Accountability Community Engagement

C4D, CwC, Beneficiary communication, CEA, Community Engagement, CDAC..WTF are we talking about?

In the Communication with Communities field, referred to as CwC, the proliferation of terminologies is getting out of control, at the point where we now have a new language around this topic (10 different definitions) that is weirdly enough only able to indicate one concept but has a lot of ways of doing it!

I think that sometimes in the humanitarian field we go a bit ballistic on definitions and frameworks and sometimes, but only some times, we have a proliferation of terminologies that seems to indicate a range of different things, but most of the times are there to cover the fact that nobody knows that they are talking about (very similar to what I talk about here). In the Communication with Communities field, referred to as CwC, the proliferation of terminologies is getting out of control, at the point where we now have a new language around this topic (10 different definitions) that is weirdly enough only able to indicate one concept but has a lot of ways of doing it!

So, let’s start with what comes first.

Communication with Communities (CwC), and Communication and Community Engagement – CDAC

The CDAC Network was created by a consortium of organizations, initially including the BBC World Service Trust (now BBC Media Action), British Red Cross, Internews, Irish Red Cross, Save the Children Alliance and Thomson Reuters Foundation and OCHA back in 2009, to “brings together expertise from the humanitarian, media development and technology sectors in a new collaboration that recognizes information and two-way communication as key humanitarian deliverables”.

Therefore CDAC was the first one to codify the definition of Communication with Communities, based in fact on what BBC and Internews had been advocating for years. In fact, the “mother” of the terminology “CwC” is in reality, “Communication with Disaster Affected Communities”, defined as:

The provision of “a system-wide communication coordination mechanism to enable humanitarian operations to get life-saving information to affected populations and, of equal importance, to channel the affected population’s voices back to aid actors.”

CDAC, Haiti Learning Review, 2012

Over the years, and due to the fact that now CDAC was used to indicate a specific network of organizations, the CDAC Network, slowly the use of CDAC as defined above was abandoned and replaced with CwC. CDAC and CwC are therefore the exact same thing, as stated in the Typhoon Haiyan CDAC Report, where the Communication with Communities section starts with:

“Communicating with disaster affected communities continues to be an emerging field of humanitarian response that aims to meet the information and communications needs of people affected by crisis. […] Communicating with disaster affected communities is based on the principle that information and communication are critical forms of aid, without which disaster survivors cannot access services or make the best decisions for themselves and their communities.”

CDAC, Typhoon Haiyan Learning Review: Report, 2014

Note here the sentence “based on the principle that information and communication are critical forms of aid”, from where the terminology “Info As Aid” comes. In fact, Info As Aid, is the name of a joint project implemented in 2011 “to improve the quality of humanitarian responses by maximizing the amount of accurate and timely information available to both humanitarian responders and crisis-affected populations through enhanced information exchange between them in an emergency.” Funded by the United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development (DfID), infoasaid was implemented by a consortium of two media development organizations: Internews and BBC Media Action. To achieve these objectives, a number of tools were developed under that project: Media and Telcoms Landscape Guides; a library of generic messages; the ‘Communication is Aid’ e-learning course; the infoasaid’s Diagnostic Tools; and an infoasaid’s Research component. You will see below that somehow Info As Aid became also one if the substitute of CwC as indicating the principle but also the set of actions.

In between 2011 and 2016 the majority of the organizations in the sector used the terminology CwC as explained above – and codified more in detailed by UNOCHA in their OCHA on Message, “What is Communication with Communities“, published in 2013 (see more below).

In between 2014 and 2016 though CDAC, the only organization technically mandated with defining and advocating for CwC, started to “evolve” (?) the concept. In the “CDAC Strategy 2016-2021”, drafted in 2017, two separate yet combined concepts appeared: communication on one side, and community engagement on the other side. The same definition is used in a later in the “CwC CDAC Toolkit” showing how now for the CDAC Network CwC can now be defined as Communication and Community Engagement:

“Communication and community engagement are both with and between communities. Here, they are used to refer to activities where the exchange of information is used to save lives, mitigate risk, enable greater accountability and shape humanitarian response, as well as to support the communication needs of people affected by and at risk of emergencies.”

CDAC Strategy 2016-2021, 2017

In 2018:

“In the context of humanitarian action Communication with Communities, which is sometimes abbreviated to CwC, refers to activities where the exchange of information is used to save lives, mitigate risk, enable greater accountability and shape the response, as well as supporting the communication needs of people caught up in conflicts, natural disasters and other crises.

