Putting Local Media At The Core of Innovation In CAR

February 2, 2012
Jacobo Quintanilla, Director of Humanitarian Information Projects for Internews, wrote this blog post for the Humanitarian Innovation Fund.

(This blog post from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund web site covers Internews' project in the Central African Republic.)

Since its independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by crises associated with poor governance and conflict. One of the least developed countries in the world, ranking 179 out of 187 on the 2011 UN Human Development Index, CAR has been heavily destabilized by fall-out from internal conflicts and also conflicts in neighboring states: Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Years of political unrest have left the country vulnerable to the threats of illegal weapons and armed groups. This unrest has displaced tens of thousands of Central Africans; many of them have crossed the border into Chad. According to UNHCR, as of August 2011 there were 176,196 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 17,750 refugees in CAR.

Despite relative progress made towards disarming two of the main rebel groups in 2008, another threat appeared in the form of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels from neighboring Uganda, whose insurgency and violence has spread throughout the region, including CAR. Since September 2008, the LRA has heavily destabilized the east of the country and has killed nearly 2,400 civilians and abducted about 3,400 others, according to Human Rights Watch.

CAR presents the humanitarian community with a range of complex and protracted emergencies, where access to and sharing of information with affected communities is vital but also largely under-resourced. Humanitarian organizations, in CAR and elsewhere, have historically failed to realize that emergency responses are often undermined by a lack of information among affected people that severely affects aid effectiveness and accountability.

Information before, during or after an emergency can be disseminated and collected by several means; two of the most important channels for communicating information in conflict and crises are local media, historically largely under-utilized and vastly untapped, and emerging mobile Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

Many aid responders are starting to use new technologies such as mobile, crowd-sourcing and mapping tools to engage with more people in a crisis response. These tools also give affected communities more power to make their voices heard. In CAR, despite the many challenges, this is no less the case.

Leveraging our Presence in CAR

In CAR, to overcome the difficulties of communication caused by power outages, lack of Internet access, bad roads, and rebel occupation in several areas, in the first quarter of 2011 Internews created a unique network connecting 15 community radio stations in CAR. The Association of Journalists for Human Rights, a local organization that was founded in December 2010 at one of the training sessions organized by Internews, runs the network (see their website and subscribe to receive their daily updates here). The Association connects the stations with one other and enables humanitarian agencies to learn what is happening in hard-to-reach areas for them and quickly exchange information with communities throughout the country.

The network has established an important and influential position in the humanitarian community in CAR. Thanks to daily bulletins, humanitarian agencies are able to intervene more quickly in response to demands from the local population. For example, Radio Zereda in Obo, one of the partners in the far east of the country, which is under LRA influence, reported in early 2011 on the disappearance of a number of refugees in a Congolese refugee camp near the border. The bulletin alarmed UNHCR, the Congolese government, and the Central African government, and a UNHCR fact-finding mission was sent out. Some days later, the refugees were discovered inside Congo.

Why CAR and Why Now

Last year, we received a grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to foster the radio network we are supporting in CAR through the use of FrontlineSMS (FLSMS). Two of the 15 radio stations in the network were able to pilot the use of FLSMS, and we now aim to expand FLSMS to the rest of the network in order to develop a full proof-of-concept project researching the effectiveness and contribution of local media to peacebuilding.

Internews’ recently awarded HIF grant is a natural continuation and a very important expansion of our innovative work in CAR in partnership with and in support of local media. We are very pleased to have received funding from HIF to experiment, document and learn in CAR, fulfilling the commitment to innovation, increased accountability and amplification of beneficiaries’ voices expressed by the Department for International Development (DfID) in its Humanitarian Emergency Response Review.

Integrating Local Media and ICTs into Humanitarian Response in CAR is an innovative project that, starting in early March, will foster a bounded network of trusted local media organizations. This network will be able to gather real-time, first-hand information from affected populations to create a two-way communication flow with humanitarians, improving emergency response, community participation and community resilience.

Drawing form the lessons learned from the USIP project, the HIF grant will allow the Association of Journalists for Human Rights to further expand this network by training the remaining 13 radio stations on the use of the FLSMS software to collect information from their listeners. This information will then be geo-located and processed in order to feed information into the humanitarian community in a more structured way positively influencing their decision-making (faster and smarter), using interactive maps and categorization of information through an Ushahidi platform.

This HIF pilot project will increase the efficiency, transparency and accountability of humanitarian relief efforts and increase community resilience by leveraging the relationship that local media have with their communities and strengthening these existing social networks through technological solutions. This project will create a reliable and sustainable system that will allow local media to gather, in real time, first-hand information from populations and channel it to the humanitarian sector, while at the same time, establishing a two-way communication flow with local communities.

Why Local Media Matters

In times of crises, conflict and emergency, access to reliable, accurate and well-targeted information can save lives. Communication is aid, and failing to act on this principle and provide resources accordingly means that humanitarian actors neglect people’s right to access information, ask questions, and participate in their own relief and recovery.

There are many complex and intertwined conflict dynamics affecting CAR and neighboring countries that also require targeted information and communications based responses. Local radio stations in CAR have already demonstrated the crucial role they play in the exchange of information between listeners in the community and international humanitarian organizations, UN agencies and local aid providers. ICTs, technical and power limitations allowing, can only strengthen the phenomenal role local media currently play At the end of the day, for many local communities, radio may be the only thing they can turn into.

More about Internews' projects in Central African Republic