November 20, 2014 / 4:52 AM / 3 years ago

Storytelling trumps smartphones in Ebola crisis, experts say

WASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - S torytelling and plays trump smartphones to deliver messages on Ebola in some communities, illustrating how new technologies have their limits in aid delivery, humanitarian experts said on Wednesday.

While smartphone apps are playing an increasingly important role for fast, accurate alerts about natural disasters and for quick delivery of food and shelter, aid experts at a Disaster Relief Summit said humanitarian groups should be wary of their use at the expense of traditional communication methods.

Power systems fail, information infrastructures collapse, poor people have few phones, and messages from official sources sometimes are treated with suspicion, they said.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has shown the importance of traditional communication methods and local leadership networks to deliver difficult messages - not only because of technical hurdles.

“Trust is a significant issue in how we message,” said Gianluco Bruni, chief of information technology at the emergency coordination branch of the United Nations World Food Programme.

“Ebola shows that we can only work effectively if we are accepted by the local communities and tailor how we deliver our message.”

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, storytelling among mothers in playgroups and young people producing plays are proving highly effective at delivering messages on how to prevent the spread of Ebola, said Richard Parker, vice president for communications at Project Concern International.

Burial teams have come under attack near Freetown, Sierra Leone, and eight healthcare workers and journalists were murdered in a remote area of Guinea when they arrived to educate locals about the deadly virus.

The head-to-toe protective gear worn to lead infected people away, secret burials, and relatives denied the chance to perform traditional hands-on funeral rites that expose relatives to bodily fluids carrying the deadly virus have spread fear and suspicion.

Communication strategies should include amateur radio operators and local radio stations, which often are trusted sources of local information, Thomas Sullivan, chief of staff in the International Bureau of Federal Communications Commission at the U.S. State Department, said at the discussion on effective communication in delivering humanitarian aid.


At the same time, information technology is spreading rapidly in middle-income countries and continues to change the delivery of disaster relief, experts said at the two-day event organised by Aid and International Development Forum.

A recent U.N. survey in Iraq found that the fourth most requested form of assistance after food, water and security was mobile phone chargers, said the World Food Programme’s Bruni.

In countries where people rely heavily on mobile phones, more and more aid agencies are handing out electronic vouchers for disaster victims to buy food and clothing from local stories.

They are cheap and fast to distribute, cut down on opportunities for corruption, and their purchases support local merchants, which helps communities recover more quickly, Bruni said.

In fact smartphone usage is increasing so rapidly that relief agencies need to hasten their development of appropriate software, while recognising that one tool does not fit every situation, said Omar Abou-Samra, senior adviser for global disaster preparedness at the American Red Cross.

His agency is about to roll out a Hazard Alert, available in local languages for consumers to download and monitor up to five locations for official alerts on tsunamis, typhoons, floods and earthquakes.

Most of the smartphone apps currently push information at consumers. Another challenge is to improve analysis of SMS, tweets and Facebook messages sent by disaster victims on the kind of help they need, experts said. (Thomson Reuters Foundation is a supporting partner for the Aid and International Development Forum’s Disaster Relief Summit.)

Reporting by Stella Dawson, editing by Alisa Tang.

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