Communication for Action at UR2016

At the Understanding Risk 2016 conference in Venice, BBC Media Action, King’s College London, and Resurgence organised a session on Communication for Action: What’s Needed? The session drew on the experiences of researchers and practitioners who are actively involved in risk communication.

Emma Visman, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London, began the session highlighting that the gap in communicating knowledge is not new – this has been something that we have had difficulty in implementing for a long time. But we seem not to be learning our lessons. She gave several reasons for this behaviour – there are a lack of opportunities for sharing learning, there is no reward for sharing failure, and there is a lack of risk communication as part of science training. She went on to outline some advice to help with this communication gap: regular sharing of lessons – including what did and did not work, the need for a two-way communication process, at all levels, scientists need to understand the needs of the users of the outcomes, and people at risk require a seat at the table to have a voice in decisions.

Diagram attributed to Emma Visman’s presentation in UR2016 session

Mark Harvey, CEO of Resurgence, then walked us through two examples of communication in disaster situations. The first was in Srinagar, Kashmir, where an assessment was carried out in 2010 warning of likely inundation in five years related to unplanned development in risk areas. However, this warning did not reach the public health department or the public, and in 2014 300 people died from flooding. The second example was from Myanmar – in 2008 there was vital information on the likelihood of landfall of Typhoon Nargis, but there was poor communication of the risk, referring to it as a “rainstorm”, and a lack of communication via radio (the main source of information for many poorer or rural communities). As a result of the Typhoon, 84,500 people were killed and 53,800 went missing. However, in 2015, Myanmar’s radio station regularly communicated the progress of Typhoon Komen and flooding risks with BBC Media Action, including guidance on how to prepare and respond. As a result, the impacts were less devastating than in 2008, with approximately 100 people killed.

Srinagar and Myanmar
Photos attributed to Mark Harvey’s presentation in UR2016 session.

Allan Vera from Christian Aid focused on a case study of urban resilience in the Philippines. Communities in urban areas at risk from natural hazards felt blamed for their risks, were prohibited return to their homes post-disasters, felt like powerless victims, and did not want to move away from their source of livelihoods despite the risks they faced (and if they were forced to move, they were then exposed to natural hazards they had no previous experience with). Due to a loophole in the law, urban dwellers risk eviction without the recourse of challenge in the face of disaster risks, and as such there is a prolific lack of investment in housing and risk reduction measures. To tackle this, Christian Aid focused on building trust by settling organisers to live within the community, initiating informal conversations about risks, mentoring leaders, encouraging grass-root groups and building leadership skills such as debate and disaster risk management knowledge. The project built confidence and trust within the community, and later, scientists were welcomed into the community to discuss the risks the community faced through workshops. Overall, the approach lead to disaster risk reduction strategies aligned with the community needs and wishes.

Photo attributed to Allan Vera’s presentation on community organisation in the Philippines in UR2016 session.

Lisa Robinson from BBC Media Action finished the round of presentations with some advice on how to communicate risk to enable action:

Know your target audience.

If you address everyone, you address no one. Therefore, figure out who you are targeting and focus your energies on communicating what they need in a way they will understand. Also, understand their motivations to communicate effectively. For example, a study found people were ignoring evacuation advice because they were returning home to save their pets. By communicating an evacuation plan that included their pets, people were more likely to evacuate.

Know what you want to change.

Identify the problem that you want to change. Identify what help you need to achieve those changes. Realise there is a process between knowing information and behaviour change. For example, most people who smoke know that it is bad for their health. But this does not change their behaviour. We need to understand the process between information and change to reach the end goal of change.

Be engaging.

Good intentions are not enough to bring about action. As a communicator, your job is to make it interesting so the end-user will pay attention. Change cannot be made without starting a conversation. So start the conversation.

lisa robinson
Image attributed to Lisa Robinson’s presentation in UR2016 session.

START Network Annual Conference: Humanitarian funding is not fit for purpose

The START Network’s Annual Conference on 11th May 2016 brought together 250 senior representatives from some of the world’s largest civil society organisations, multilaterals, and governments, as well as innovators, opinion-formers and other stakeholders concerned with connecting people in crisis to the best possible solutions.


Three strong messages came across over the course of the day:

  • Humanitarian funding is not fit for purpose
  • Humanitarian finance is changing
  • Community engagement is essential to humanitarian action

This blog post will deal with the first point: why the humanitarian funding system is not fit for purpose.

One of the main, repeated messages from the START Network Annual Conference is that the current humanitarian funding system is not fit for purpose. This is due to multiple reasons, and has become an increasingly urgent challenge as the scale and impact of crises grow. The way the system is currently set up cannot continue and unless it is fundamentally changed, will become increasingly problematic in the face of climate change, and demographic challenges expected in the future.

Not enough funding

The amount of financial aid available is not enough to tackle the problems faced by humanitarian system. There is a gap in the humanitarian system – 38% of the needs identified in humanitarian situations go unmet. The world spent $24 billion on international humanitarian response in 2014. This seems like a lot, until you compare to the $26 billion chewing gum industry (2012).

The world spends more on chewing gum than on humanitarian aid.

Funding is too restrictive

The funding available is too restrictive – the majority of funding is sourced from a limited number of big controllers, leading to asymmetrical power dynamics. These large donors are increasingly placing restrictions and stipulations on what the funding should be spent on. This leads to two main problems.