CDAC, Toolkit for MAINSTREAMING COMMUNICATION WITH COMMUNITIES in Emergency Response, Revised 2018

While we can all notice the addition of important words like Accountability to this new evolution of the terminology, nothing really seems to jump out as new. This definition adds to the specifications of what do we mean with “meet the information and communications needs of people affected by crisis”; and what do we mean by “crisis”. But there is nothing in this new definition that addresses the “community engagement” part.

So, to sum up: CDAC, to CwC, to Communication and Community Engagement (CCE). All exactly the same, which is:

  • A set of activities
  • Includes coordination of communication
  • Exchange of information (two-ways)
  • Enables accountability
  • Supports Community Communication Needs
  • Shapes the response (which means “Closes the feedback loop”)
  • Supports communities and humanitarians

CwC and Community Engagement – OCHA

OCHA went though a similar phase, originally embracing the CwC first CDAC definition and codifying in for the rest of the international community as:

“Communications with Communities (CwC) is an emerging field of
humanitarian response that helps to meet the information and
communications needs of people affected by crisis. CwC is a philosophy and an approach, the principles of which are applicable across the humanitarian program cycle, from preparedness (such as early
warning systems) to program implementation, and monitoring and
evaluation (such as including affected communities’ perspectives
in evaluations). CwC is also an essential element in ensuring accountability and transparency, which require the effective exchange of information between disaster survivors and responders.”

UNOCHA, Coordination Toolkit, 2014

This definition was the one taken directly from the original CwC definition done by CDAC, and used by the wider community for years.

Lately though, OCHA too decided to embed CwC into the broader Community Engagement Field:

“To establish a people-driven response, it is imperative that community engagement includes following components:

* Provision of information (Information as Aid -video)
* Feedback and closing the communication loop mechanisms (Communication with Communities)
* Core humanitarian standards on quality and accountability (Accountability to Affected Populations)”

UNOCHA Philippines, Community Engagement

But then, another definition pops out in the UNOCHA website, one that has slightly different components:

“Community Engagement is a two-way dialogue between crisis-affected communities, humanitarian organizations and, where possible, within and between communities. It should enable affected people to meet their different needs, address their vulnerabilities and build on their pre -existing capacities. [Community Engagement]…includes three components: participation, feedback and complaints, and providing information. It harnesses the power of all communication channels, including traditional media, mobile and digital technology and face -to -face exchanges. Relief actors recognize that providing connectivity to affected families is a vital humanitarian service in its own right. To ensure that humanitarian needs are addressed effectively, Community Engagement should be continuous and happen at every stage of the Humanitarian Programme Cycle.”

UNOCHA, Community Engagement

So, OCHA’s trajectory is: CwC to Community Engagement, but as opposed to the CDAC definition, this time they are not the same concept, but one is a component of the other…well this is what it looks. If we look closer, Community Engagement as defined by OCHA seems to be:

  • A set of activities (but also a philosophy and an approach), including M&E, program design and implementation
  • Includes coordination of Communication
  • Exchange of information (two-ways)
  • Enables accountability and transparency
  • Closes the feedback loop
  • Supports communities and humanitarians

So…OCHA defines Community Engagement as function of Info As Aid (here is where the Project name becomes suddenly a principle) or Participation; CwC, defined as closing the feedback loop and providing information; and application of core standards. While this structure seems to be completely arbitrary, the ACTUAL meaning behind the structural definition seems to be exactly the same as the original CwC definition used by OCHA itself.

Communicating with Communities (CwC) – UNHCR

UNHCR seems to have the biggest identity crisis when it comes to CwC. On their website they state:

“Communicating with communities is not an option but vital to the work that UNHCR and its partners do. It is an essential element of Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) and contributes to operational effectiveness and to security and stability.”

UNHCR Website, February 2019

While yet not providing an actual definition, two paragraph later it reads:

“‘Communicating with Communities’ (CwC) is not a term that UNHCR uses formally; nor is it associated with specific posts or responsibilities

UNHCR Website, February 2019

Isn’t it weird for something that is VITAL and ESSENTIAL to an organization that they state that they do not even want to use the terminology, but most of all nobody is responsible for it??

Anyway, despite not being a term used formally, here is what UNHCR defines as CwC:

“Emergency responders need to understand the information needs of different groups and individuals, as well as their preferred channels of communication and most trusted sources. Equally important, the views of communities should inform humanitarian decision making. Emergency responders must demonstrate that they listen, and explain […] why they make the interventions they do and why they will not take certain actions that PoC have asked for.”

