GENEVA — Within hours of last month's South Asia earthquake, a handful of organizations focusing on humanitarian information began mobilizing to support Pakistani media. Their objective was to replace as quickly as possible damaged radio transmission equipment and to train local journalists in the reporting of humanitarian needs as a way of helping disaster victims.
Above all, they wished to ensure that the more than 3 million people affected by the Oct. 8 catastrophe were properly informed about relief efforts, particularly in the more inaccessible outlying areas.
What previous disasters such as Rwanda, Kosovo, and the Indian Ocean tsunami have shown only too clearly is the powerful impact credible information can have - not only on improving humanitarian coordination and response, but also, most critically, in saving lives.
Two weeks into the crisis, however, humanitarian information still did not figure in the United Nations' "flash appeal" for support. Even the International Federation of the Red Cross, which recently published a report dedicated to the role of information in times of crisis, failed to incorporate support for local media as part of its response. As a result, Pakistani journalists - 50 of whom are believed to have been killed, or injured, or are missing in the quake - had to struggle with limited resources in their efforts to reach victims with rescue operation details.
While UN representatives privately acknowledged the importance of hitting the ground running with independent "lifeline media" initiatives, officially, information was not perceived as part of the Pakistani relief effort. Once again, as during the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the international community ignored the crucial importance of disseminating credible and, above all, independent "news that you can use" to the very people they were supposed to be assisting. As one UN official explained with a shrug, "There are other, more urgent priorities."
Such attitudes severely undermine the victim's right to know. They suggest that material relief, such as food and medicine, takes precedence over information, even if it helps survivors make informed decisions about their own well-being.
"There is absolutely no excuse for this," Warren Feek, director of the Communication Initiative, told the Global Forum for Media Development, a recent international gathering of producers, journalists, and media organizations in Amman, Jordan.
As both Mr. Feek and others point out, there is abundant evidence supporting the need for reliable information as an indispensable component of any aid or post- conflict recovery operation. Disaster victims, including those who survived hurricane Katrina, have repeatedly cited information as among their most immediate concerns, often over material relief.
One of the problems is that donor governments are increasingly eliminating their mass media departments as part of their humanitarian or development contributions. They simply do not see information as a priority. With no institutional memory, few officials remain with a proper understanding of the importance of "needs based" public awareness strategies. Nevertheless, for the millions of hapless men, women, and children caught up in disaster every year, their survival depends on knowing what is happening, and whether they can realistically expect help.
During the first week following the Pakistan quake, few were aware of how difficult it would prove for rescuers to reach isolated areas quickly. With transmitters down and radios lost in the rubble, survivors had little access to credible information. Rumors were rampant. Many whose mountain villages were cut off realized only too late that their sole hope for survival was to trek out, their wounded on their backs, when helicopters could not fly because of bad weather. Initial air drops or mules loaded with basic supplies, including cheap transistor radios, might have helped.
With virtually every disaster since the mid-1980s, much of the aid community has consistently failed to recognize information as crucial. For Mark Frohardt of Internews, a global NGO with media projects in various crisis zones, all this wastes valuable time. "People need to know what is going on, what they should do, and when and where they can expect to find aid," he said.
This includes providing information to help survivors cope better, such as how to deal with cold at night, prevent dehydration, and avoid contaminated drinking water. Effective outreach can further enable people, notably children and the ailing, to endure the brutal winter months ahead.
All this underlines the need for emergency media support within the first 48 hours following a disaster. Local journalists can be quickly trained with "humanitarian" awareness, enabling them to know how aid operations work and what sort of information survivors need. And if broadcast transmitters are down, provisional FM stations "in a suitcase" can be set up almost immediately.
While all this may seem patently obvious, it hardly explains why media still does not make it onto the radar screens of most donors in times of crisis. "And this despite the fact that a communication breakdown usually prefigures war," noted Alan Davis of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "At the same time, the level and quality of ongoing information provided usually determines how effective the international response ... will be."
The international media never remain long enough to cover the rebuilding of societies or to promote greater accountability, such as why tsunami funding in Sri Lanka is still not reaching those in greatest need. Local journalists, however, are normally present. They are the ones capable of providing a long-haul monitoring of aid operations, and of putting the message across - if only the international community would provide them with the means to do it.
• Edward Girardet is a journalist who writes on conflict, and humanitarian and media affairs.