In their shoes

Building trust by listening, learning and responding to community concerns.

Red Cross Red Crescent
magazine staff
and Fiston Mahamba

Corrie Butler/IFRC

While many of the attitudes swirling around Ebola virus disease (the disease is not real, for example) may be plainly false, they can take on an air of plausibility because another part of the rumour (humanitarians make money on disease) have some ring of truth.

“Most issues of distrust are based in someone’s reality,” notes the IFRC’s Gwendolen Eamer. “There is some truth or it’s based on some truth. You just have to take the time to imagine yourself in their shoes.”

This is one reason why many humanitarian organizations are making concerted efforts to better understand, in reality, what it’s like to be in the shoes of the people they are hoping to help. Often referred to as community engagement and accountability, these programmes aim at listening, tracking and responding to community perceptions and needs. They have become an increasingly integral part of Movement operations, from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to mobile migrant communities in South America.

With the Ebola crisis, the IFRC has taken this effort to a new level, introducing the first systematic, sector-wide mechanism for monitoring community perceptions and insights in an ongoing emergency.

Karungi Shamillah, 27, volunteers in her community in Majada, Uganda, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shamillah has been trained to conduct communitybased surveillance, educating communities about Ebola while also recognizing the signs of contamination. Photo: Corrie Butler/IFRC

“We are going community-to-community and often door-to-door with the message that Ebola is real and Ebola kills,” says Cheick Abdoulaye Camara, a community engagement officer with the IFRC in DRC. “In the process, we are getting a lot of very useful information.”

Entered in a spreadsheet by Red Cross volun­teers, the data are then analysed by the United States Centers for Disease Control and shared on a protected, interactive online dashboard with other actors such as Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, UNICEF and the World Health Organization.

Sometimes that data point to very practical needs, such as needing soap or washbasins, or can address more complex issues, such as people’s questions about vaccinations. Why, for example, are some people getting vaccinations but not others? If these questions are not addressed, people may come up with their own explanations. For example, are vaccinations only for people with family or politi­cal connections?

“We can answer their questions and explain the strategy of immunizing health workers first and then the concept of ring vaccination and so build trust and engagement with the treatments,” says Ombretta Baggio, senior adviser for community engagement for the IFRC, referring to the practice of creating a ‘ring’ of vaccinations around the sick person by first targeting anyone who has been in contact with an ill person, then those in proximity to the exposed contacts.

The data also help refine broader communications strategies, as well as prioritizing and coordinating messages. “It really impacts trust negatively if each outside actor comes with different information and messages,” she notes. “It also erodes trust if the material aid or the messages do not respond to peo­ple’s needs and concerns.”

The next step is ensuring that the data also inform the way operations are carried out. “As trust builds, it creates a positive feedback loop, because then you get even more and better info, which leads to better response and even more trust,” she says.

And humanitarian organizations also need to trust the communities they want to help. “Commu­nities often have important suggestions but we are sometimes too busy to stop and hear what they are saying,” says Baggio.

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