The legacy of emergency response radio

The benefits that radio can deliver for remote, often off-grid, communities in developing nations are well documented.

For example, thanks to the dedicated work of the UN FAO’s Dimitra project and its Community Listeners’ Groups, women in the DRC and Niger are having an increasing influence on their communities’ futures and on their own roles within them. The listeners’ groups enjoy strong links with local broadcasters and have been able to develop two-way communications routes which allow for the sharing of knowledge and experience, and joint problem solving.

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Elsewhere, Farm Radio International is using the medium to help farmers to make their land more productive, protect their livestock, get the best prices for their produce and improve food security.

And as we have noted before, growth in the use of radio for education – both for distance learning and as classroom support – is seeing many more young people attain improved results and increase their range of future options.

Such projects tend to be pre-planned, long-term and goal-orientated, so identifying and celebrating success is often a fairly straightforward process. It can be a lot harder to measure the impact of radio in emergency response situations.

By their nature, emergency responses are short term. Providing medical care, food, water and shelter are the natural priorities, but radio is increasingly providing a vital element of the next-stage response. It offers essential access to information about potential unrest, forthcoming weather and – as the Ebola crisis showed – necessary health measures or precautions. As the UN commented about Liberia in one of its regular radio bulletins, “Radio played a significant role during the Ebola Crisis, educating the public on the devastating effects of the disease, alongside preventative measures.”

But once an emergency has been responded to, a crisis contained, a disaster overcome, what happens to the role of radio? Does it risk being regarded as less significant, a diminished player on a scene that has changed totally? It may, but it does not have to.

According to UNESCO, in 11 countries surveyed across Africa, local commercial radio grew by an average of 360 percent between 2000 and 2006, whereas community radio grew by a striking 1,386 percent, on average, over the same period. That demonstrates a hunger for local news, local participation and local engagement. It means continuing opportunities for establishing community listeners’ groups. It means delivering educational material to schools regardless of whether they are located in the heart of the city or in the most remote of rural areas. And it means supporting small-scale farmers to not just make a better living, but also to serve their communities more effectively.

It emphatically does NOT mean, as some cynics might have it, increasing overseas political influence. In fact – again according to UNESCO – “Listening to a foreign radio station is something that declines when local media become freer and provide what local people most want to hear. According to BBC audience research, in most cases the BBC achieved large audiences (20% and more) only where the choice of local services was limited to five or fewer stations. As choice grows, BBC audiences fall.”

But what does this mean in terms of radio and emergency response situations? Well, once the immediacy of a crisis has been dealt with, the longer-term challenge of rebuilding communities – and subsequently sustaining them – arises. With community radio stations – including such innovations as First Response’s ‘Radio in a Suitcase’ – established initially as an emergency response measure, the infrastructure already exists to allow a shift in focus to longer-term community, educational and agricultural development. What is needed is the will, alongside co-ordination between emergency response and aid and development agencies.

It is certainly doable, but is it being done? Are we yet moving towards a realisation of the potential of radio for transforming and empowering communities, offering an increased range of choices for individuals and the opportunity of a more prosperous future?

If so, the role of radio in responding to a crisis is not just about the here and now, but also about the creation of a more secure future: a fine legacy.

If not, why not?

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