UNHCR Website, February 2019

So, according to UNHCR, CwC is (even if they DO NOT use it):

  • Exchange of information (two-ways communication channels)
  • Supports Community Communication Needs
  • Shapes the response (which means “Closes the feedback loop”)
  • Includes understanding information needs and communication channels
  • Includes transparency

So, UNHCR adopts very much (not formally of course) the same definition as CDAC and UNOCHA originally used.

Humanitarian Communications and Communication Campaigns – IOM

On the IOM website you do not find IOM definition or any sort of definition or explanation of what IOM means when they talk about CwC, but you can find it mentioned in 446 of their website pages.

In “Communicating with Communities, A Case Study and Guide from
Pakistan and Elsewhere
“, published by IOM and The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) in 2014, the specific definition of CwC, as per the title of the paper, is not provided, but what is provided is yet another concept: Humanitarian Communications.

“Humanitarian communications is a cross-cutting service that supports all humanitarian partners. It involves the coordination and design of strategies and campaigns for the benefit of all stakeholders (humanitarian responders, governments and affected communities), while ensuring that information is shared and disseminated. Some would go even further to say that humanitarian systems and agencies should recognize the importance of communications as a sector, and that it is a critical aspect of effective delivery of humanitarian assistance. (Wall and Chéry, 2010)”

IOM and HAP, Communicating with Communities, A Case Study and Guide from
Pakistan and Elsewhere, 2014

In the report “Starting the Conversation: Information, Feedback and Accountability in Post-Typhoon Philippines” published by IOM in 2014, IOM clearly embrace the CDAC definition of CwC, but calls it “Communication Campaigns“:

“Information and communications are critical forms of assistance that enable crisis-affected populations to better understand issues that affect their lives, to make informed decisions and to voice concerns and needs for themselves and their communities.”

IOM, Starting the Conversation: Information, Feedback and Accountability in Post-Typhoon Philippines, 2014

Clearly stated in the report, but also reinforced by the fact that IOM is a member of the CDAC Network, the IOM set of terminologies goes like this: CWC to Humanitarian Communications, to Communication Campaigns and Engagement with Communities. All together, this is what they seem to indicate:

  • A set of cross-cutting activities
  • Includes coordination of communication
  • Two-ways exchange of information (information to and from communities)
  • Shape the response by engaging communities in closing the feedback loop
  • Supports communities and humanitarians

So, despite the fact that IOM seem not to link openly CwC, Humanitarian Communications or the sort, to Accountability or Transparency (except in the title of the last paper mentioned), it does so by linking Feedback loops to Accountability. All in all, the alternative definition and terminology provided by IOM also does not add or nor change anything from the original CwC definition.

Services for Communities (S4C), Communications as Aid, Communication with Communities and Community Engagement – WFP/ETC

WFP has been one of the latest actor to join the CwC crowd, specifically with its role as the lead of the ETC cluster. In 2015, at the launch of the ETC2020 Strategy, a new terminology appeared: Services for Communities, defined as a set of actions to “ensures provision of information and communications technology solutions to enable communities to communicate in emergencies.”

The new ETC Services for Communities sector includes, in between more technical ETC specific actions:

“Communications as Aid. Communications is provided as aid”

“Communications with Communities (CwC). Ensure affected people have access to information and opportunities for ongoing dialogue between themselves, and the entire response community.”

“Accountable humanitarian action through Community Engagement.Community Engagement emphasises two-way communication for discussing, protecting, empowering and positively influencing communities. Community Engagement includes collating and sharing essential information, radio broadcasts in local languages, as well as tracking and correcting rumors.”

ETC, 2020 Strategy

So, ETC also restructures the entire landscape, by creating yet another terminology “Communications is Aid“, which seems to be the baby of Information As Aid, from Info As Aid, and #commisaid, the Twitter hashtag used by the community for online conversations about this topic.

So, ETC trajectory seem to be CWC to Communications as Aid, to Community Engagement, which all together mean:

  • A set of cross-cutting activities, including rumors tracking, radio broadcasts, etc.
  • Includes coordination of (tele) communication
  • Supports Community Communication Needs
  • Includes two-ways exchange of information (information to and from communities)
  • Shape the response by engaging communities in closing the feedback loop
  • Supports communities and humanitarians
  • Enables Accountability

While it is unknown what the difference between “communication provided as aid” and “ensure affected communities have access to information” and “two-way communication”, it is clear that none of the ETC definitions seems to indicate anything different than the aggregate of the Communication with Communities original CDAC/UNOCHA definition.

