A decade ago, communication in humanitarian action meant marketing; the voices of affected populations, when they were heard, were plastered on billboards, on television adverts, and occasionally on the news. But for those working with communities, communication always meant more than talking to the world: it meant collaborating with communities, exchanging ideas, benefiting from local knowledge to find the best solutions, listening, providing opportunities for feedback, giving communities more leadership and control over the projects that were designed to assist them.
When the founding of a network to put the voices of communities at the heart of humanitarian action was first proposed in 2009, we didn’t even have the terminology – at least a terminology that was widely shared– to talk about communication with communities, and we certainly didn’t have any sense of what exactly this entailed, and by whom. We didn’t know what form it might take, and how it might be globally realised. At the beginning, we were far more focused on speaking to communities, than listening.
The launch, in February 2019, of the summation of the CDAC Network’s expertise and knowledge in the How to Guide on Collective Communication and Community Engagement; the dedication, that same month, of the Overseas Development Network’s Humanitarian Practice Network Magazine to collective communication and community engagement; the existence of 15 (and more in the pipeline) national platforms on communication and community engagement; and the fact that communication and community engagement is now a recognised pillar of humanitarian action demonstrates how much we have achieved by working together.
Local leadership – the empowerment of people to respond to challenges with the appropriate outside assistance – must be the goal of all humanitarian preparedness. And it is with this in mind that the CDAC Network and its members have spent the past 12 months bolstering national platforms in Bangladesh and South Sudan, Fiji and Vanuatu, and Syria, among others. While there is still much to be done in order to make each of them fully functional – the 2018 Real-Time Evaluation of Communicating with Communities Coordination in the Rohingya Response demonstrated such platforms still have great challenges – they are already far in advance of their prototype: the 2010 collective platform that the CDAC Network established in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. The convening of the Communication and Community Engagement Initiative by UNICEF, OCHA, IFRC, and other partners under the auspices of the CDAC Network in 2017 is a significant step towards strengthening existing platforms, and replicating the model in other at-risk situations.
Local leadership also lies at the heart of the CDAC Network’s work on innovation. Working alongside the Start Network on innovation labs in Bangladesh, Philippines, Jordan and Kenya has firmly established not only that innovation in humanitarian action is the better utilisation of the knowledge, skills and ideas of communities, but that systematic ways to include such knowledge, skills and ideas are possible, desirable and effective. Gone are the days when the international humanitarian community has the answers: time and again this has been shown to be a fallacy. In today’s humanitarian landscape it is the communities than need to be emboldened to lead in humanitarian response.
That a sector’s understanding can be so transformed in just ten years is a testament to all those – especially the members of the CDAC Network – that have tirelessly worked to find ways to make local leadership a reality. That the membership is still growing strongly – in 2018 we welcomed Anthrologica,
Community World Service Asia, Fondation Hirondelle and InWhatLanguage – demonstrates the desire to work together on communication and community engagement is undiminished. Crucially there remains a huge amount of work to be done. For me, however, this year marks an ending of sorts: in my seventh year as the Chair of the CDAC Network, it is time to step aside and pass the tiller onto someone new to drive on this vital vision and unique partnership.
As we enter the second decade of the CDAC Network, I look forward to seeing – though this time at a distance – the Network grow, collective platforms becoming the norm, and an increase in local effective leadership inside and outside the humanitarian system.
For all your support, drive and partnership these past ten years: thank you.
Sir Brendan Gormley