The first is that this dynamic does not reflect the needs on the ground. Often, the needs of those affected will not be known until the responders are on the ground and can assess where the gaps are. Increasingly, the funding stipulations restrict what the money can be spent on, often resulting in providing unnecessary assistance, and leaving a gap where needs are unmet.

The second is that the humanitarian system is becoming crippled by “log-frame-itis”; the focus has shifted to chasing donor funding and measuring “success” – creating destructive competition between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rather than collaboration, and focusing on outputs rather than outcomes. In addition, these funding opportunities are disproportionately skewed towards larger, international NGOs (INGOs) and rarely make it to the local level, or only a small proportion of the funding trickles down the local level.

Lack of local funding

The top down focus of humanitarian finance often means INGOs get the bulk of funding, whilst local NGOs receive very little. The figures speak for themselves: in 2014, only 0.2% of Overseas Development Aid (ODA) went to local governments and NGOs.

$1 in every $500 of humanitarian aid are spend on local actors

This disproportionate division of funds often means less engagement with local communities and it is these local NGOs that have valuable resources and insight into the crisis situation. These local NGOs have often been working within communities over a long time frame compared to INGOs. They know the local context and have developed and already established good relationships with communities. The distribution of funding is therefore missing a huge opportunity to engage with these well-placed and experienced local actors to bring about effective delivery of aid.

Funding focuses on response

It is well-known that investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR), development, and prevention schemes pre-crisis saves not only lives, but also the amount of funding required post-crisis in response. And yet, the humanitarian funding system is almost entirely response focused. Convincing donors to provide funding before an emergency, despite the evident need, still remains a challenge in the humanitarian sector.

For each dollar spent on disaster preparedness, an average of four dollars is saved on disaster response and recovery

Time for change

We are not learning our lessons; very little has changed in the last decade. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition report requested a fundamental reorientation in humanitarian funding, and yet the same problems experienced in the 2004 tsunami were repeated in the 2014 Ebola crisis.

The issues raised by the 2016 START Network Annual Conference also went on to explore the changes that are already taking place in the humanitarian funding system, and what else is required to shape the humanitarian funding system so that it is fit for purpose.

Science and Technology conference on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR

The UNISDR Science and Technology conference on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) was held at the Centre for International Conferences in Geneva (27-29 January 2016). The conference gathered together more than 1,000 researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to agree the science and technology roadmap for implementing the Sendai Framework for DRR.


The plenary session was opened by Dr Robert Glasser (head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) during the plenary session, highlighting the importance of science and technology in not just the implementation of the Sendai Framework, but across many of the 2015-2016 international agreements. In 2015, such events as the Sustainable Development Goals, COP21, and The Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa all highlighted the central importance of DRR for decreasing poverty and implementing sustainable development. All of these agreements rely upon the support of science and technology for decision-making.

Glasser emphasised the need and ability we have to do more to decrease economic and human losses from disasters. He was echoed by Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj (Minister of Science and Technology for Thailand) who emphasised the need for science and technology to take a leading role in the world in helping to improve our lives.


“More than 300 billion people are affected by natural hazard-related disasters on average each year” – Dr R Glasser

It was interesting and encouraging to acknowledge how much science and technology has and is developing. However, the root causes of disaster risk (poverty and inequality) were rarely mentioned in the conference. The main discussions focused on the physical sciences, risk assessments, and technology. There were multiple calls for the consolidation of our knowledge, and better communication of what we already know, before we move forward to re-producing what already exists. However, it must be acknowledged that gaps do exist in our knowledge base, and new data is needed due to inequalities in data coverage.

A common theme throughout the conference was the difficulty of delivering and communicating scientific findings to the government and the public. Glasser held up the IPCC’s approach to delivering complex climate change information as an excellent example of communicating science; it lays out compelling and advisory information, including a section within the report which bridges the science/policy gap, and is written in layman’s terms. Links between science, technology and policy need to be improved. We need to connect with users of technology to ensure understanding and communication of knowledge. The need for hybrid expertise/translators/communicators became a recurring theme, crossing multiple divides: science/research, policy/decision makers, practitioners/NGOs, and the community/locals/those at risk.

This communication of knowledge cannot be one-directional. Glasser highlighted the need to understand the pressures as well as the problems faced by end-users. For example, we need to be able to quantify the current costs, and then the future costs (particularly due to changes in climate) to be able to engage with finance ministers on the importance of DRR. More detailed data is needed to focus the attention of decision-makers, particularly related to what they value. Whilst it can often feel contrary to the values of humanitarians, making the argument with support of economic cost-benefit analyses, and using appropriate language and terminology, can get budgets for DRR integrated into policy, therefore saving lives.

The majority of the sessions I attended focused on presented research, and specific case studies, which were rarely related back to the Sendai Framework. I felt that opportunities to discuss and contribute to the roadmap were few, and perhaps a better approach would have been to gather 100-200 expert scientists, practitioners, and policymakers together to discuss the roadmap by sections, and contributing feedback and comments to the main panel.

Whilst the conference did not close with an agreed roadmap, the three days were a valuable networking opportunity for future collaborative work, and the sessions highlighted the main challenges and opportunities for DRR in the immediate future.