Communication for Development (C4D) – UNICEF

UNICEF does not mention CwC in their website, as they have their own field, called Communication for Development. The definition of C4D starts with stating the difference that UNICEF perceives as being the defining part of C4D:

“Communication for Development goes beyond providing information. C4D involves understanding people, their beliefs and values, the social and cultural norms that shape their lives. It involves engaging communities and listening to adults and children as they identify problems, propose solutions and act upon them. Communication for development is seen as a two-way process for sharing ideas and knowledge using a range of communication tools and approaches that empower individuals and communities to take actions to improve their lives.”

UNICEF, Communication for Development

Plus UNICEF also has another sub-category: “Communication for Development in humanitarian situation” which is a mouthful and also somehow an oxymoron:

“Communication for Development in humanitarian situation seeks to share relevant, action-oriented information so that when disaster strikes, people in affected communities know what actions to take. Timely, accurate information plays a critical room in the protecting the health and well-being of all, including people with disabilities, children and the elderly.”

UNICEF, C4D in Humanitarian Situations

So, let’s try to look at this definition a bit more in depth. The fact that C4D involves “understanding people, their beliefs and values, the social and cultural norms that shape their lives” makes a lot of sense, and incidentally, it is also what you need to understand when you want to communicate with others. Again, the word “engagement” pops up but with little explanation of what that means. The second part of the definition is basically the main CwC definition: “two-way process for sharing ideas and knowledge using a range of communication tools”.

So, C4D, this new concept seems to be:

  • A set of cross-cutting activities, involving different approaches and tools, including social mobilization, advocacy and behavior and social change communication
  • Includes coordination of timely and accurate information
  • Supports Community Communication Needs
  • Two-ways exchange of information (information to and from communities)
  • It involves engaging communities
  • Supports communities and humanitarians

Despite the efforts the the C4D definition does not seem to be that much different from the CwC definition, with a little more emphasis on the cultural and anthropological approach but otherwise, same old stuff with more buzz words.

Community Engagement – Oxfam

Oxfam decided that they do not need any new definition so you will not find any mention to CwC in their website or policies, or strategies or objectives. After spending some time on their website I found this document here that provides the definition of Community Engagement, under which we can find somehow similar to CwC:

“Community engagement […] is a planned and dynamic process to connect communities and other emergency response stakeholders to increase community’s control over the impact of the response. It brings together the capacities and perspectives of communities and responders.”

In their model of Community Engagement, they define several components of it:

  • Information and communication.
  • Community participation.
  • Monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL).
  • Capacity building on the job.
  • Advocacy.
  • Coordination and collaboration.

So, the Community Engagement definition given by Oxfam also resembles a lot the very first definition of CwC:

  • A set of cross-cutting activities, involving different approaches and tools, including monitoring and evaluation, capacity building and advocacy
  • Includes coordination of timely and accurate information
  • Supports Community Communication Needs
  • Two-ways exchange of information (information to and from communities)
  • Closes the feedback loop
  • It involves engaging communities
  • Supports communities and humanitarians
  • Enables Accountability

So, all in all, Oxfam’s definition of Community Engagement is very much the exact same definition of CwC given by UNOCHA in 2011, with some details added to specify the how. Yet, nothing in this definition of Community Engagement really talks about what we mean with “Engaging communities”.

Community Engagement and Accountability (CEA), previously Beneficiary Communications and Accountability (BCA), previously Beneficiary Communications – ICRC/IFRC

ICRC/IFRC may be two organization with the most complicated set of definitions and names. They start by changing the name used for Accountability, from the internationally recognized and used Accountability to Affected Population (AAP), to AtB, Accountability to Beneficiaries, while sometimes using AtC, Accountability to Communities…it is unknown what the rational behind 3 different terms, that are all very close, but not the same used by others, is.

Their first definition of CwC, changed to Beneficiary Communications, that the ICRC/IFRC published is the following:

“A cross-cutting function, beneficiary communications is a participatory approach that empowers affected populations by providing life-saving information. It is classic community engagement – with its roots in community outreach, local media, public health and emerging technologies. Beneficiary communications fosters a two-way communication flow that is as much about listening as disseminating.”

