Q&A: Are humanitarian aid agencies approaching communications all wrong?

An aerial view of the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: © UNHCR / Roger Arnold

BANGKOK — By continuing to treat communication as an afterthought, humanitarian aid agencies are failing to adequately pass on vital information to Rohingya refugees now dispersed in camps and informal settlements throughout Cox’s Bazar, according to a recent report from Internews. It is a problem hardly confined to the most recent refugee crisis, warned Internews Senior Director for Humanitarian Programs Anahi Ayala Iacucci, and one with global implications.

When a largely illiterate refugee population balloons from well over 200,000 to 1 million in three months, communication quickly becomes as crucial as it is challenging. And in Bangladesh, humanitarian aid groups are currently communicating with affected communities about services such as food distributions and vaccinations any way they can — through staff at physical hubs, pictorial messaging, and door-to-door visits with interpreters.

But more than three-quarters of the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar feel they don’t have enough information to make good decisions, and almost two-thirds said they are unable to communicate with aid providers, according to Internews’ interviews with individual refugees and focus groups.

Aid groups 'desperate' to communicate effectively with 1 million Rohingya refugees

The current suite of ad hoc communications strategies in Cox's Bazar reflects an aid community unprepared for the rapid growth of a city-sized refugee camp. But communication challenges have also been compounded by the low literacy rate of the refugee population, the complexities of the Rohingya language, and a surge of aid groups unfamiliar with the local context.

The report paints a broader picture of a humanitarian sector that still treats communication as an afterthought — or relies on feedback channels preferred by the humanitarian community, rather than by the affected population. The lack of functional feedback mechanisms is one pain point in particular that Iacucci feels needs to be addressed immediately in order carry out projects that deliver for communities.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.