With the rest of the world I’ve been following Myanmar/Burma and Cyclone Nargis. I’ve had the opportunity to work on several humanitarian information responses in Asia in the past few years, including lots of involvement in Sri Lanka post-tsunami, Pakistani-administered Kashmir post-earthquake, and some work with Aceh post-tsunami, Jogjakarta post-earthquake, and Timor Leste and political violence. So I’m particularly interested in how information to affected populations can improve humanitarian assistance.

In my experience working with colleagues at Internews, I’m convinced that information access should be a core part of humanitarian assistance strategy. Providing information to people in humanitarian disasters enables them to make informed decisions in a number of ways. For instance:

– information about how they can help themselves, on issues such as public health, sanitation, shelter, and safe locations.

– information about where to find external assistance, food, medical care and supplies, and how to find friends and family.

Information and communications networks should also include projects that help people in humanitarian disasters voice their concerns and perspectives back to governments and the humanitarian community.

For a more complete argument, see the Internews Pakistan project on the Kashmiri earthquake, this article in Developments Magazine, and last year’s Symposium for Information on Humanitarian Action.

While humanitarian information needs of victims are not usually a distinct part of the UN’s appeals process, UN-OCHA does recognize the value of information in disaster zones. The UN’s Humanitarian Information Centres (HICs), however, are much more focused on interagency coordination, information-sharing among humanitarian organizations, and outreach to international media, then on providing information to victims, in assisting them to voice their concerns, or in working with local journalism communities to find and disseminate information. Read about latest efforts and appeals at ReliefWeb.

On the technology side, INSTEDD, Microsoft Humanitarian Systems, Telecoms Sans Frontieres, Sahana, and all the participants at various Strong Angel events all seek technology solutions for rapid response communications and information networks after humanitarian disasters. Most of these tools are aimed at facilitating information among humanitarian and government responders, though some can also be used to improve information delivery to victims, via SMS text-messaging services, for instance.

While an information component is a vital part of humanitarian response, the presence of early warning systems existing, redundant information and communication and broadcast networks, a community of media outlets and journalists, and an active public sphere are vital to a community’s ability to bounce back after a disaster. This is a key part of an argument to treat information and communications infrastructure and access not just as an political right, but as a key element in development and public safety policies.

Myanmar’s restrictions on information and communications, including restrictions on news, spotty and restricted Internet access, and extremely high cost of cellular phone service, together with a lack of technical capacity in-country to work on media technologies, means that getting accurate information about the disaster has been very difficult, and providing information to victims even more challenging.

Myanmar, by the way, as a member of ASEAN, has signed the Agreement on Disaster Management and Early Response, and thereby has international commitments to uphold in regard to early warning networks, international cooperation and coordination, and relief and rehabilitation after humanitarian disasters. Article 7, Disaster Early Warning, says:

1. The Parties shall, as appropriate, establish, maintain and periodically review national disaster early warning arrangements including:

a. regular disaster risk assessment;

b. early warning information systems;

c. communication network for timely delivery of information; and

d. public awareness and preparedness to act upon the early warning information.

2. The Parties shall co-operate, as appropriate, to monitor hazards which have trans-boundary effects, to exchange information and to provide early warning information through appropriate arrangements.

It’s clearly a question as to whether Myanmar has met its commitments. Reports from organizations working there cite downed phone lines and a general lack of communications options as a great hindrance to gathering accurate information about numbers of dead and missing, needs of victims for essentials, and possibilities of disease outbreaks. Those with technologies to assist have in the main not been granted access to enter the country.

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