Beneficiary Communications Evaluation, IFRC, 2011

Beneficiary Communication became then Beneficiary Communication and Accountability (BCA), defined as:

“Beneficiary communication (two-way) and accountability delivered through a number of different channels [that] prioritize feedback from the beneficiary. Beneficiaries participate in the process of improving their situation. Beneficiary communication or two-way communication engages communities in dialogue, by managing the information both sent to and received from beneficiaries and integrating beneficiary feedback into the decision-making process of programs.”

Beneficiary Communication and Accountability, IFRC

Later on, they came out with yet another name, Community Engagement and Accountability, explained as follow:

“Community engagement and accountability (CEA) is an approach to Red Cross Red Crescent programming and operations. It is supported by a set of activities that help put communities at the center of what we do, by integrating communication and participation throughout the program cycle or operation. CEA is the process of and commitment to providing timely, relevant and actionable life-saving and life-enhancing information to communities. It is about using the most appropriate communication approaches to listen to communities’ needs, feedback and complaints, ensuring they can actively participate and guide Red Cross Red Crescent actions.”

Community engagement and accountability (CEA), IFRC
ICRC, Community engagement and accountability, Infographic

So, regardless of which definition you like the most, it also seems that ICRC/IFRC uses these different terminologies to define:

  • A set of cross-cutting activities, but also an approach, but also a process and a commitment, involving different approaches and tools, including feedback mechanisms, behavioral and social change communication, advocacy
  • Supports Community Communication Needs
  • Two-ways exchange of information (information to and from communities)
  • Closes the feedback loop
  • It involves engaging communities
  • Supports communities
  • Enables Accountability

So, all in all, exact same definition, different names.

The End..?

I could go ahead and add others, but I think we have a good sample here.

So to recap: we have 10 definitions that are more or less exactly the same, all defining different components of what was originally called Communication with Communities. But why?

UNOCHA provides its explanation on its website:

“The term “Communicating with Communities” (CwC) is also used to describe this work. However, Community Engagement is now the preferred term, as it implies a more pro-active process that should sit with all response programming, distinct from conventional public information and advocacy.”

UNOCHA, Community Engagement

Now, why is that? Why do we need to call the same thing 10 different ways, even if each one is slightly more explicit on some aspects of the same concepts? This may look like a problem of description: people working in the sector need to find words to describe what the principle, set of actions or issue, is. However I believe it is more a matter of meaning: they are not sure what this that they are talking about is, so by iteration and trial, they are defining more and more the concept, hoping to finally get to the conclusive definition through practice.

When CwC was first created, organizations started to blast communities with SMS, radio messages, bulk voice messages and so on, relegating the concept of CwC to poor Information Officers or Media Relations Officers that had no idea how and why they were supposed to do this.

Through the years, thanks to the work of Internews, OCHA and CDAC, in between others, organizations started to recognize that CwC could not only be sucking information and blasting information, but needed to “involve” communities in a different way. This how the word “engagement” came about, as the pure exemplification of the fact that you cannot communicate effectively if you are not ready to engage in a real conversation.

This became then evident, with the commitments were made during 2016’s World Humanitarian Summit, which reflected the need to change the way we provide support to communities recovering from crisis. The commitments made, in particular the Grand Bargain’s Participation Revolution, reiterated the need to engage communities and involve them in decision-making. Hence, hence, the link with Accountability (this alone deserve another LONG post!)

My point with this very long post is not to denigrate anyone, but highlight that:

  1. The very good news is that WE ARE ALL TALKING ABOUT EXACTLY THE SAME THING!
  2. With regard to point 1, for a network of organizations dedicated to COMMUNICATION, we sure have a communication problem when we have 10 different ways to define the same thing;
  3. By diversifying the field, rather than unifying it, we are the facto diversifying practice, lessons learned and confusing the HELL out of new people that want to enter this field;
  4. If we need more definitions, we may start discussing: data sharing and protection standards; protections issues related to communication; HOW are we doing engagement; how are we involving communities in the design of projects, rather than focusing only on feedback; etc
  5. We have to stop using the word accountability without defining what we mean with it, and how exactly we plan to allow communities to held us accountable.
  6. We have not yet figured out what we mean with engagement. This is clearly a challenge and, while I appreciate the forth-thinking of using the word repeatedly, so it may start meaning something, I actually think we should start seriously addressing this problem in our practice.

Thoughts? Leave a comment below.


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