Reader, the IFRC’s beneficiary communications delegate
in Port-au-Prince. “When something bad happens we immediately
turn on the radio or television. There’s a need to
know what’s going on — where do I go, what do
I do, how can I get help?”
From SMS to megaphones
Since the earthquake, Reader and her ben comms colleagues
have dealt with shelter issues, disaster preparedness,
gender-based violence, health and hygiene by using a combination
of hi-tech and time-tested methods. They have sent out
sound trucks, printed posters, produced radio shows, created
telephone call-in lines, supported hygiene teams and transmitted
millions of text messages to people’s cell phones.
Meanwhile, the use of SMS messages took on a new dimension. “A
lot of people had started to use SMS technology but it was
not efficient, it was a scattershot approach,” says
Will Rogers, a communications specialist for the Irish Red
Cross who had been developing cell phone messaging for campaigns
Before making the trip to Port-au-Prince, he contacted Trilogy
International, the parent company of one of Haiti’s
phone suppliers and explained the IFRC and Haitian Red Cross
Society’s needs. Trilogy’s developers put together
a brand-new system that allows the IFRC and the National
Society to zero in and send text messages to a specific geographic
zone. For example, when a storm surge threatened the northern
coast of Haiti last September, they could send a message
to 50,000 people in the affected area without disturbing
people in the rest of the country.
And unlike other services, recipients don’t have to
be subscribers to the alert system to receive the SMS. Thanks
to the ingenuity of some camp residents, sometimes people
don’t even need phones. At one camp in Port-au-Prince,
the camp committee president, Paul Jean Bélo, sends
people out with megaphones to broadcast the content of each
SMS throughout the camp.
But cell phones have their limits. Most of the cell phones
owned by people in Haiti only receive messages of up to 140
characters. So some SMS instruct beneficiaries to dial a
toll-free line for a menu option and a longer recorded message.
During a campaign about gender-based violence, victims were
instructed to call the number for a list of clinics they
could go to for help.
When Hurricane Tomas was on its way, an SMS invited people
to call for disaster preparedness information. The phone
line was overwhelmed and while 310,000 calls got through,
many others didn’t. Reader plans to address that problem
with an upgrade of the line. At the same time, the response
has convinced some sceptics that the text messages have an
impact. “I myself didn’t think they would work
so well,” says Periclès Jean-Baptiste, communications
director of the Haitian Red Cross Society.
All told, the IFRC and the Haitian Red Cross delivered nearly
27 million text messages to 1.2 million Haitians in 2010.
Trilogy has licensed the technology to the IFRC for free
and is working with Rogers to convert the product into Urdu
and adapt it to a mobile network system in Pakistan. In January
2011, the IFRC and Trilogy signed a licence agreement that
will allow the IFRC to deploy the system globally.
The personal touch
But SMS is just one part of an overall strategy. When creating
a beneficiary communications campaign, Reader starts with
a particular issue then builds a plan of action around
it, picking and choosing methods that work together and
reinforce the message.
At the Annexe de la Mairie camp, for example, she anticipated
problems when the IFRC and Haitian Red Cross only had enough
available land to build 350 shelters for 900 families. Working
closely with the shelter team, she headed off those problems
with what she calls a “tailored solution”, putting
up notice boards with posters explaining how the Red Cross
conducted the selection process and who they considered the
most vulnerable members of the community. She sent out a
sound truck with the same message, so even those who couldn’t
read would understand. And she advertised a call-in centre
that people could telephone with questions. “We used
communications to smooth the process and reduce the amount
of frustration,” she says.
In Port-au-Prince, La Piste is a massive camp where 50,000
displaced people live in endless rows of dingy tents. This
is one of the first places where cholera appeared in the
capital, and there is a treatment centre on site. In early
January, a number of empty beds served as proof that people
were assimilating the message about how to avoid the disease.
Nonetheless, Haitian Red Cross hygiene promoters were continuing
to pay visits to the tents every day. One volunteer, a young
woman named Lovely, walked up to a woman cooking food in
front of her tent. “Cholera is still here,” she
told her, “so don’t forget to keep washing your
hands and cooking your vegetables.”
“It’s so important to keep communicating the
messages again and again,” says Amanda George, who
is in charge of beneficiary communications for the British
Red Cross. On Fridays, she often hires a sound truck to do
a hygiene promotion road show throughout the camp. Big speakers
blast Haitian music and messages while a couple of volunteers
dressed like clowns sing, dance and talk to the crowd about
“One of our drivers is a musician,” says George. “He
composed a song about waste disposal. After he sang it once
in the camps, the kids already knew the lyrics and were singing
West of the capital in the seaside town of Léogâne,
there are nearly 50 wooden kiosks scattered throughout the
communities where the Canadian Red Cross is working. The
National Society built them as information points, providing
material such as lists of people whose houses have been assessed.
