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Information can help to save lives

The Nepalese Prime Minister joins UiA research workshops on supporting communities with information in crisis.

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Kenny Meesters exchanging knowledge with one of the focus groups in Nepal. (Photo: UIA)
Kenny Meesters exchanging knowledge with one of the focus groups in Nepal. (Photo: UIA)

“Workshops are about exchanging knowledge and experience. We learn from the participants, but at the same time we hope to bring new insights to them. So, you could say that the scientists learnt as much as the participants in the workshops,” says Kenny Meesters, scientist at UIA´s Centre for Integrated Emergency Management (CIEM) and coordinator of the workshops in Nepal.

He and his co-organisers have been lucky to engage with a large and diverse number of people, from community organisers even to the Prime Minister of Nepal. Over the course of 16 days, workshops, focus group sessions, and interviews with approximately 150 people in Kathmandu and in remote areas of Nepal were arranged. One of the main purposes of the field work is to gather input and ideas from people from all walks of life.

“After the crises approximately 90 per cent of the affected people were saved by the locals. With this perspective in mind, we talk and listen to individual citizens, community groups, and local authorities. These are the ones who first meet the crisis and must be supported in order that they take the correct action,” says Meesters.

He emphasises that the role of the governments and the international agencies must be recognised and connected to the local communities.

EU-supported work

Kenny Meesters med studenter i Nepal.

Kenny Meesters with students in Nepal. (Photo: UIA)

The workshops in Nepal are part of the COMRADES project. The goal of the project is to design and develop a platform for enabling communities to become more resilient after crises such as earthquakes and other kinds of sudden disruptions. One of the ways the project supports communities is by designing new forms of information collection, and sharing communication processes and tools. 

Meesters also visited Nepal right after the earthquake in April 2015. This time, he visited several of the same communities he visited before, seeing how they take charge of their own recovery process.

“It is inspiring to see how communities come together during the recovery and reconstruction stages. Even with limited resources and communication, people find each other and jointly plan and help to rebuild their community,” says Meesters.

“The locals make quick decisions right after a disastrous event as well as in the later stages following a disaster. Enabling communities to make decisions is one of the key elements of resilience, it gives ownership and empowerment. Our aim is to support them in this process by providing them with the necessary information to take good decisions,” says Meesters.

Strong communities

During the meetings in Nepal he has learnt that this is a country with strong communities that are very capable of taking care of themselves. Furthermore, there is a general emergence of information and communication technology in everyday life, and the internet infrastructure in general in Nepal. This provides new opportunities to support communities with tailored, relevant and accurate information. It also enables even remote communities to collect and share critical information themselves, improving their own situational awareness, identifying risks and options, and communicating these with others.

New technology

Meesters is optimistic about the prospects for Nepal and other developing countries. An increasing number of the people us

e smartphones, have access to the internet and use Facebook. In addition, new technologies are being developed to improve connectivity. At the same time, traditional communication remains important, for instance FM radio. 

The goal for the COMRADES project is to develop a communication platform that support communities in building their own situational overview, identifying risks, making informed decisions, and communicating them. However, Meesters believes that one of the key outcomes of the project will also be the concept and approach of identifying the requirements, design, and implementation of such a platform.

“The key thing is that we add more options to the toolbox and help people to use various tools in the most effective ways before, during and after a crisis. Our task is to capture and build on the best practices in the communities rather than deliver a technological platform with no connection to their own practices. Appropriate use of technology is key,” says Meesters.

“By helping communities to design and implement their own information management practices, we not only ensure it will work and be maintained, but also bring the necessary skills and knowledge to the community. By supporting them in developing their own processes and tools, we also improve the community´s resilience.” says Meesters.

He emphasises that processes, platforms and plans must work for, with, and in the local community.

“They are the ones who are going to use and maintain it. And as new technologies are constantly being developed, th

ere will be a need for the locals to have the knowledge, skills and tools to adapt to the new opportunities that these innovations provide,” says Meesters.

At the end of the fieldwork, a large conference was organised in collaboration with the Nepalese Institute of Crisis Management Studies (ICMS). In addition to the Prime Minister of Nepal, there were also representatives present from the Nepalese government, the Japanese embassy, Red Cross and the EU participating in the conference lead by UIA’s Kenny Meesters. 

COMRADES: Collective Awareness Platform for Community Resilience and Social Innovation during Crises Resilient started in Jan 2016 and will run until Dec 2018. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 687847.  Project partners include Knowledge Media institute, The Open University (UK), iHub Ltd (Kenya), University of Sheffield (UK), The University of Agder (Norway) and Government to You (Belgium).