Future of the Environment

Why communication is key to disaster relief

Sebastien Turbot
Curator and Global Director, World Innovation Summit for Education
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When powerful earthquakes and aftershocks ravaged Nepal in April and May, social media rushed to the rescue. As aid workers, authorities and foreign agencies struggled to save lives amid devastated infrastructure, a parallel aid campaign took off on the web.

Facebook activated its Safety Check feature to help people reassure their friends and families, and victims and eyewitnesses turned to social networks to request help.

When disaster strikes, the first thing that both victims and rescue workers seek is reliable information. Yet when aid organizations and workers engage in rescue efforts in disaster zones, natural or man-made, an essential aid is often put on the backburner: communication.

I was at the Skoll World Forum earlier this year where I attended a session on how to leverage media to get attention. It was an enriching discussion led by Jim Fruchterman, a leading social entrepreneur, and Morgan Clendaniel, founding editor of Fast Company’s Co.Exist site.

Many questions from the audience made me realize that plenty of people still believe that communication strategies are only relevant and effective to raise funds and awareness.

But in reality, communication tools are like first aid – they save lives on the ground when leveraged at the right time.

For example: non-profit software company Ushaidi’s crisis maps have been helping aid workers save thousands of lives and address urgent humanitarian needs around the world. It all began in 2010 in the wake of the Haitian quake. Eyewitnesses flooded Ushaidi with tweets, e-mails and images. Millions of “digital humanitarians” from around the world volunteered to sift and collate relevant information and plot it on a live map. The map helped rescue workers to identify areas where medical care was urgently needed, while victims used the same map to seek aid.

In the same year, a communication campaign saved lives in Afghanistan.

Ribbons of asphalt roads had replaced cratered paths in Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley, but the roads lacked safety signs.  As Afghans zoomed along the freshly tarred roads, the rate of accidents surged, overshadowing the government’s developmental feat.

My former organization Sayara Strategies was called on to roll out print ads, television and radio commercials, and outreach to popular Afghan artists – all to convey a simple, lifesaving message: “drive safely.”

This road safety campaign may seem ordinary, but in a country like Afghanistan, where an entire generation has seen nothing but instability, such campaigns are a basic necessity.

And now with social media on the frontlines, engaging communication strategies can trigger global action within hours or even minutes. These same strategies also bridge the “information gap” between the developed and developing world.

When we design relief plans, the priority question should be: how do we bring not only food and medicine – but also information – to the victims? For when we inform, educate and engage people, they can collaborate for lasting social impact.

This article is published in collaboration with the Skoll World Forum. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Sébastien Turbot is the Director of Content and Programs at WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education), an initiative of Qatar Foundation.

Image: A man walks next to port area destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami in Kessenuma town. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

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