Social Media as a Tool for Humanitarian Protection

HPCR ScreenshotBack from my vacation I had the opportunity to listen to a live webcast on “Social Media as a Tool for Humanitarian Protection” that was organized by the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR).

The panelist for the 90 minutes discussion were:  Jason Cone (Director of Communications, MSF USA), Melissa Fleming (Head of Communications, UNHCR) Claudia Gonzalez (Head of Marketing,The Global Fund) and Daniel Stauffacher (ICT4Peace).

If you have the time, watch the discussion – links are at the bottom of the page. For me, the main points were:

  • An HPCR survey showed that a substantial number of aid workers are also active social media users.

For me that shows once more that humanitarian organizations urgently need to assist their staff in using social media responsibly. While NGOs should want their staff to talk about their work, the organizations also have to make sure that their staff knows what is appropriate and what isn’t.

  • Traditional media has less and fewer resources to cover foreign news but there is an audience for in-depth foreign news reporting. Humanitarian organizations are increasingly becoming full service news providers, similar to stringers and have to deliver complete packages of text, audio and video to mainstream media. This also means that communicators in the field are expected to deliver to professional standards equal to CNN or the BBC.
  • It is much more difficult to emphasize with the fate of a large group of people, than that of an individual. Social media gives NGOs the opportunity to focus on individual stories.
  • Humanitarian organizations continue to fail to communicate with beneficiaries. Social media can be a channel through which beneficiaries can talk back.

While this is certainly a possible channel, I personally think that social media cannot be the answer to this issue. We have been talking about this for years and I don’t think that this is a technical problem, it is a cultural problem. Organizations are (for many reasons) simply not focusing on talking to beneficiaries.

  • Social media can help humanitarian organizations to get a better picture of the situation on the ground via crowdsourcing and can help the affected people to organize itself.
  • Social media is just one tool in a very big toolkit and is frequently not the most appropriate tool (I cannot repeat this often enough).

A recording of the discussion can be downloaded on iTunes  or watched as recorded livestream.