“The day after we put up the first one, a man came
by and realized his name wasn’t on the list. He had
fallen through the cracks,” says Louise Taylor, the
Canadian Red Cross ben comms delegate. The kiosks also have
letter boxes for residents’ comments, and posters with
cartoon drawings explaining various issues, such as the system
for distributing transitional shelters.
Face-to-face communication also helps aid workers pick up
on and counteract potentially harmful rumours. At one point,
Reader caught wind of a rumour that camp committee members
were taking money in return for shelters. She immediately
printed posters saying that Red Cross Red Crescent shelters
were free and providing a number that people could call if
they were ever asked for money.
Time to listen
All agree that the biggest challenge of beneficiary communications
is making sure that those most in need also have their
say. “It’s easy put information out,” says
Reader. “What has taken more time to set up is how
to get information back.”
To that end, Reader is now working on a small pilot project
with a Haitian company called Noula that establishes a telephone
line where residents of the Annexe de la Mairie camp can
call and make shelter-related complaints. They can also ask
questions to people on the other end, who respond using a
list of standard questions and answers. When the respondents
don’t have an answer, they pass the information on
to the Red Cross, which can then follow up.
And then there’s radio. Every Wednesday at 15:00,
the IFRC produces Radio Red Cross on Haiti’s Radio
One network. It’s a call-in show, a fairly new concept
here, with invited experts and a different theme every week.
The radio show has been so popular that Reader plans to air
the programme twice weekly. (The Pakistan Red Crescent Society
has also launched an interactive weekly radio show and a
30-minute television show.)
One day this winter, two of Reader’s Haitian colleagues,
Moralus Joseph and Johnson Hilaire, produced a show on cholera.
They carried their laptops to a container office at the Red
Cross base camp, plugged in a mixing board and a couple of
microphones and a few minutes later, were on the air. Joseph
asked his guests (a Haitian Red Cross doctor and a director
from the National Society’s health department) various
questions, Hilaire played a few pre-recorded spots and jingles
(including a song about soap and water), then they opened
up the phone lines.
The calls started slowly and picked up as the hour moved
along. “How long will purified water stay clean?” one
caller asked. “If I get cholera once, can I catch it
again?” asked another. “If you have diarrhoea
does that mean you have cholera?”
Some questions, such as “When is cholera going to
leave?”, didn’t have an easy answer. But the
programme allowed people to ask tough questions, to give
voice to their fears and to feel like others out there were
By Amy Serafin
Amy Serafin is a freelance journalist based in Paris.
From Haiti to Mongolia, cell phone technology is changing
the way the Movement talks to and empowers beneficiaries.
In Mongolia, herders such as Khairkhandulaan Soum use cell
phones to warn each other of harsh weather, and to share
other life-saving emergency information.
Photo: ©Rob Few/IFRC
as important as
Even with growing access to cell phones, good communication
with beneficiaries relies on face-to-face conversation, door-to-door
legwork and in-depth needs assessment. Here a volunteer for
the Haitian Red Cross speaks with a resident about hygiene.
“A lot of people had
started to use SMS
technology but it
was not efficient, it
was a scattershot
specialist for the
Irish Red Cross
This weekly TV programme, hosted by Pakistan Red Crescent
Society and IFRC staff, allowed for two-way comm-unication
with those affected by last year’s monsoon floods.
Messages received from viewers help determine programming.
“You need to
you know the right
Restoring family links
The ICRC and the Haitian Red Cross also used a mix
of hi- and low-tech methods in efforts to reunite families
through the Restoring Family Links (RFL) programme.
In the days following the quake, ICRC rolled out mobile
teams with satellite phones so people could call loved
ones around the world.
RFL services were advertised via radio, posters were
affixed to any prominent surface and loudspeakers were
poised on the back of pick-up trucks. Meanwhile, Haitian
Red Cross personnel worked in the camps, collecting
data on missing people that could be posted on the
ICRC tracing web site. In this case, the beneficiaries
of RFL services could be living as close by as the
next camp or as far away as Miami, Montreal, New York
In situations of conflict, communication with beneficiaries
is just as vital, though it poses unique challenges — particularly
when it comes to hi-tech tactics. Not only could there
be concerns about the beneficiary’s privacy and
security, cooperation with a telecom provider on SMS
campaigns could compromise neutrality if that provider
were controlled by or affiliated with a party to the
conflict. Direct face-to-face communication with beneficiaries
is critical, however, both to assess beneficiary needs
and to garner the 'humanitarian intelligence' required
to understand the political and cultural context into
which aid is delivered.
In many conflict areas, people lack access to cell
phone service and so radio is the more effective. To
assist people separated by conflict in Somalia, the
ICRC works the British Broadcasting Corporation on
a 15-minute radio broadcasts in which enquiries and
the names of people being sought are read out.