Hitting Home: Impressions on Engaging Communities in Disaster Response

It is the night of November 7, 2013. The winds are howling deafeningly against the windows. The lights are flickering. Phone screens are lit, with everyone monitoring the latest developments on Typhoon Haiyan. Here I was in Manila, safe from the typhoon’s projected path. Worried, I receive a call from my mother in Cebu City, which would fortunately be spared, who says that the sky is eerily calm. All over the news were warnings for the entire nation to brace itself; yet, what would go on record as the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall shook the Filipino spirit to its foundations.Overnight, the rest of the archipelago lost almost all communication with the directly hit islands. Panic set in as we pondered on the whereabouts of relatives in Tacloban, whom, many days later, we discovered had to walk miles in search for food. Hours were spent waiting for calls to finally come in. Phones ringing would interrupt class lectures, where students away from their hometowns would break down crying, either out of sheer joy or unbearable grief at the news of family members reported dead.

Over the past decades, Asia-Pacific has become the most disaster-prone region—the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, floods in Myanmar, and the recent Nepal earthquake are among many devastating tragedies the region has witnessed. From these, many a lesson has been learned about improving disaster response, the increasing role of civil society in preparedness, and how communications technology can be critical to transforming the humanitarian world.

Participants at the OCHA-sponsored Community Engagement forum in Bangkok last week. IOM/Joe Lowry 2016

In light of this, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) - Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific hosted a workshop on Coordinating Community Engagement in Humanitarian Action in Bangkok from October 4 to 5, 2016. Experts and practitioners from various international organizations and NGOs across the region gathered to exchange innovative practices and challenges in engaging communities in disaster response.

Key thematic issues were discussed, including the ‘common service approach’, which advocates coordination of information provision and feedback within the humanitarian community, and ‘diverse operational partnerships’, which aims to maximize cooperation across the local, regional, and global levels.

As participants reflected on the added value of IOs and NGOs, communications technology entered the picture. Stressing the need to employ technology appropriate to specific sectors, participants shared a diverse range of experiences on the increasing reliance on social media—from its prevalence in Indonesia and the Philippines, to its lack of access among the most vulnerable in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Yet, all faced the common challenge of imbuing accountability into the use of social media platforms in disaster response, with grave dilemmas such as sensationalism and misinformation. Haiyan illustrated this challenge. IOs and NGOs immediately flocked to Tacloban, the first major city to be hit, as visceral photos and videos captured the world’s attention in an instant. As a result, other area such as Samar, Northern Cebu, and Panay Island received aid only much later. This demonstrated the need for effective information coordination among key players, as well as the crucial role of early community engagement.

“Technology must adjust to the context of the community, not the other way around,” says Aivon Guanco of World Vision Philippines. Indeed, the failure of mainstream communication platforms presented Haiyan’s first responders with a great difficulty. The lack of information can cause misguided response strategies and severe anxiety among victims and their families, shared practitioners who worked on the Nepal earthquake response. Following Haiyan, aid workers in the Philippines began experimenting with FireChat, a mobile communication app that does not require internet connection.

As climate patterns continue to be a source of global concern, the workshop provided the participants vital takeaways. First, technology must be further nuanced to each economic and sociocultural context, in order to provide dependable communication in crisis situations. Movements such as the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, which employs the assistance of mobile network operators, are growing central to disaster response. In addition, preparedness must be approached through the sharing of data and expertise from a plethora of organizations, which can streamline response strategies. Lastly, civil society and the private sector have the capacity to fill crucial gaps in the process, thus must be persistently engaged.

In the years to come, disasters are likely to arrive with greater intensity, and the Asia-Pacific region will be at the front line. Moving forward, it is only through enhancing coordination between communities, governments, and organizations that we will be fully equipped to handle future calamities—and prevent many more from suffering the same anguish my countryfolk did in 2013.


Miko Alazas is a Media and Communications Intern at IOM’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand