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No one should live outside the web of connectivity

The national health systems of Sierra Leone and Liberia are barely functioning, and increasing pressure on them risks a complete meltdown, according to reports in popular media. Coordination of services to contain the Ebola outbreak remains fragmented and under resourced.

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to trace people who have had contact with Ebola patients. Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to identify new Ebola cases quickly and isolate patients as soon as they show symptoms.  Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an article as tragic as it is frightening, Adam Nossiter of the New York Times details how people are dying from Ebola in Makeni, Sierra Leone. The article reads like the script from a horror movie with no happy ending in sight.

The story sent shivers down my spine, and it coincided with my return from a meeting near London of IT and communications professionals with major international agencies gearing up to meet this crisis at scale. The fact is, the response is far behind the spreading virus, and while this is belatedly being addressed, it will take long-term, sustained attention to bring the contagion under control. Time is an enemy, and the complications of scaling up are many.

International agencies are dealing with major crises from Syria to Gaza to the Central African Republic. The World Health Organization currently lists eight Grade 3 emergencies, which are situations that require substantial international response. They are: Central African Republic, Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Syrian Arab Republic.

This means the various agencies designed to deal with such emergencies were already being stretched before Ebola struck. Equally frustrating is the fact that this crisis graphically demonstrates how the lack of reliable communication today is a matter of life and death, but communication infrastructure lags behind human need.

The tipping point

Nearly every input imaginable is needed for this crisis from skilled personnel, to vehicles to transport the ill and the deceased, to a supply chain for materials, to communications for internal operations and external messaging, to technical personnel to support the technology, to facilities for isolating ill persons and myriad other physical and personnel needs.

What is called for now is urgent placement of skilled staff in the affected regions, facilities to support isolation and treatment, and material resources such as gloves, disinfectants, medications, body bags, protective suits and equipment.

But too many leaders, including global leaders and church leaders, have underestimated the significance of communication and the infrastructure necessary for it to work. We have reached a tipping point in our understanding of humanitarian aid. It is no longer limited to food, shelter, clothing, water and medicines. Lack of communications capacity has exacerbated this crisis.

The ability to communicate and the quality of the information delivered are matters of life and death. Pure and simple, communication is aid.

And humanitarian aid, like so many other necessary daily functions, is becoming digitized. This means that globally, communication infrastructure, messaging and personal communication devices will become essential for daily affairs, much as they already are in the global North.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola crisis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

A paradigm shift

In the short-term future, we will see a paradigm shift toward digital humanitarian aid through the use of smart cards and mobile services. And this is changing older methods of providing aid because the new model is faster, more efficient and more economical, and it will reach more people. It also makes aid customizable and personal. And this means it is measurable, and the delivery system can be made more accountable.

This may seem like a pipe dream, but we are, in fact, already seeing how digital tools are being used in refugee settlements in the Middle East, and this will only grow as the systems become perfected.

The Ebola crisis is demonstrating that in this new age of pervasive technology, no one on the planet is so isolated that they can exist outside the global web of connectivity that delivers life-enhancing, and life-saving, information. And it is demonstrating that those concerned with humanitarian assistance to people in crisis situations must be at the forefront of this new era of technology for good because to do otherwise is to allow events to spiral out of control, with tragic results.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

A new front in the Ebola crisis

United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu, chairman of the religious leaders task force, demonstrates to participants a new way of greeting instead of the traditional handshake. New traditions are being created to help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS.

Bishop John K. Yambasu, chairman of the Religious Leaders Task Force in Sierra Leone, demonstrates a safe way of greeting instead of the traditional handshake. Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS.

With the killing of a delegation of health officials, journalists and a pastor by a mob of rural villagers in Guinea, an even more tragic page has turned in the Ebola crisis.

The mission of the group was to dispel rumors about the outbreak, but the villagers thought they had come to spread the virus. The people attacked the group with rocks. Eight bodies were later found, bearing signs of having been attacked with machetes and clubs.

The event is a severe example of the irrational fears that are rife across the region. In Sierra Leone, the government’s Emergency Operations Center issued a release to dispel a rumor that soap to be distributed during the three-day lockdown, known locally as Ose to Ose Tok (House to House Talk), had been infected to spread the virus.

Fear drives these rumors. The immediate challenge is to arm trusted local people with accurate information to correct the inaccuracies and dispel the fear. The Ose to Ose Talk during the three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone is an example.

Correcting misinformation

In addition, commentaries on television, radio and in print by trusted leaders such as Bishop John Yambasu, the United Methodist leader in Sierra Leone, are helping to correct misinformation and encourage cooperation with health programs to halt the spread of the disease.

United Methodist Communications is providing text messages to clergy in rural areas as well as cities in Sierra Leone and Liberia. These messages are consistent with those developed by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. The church’s advantage lies in its grassroots network of clergy and leaders who live in the affected regions and are trusted.

Two messages are sent daily. The morning message is usually about health practices. For example, these messages were sent this morning:

Community health workers are trained to help us all and are essential to beating Ebola. Please cooperate with them during the lockdown. – Bishop J. Yambasu (Sierra Leone)

In the Ebola crisis, handle animals with protective clothing. Thoroughly cook animal products (blood and meat) before eating. – Ad., WHO (Bishop J. Innis) (Liberia)

Each afternoon a message based on Scripture is sent. For example: Do not worry … in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) – Bishop J. Innis or Bishop J. Yambasu

We are also distributing solar cellphone chargers to give these messengers a cost-free means of keeping their phones charged.

The long-term challenge 

This crisis underscores a truism: Poverty breeds social discontent and mistrust of unresponsive government. Liberians clearly do not trust their government. At the outset of the crisis, the rumor spread that the outbreak was false, created by the government to bring more foreign dollars into the country to pay corrupt government officials.

In the long term, the challenge is to provide education that leads to better understanding of disease and how to prevent infections. This will require effective public education. It is also necessary to build effective, accessible public health systems, and equally important to establish responsive, transparent governance.

Building public infrastructure that is common in societies in the global North, such as sanitary sewers, clean water, and Wi-Fi and mobile phone systems, is also  a long-term solution.

Addressing inequities 

Africa’s leaders must gain the trust of their citizens by ending corruption and conducting government affairs with transparency, and citizens must have access to the information they need to make responsible decisions. Access to information is a human right in this information rich age. It’s essential to good citizenship.

The stark realities of the Ebola crisis make clear the need for these basic changes. The world must stem the immediate crisis. But that is not enough. We must address the underlying deficits that periodically surface and remind us that inequities in the world make all of us less secure and threaten global well-being when systems break down.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Post-war trauma, mistrust, fuel Ebola crisis

A posse of young boys armed with slingshots blockades a road to prevent a Red Cross vehicle from bringing medical supplies into a village wracked by Ebola. In another area, residents throw stones at an arriving health team. And in a another, villagers flee when a health worker in a white lab coat makes calls in the neighborhood.

Christian Zigbuo (right) works to distribute printed information to educate people in Liberia  about the Ebola virus.  Photo courtesy of Christian Zigbuo.

Christian Zigbuo (right) works to distribute printed information to educate people in Liberia about the Ebola virus. Photo courtesy of Christian Zigbuo.

Why?

These reports remind me of conversations I have had with survivors of horrific conflict. Having worked around the world, I have seen and heard the fear and mistrust that people have of government and others in official capacities in places such as Kampuchea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa. In these places, the common historical theme is social conflict, and in some places outright war.

I recall a conversation I struck up with a young man sitting under a large umbrella by the roadside in Monrovia a few years ago. He was selling lottery tickets and gasoline in quart glass bottles. I learned he was a high school student when his education was interrupted by the civil war in Liberia. He wanted to study agronomy, but the post-war economy was making survival difficult and the dream of college unrealistic.

I asked him where he spent the war. His voice lowered and his expression changed.

“I moved about,” he said. “Sometimes to the bush, sometimes hiding in the city.”

Pointing to a now-empty swimming pool in an abandoned hotel across the street, he said, “See that pool? I was caught once by a gang of young guys who put a tire around me and threw me into that pool to drown. They were crazy.”

As if the war was not horrific enough, when peace came, gangs of young men armed with military weapons roved the city, robbing and intimidating the people until the U.N. established order and disarmed the former fighters. Without effective government, there was no security, and pronouncements by those who claimed leadership were unreliable. The nightmare of war does not end when the shooting stops.

Liberia and Sierra Leone are post-conflict societies. They are recovering, but strong civil institutions and governance are still evolving. Infrastructure such as sanitation, electricity, communication, health and education are weak. In both, a generation of children lost their childhood because they were born in a time of war. They didn’t attend school, and many were internal migrants or refugees in neighboring countries. And they’ve experienced trauma.

Health systems, never particularly strong, remain weak and fragile. For example, in the county most affected by Ebola in Liberia, according to a story in the New York Times, the health surveillance officer does not have a computer to track disease statistics. As a consequence, the health officer could not track the outbreak of Ebola in real time, and was relegated to an inadequate pen and paper record that was woefully behind the rapid spread of the virus.

Trust depends on the effectiveness of the government and its institutions to deliver adequate, impartial service to its citizens. Weak institutions cannot do this.

Hidden source of conflict

It’s true that people fear the Ebola virus and the toll it takes. But I think there is another, less obvious factor at work as well. It is the residual emotional state of people who are recovering from traumatic experiences in post-conflict societies. This trauma is often masked.

In daily survival it goes unnoticed, and in many places it does not figure into ongoing relationships. In others, of course, it remains a prickly source of conflict that has not been resolved. However, it’s been my anecdotal experience that in post-conflict societies, trauma is not far below the surface, and in times of crisis, when trust is on the line, it can rear its head.

Efforts to create reconciliation commissions have been tried with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they provide a platform for the abused to have a voice, sometimes they exacerbate unresolved divisions.

When I talk with people who have been through terrible experiences such as civil war, I often hear stories told in soft voices that surface pain and loss. Sometimes this pain is expressed with strong language that reveals unresolved feelings of injustice and indignity. Sometimes people are reticent to talk about their experiences at all. They fear retribution. Some don’t want to recall horrible memories. These unresolved conflicting emotions are carried silently. They reflect great personal loss. Spouses, children and whole families have been lost. Homes and sometimes entire communities have been wiped out.

Steps to rebuilding trust

Nurses listen intently during a panel discussion at The United Methodist Church's Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, to help prepare health care workers for dealing with the Ebola virus. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Nurses listen intently during a panel discussion at The United Methodist Church’s Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, to help prepare health care workers for dealing with Ebola. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

This emotional reservoir, along with weak government, social structures and economies, creates a stew of uncertainty, unmet needs and struggle. In the case of Ebola, I think it points to a need for clear, trusted voices to interpret the reality of the virus, and to encourage people to get medical care and avoid traditional healing. It’s also important for the church to provide messages of hope, comfort, encouragement and concern. In this circumstance, it’s a form of public witness in addition to a vital community service.

This alone cannot heal the broken trust, but it is a step toward healing. Other actions must be taken as well. Improving the health system, physical infrastructure, education and governance are critical. Economic development is necessary to improve work opportunities.

The church has another important gift to offer people in these societies. While large group gatherings are being discouraged during the contagion, under better conditions local congregations are communities of support where spiritual comfort and assurance are given, and personal growth and development occur. In faith communities, people are assured that life is sacred. Life is a gift of God, and God’s intent is not for us to suffer, kill or be killed. God’s intent is for us to flourish, and to find purpose and meaning. In The United Methodist Church, we speak of God’s graciousness. In post-conflict societies, the community of faith can be a means of grace.

What the Ebola crisis has revealed is that residual trauma and weak civil society infrastructure have long-term effects. Untended, these can threaten global well-being in unexpected ways. But this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Ebola: Texting hope and busting myths

Ebola text message from Bishop Innis

The first Ebola text message from Bishop John Innis addresses both health and spiritual needs. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

Ebola is real. It kills with little warning. Please adhere to health messages to safeguard your family. Let us be in prayer. God is with us. – Bishop John Innis

This first text message coming from Bishop John Innis to people in Liberia was not only history-making, but more importantly, it addressed a popular rumor that Ebola is not real but a ploy constructed by the government to get money into the country.

Ludicrous as this sounds, it was used as the pretext for gunmen to force patients from an Ebola isolation unit in a Monrovia suburb a few days ago.

The bishop’s message encourages people to follow the officially recommended precautions. It calls people to use their spiritual resources, and it says God is with us — that Ebola is not a punishment inflicted upon us by God.

Trusted voices must be raised to encourage people to take the threat of contagion seriously and seek medical attention when symptoms appear. And religious leaders can affirm our spiritual resources, as Bishop Innis has done.

Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia receving text message on Ebola from Bishop Innis

Communicator Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia, receives a text message on Ebola, written by Bishop John Innis. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

When trusted leaders address rumors and misinformation, it’s more likely the rumors can be deflated. Texting is not the only way to do this, but it’s important in this crisis in particular. Mobile messages can reach a significant segment of the population. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have a mobile phone, and texts can be received by conventional mobile phones, not just smartphones.

In addition, mobile messages can span broad distances. This is especially important. Text messages can reach people in affected areas that have been cordoned off by the military. They can remind people they are not forgotten.

Recognizing this, United Methodist Communications has been laying groundwork for the distribution of messages through mobile technology in areas where the need is great.

Now, for the historical part of this post. Because the communicator in Liberia was experiencing difficulty preparing and sending texts from the conference office, he requested United Methodist Communications’ assistance. A list of names provided by the conference was uploaded to a cloud-based database, UMCom staff got the message from Bishop Innis, and the text was sent on his behalf from Nashville to people in Liberia. The software used is open source and cost-free.

It was a first for us, and perhaps a first for a faith-based organization. It reveals how the world has shrunk, how information and communication technology contribute to our well-being and how valuable the connection of The United Methodist Church is as a strategic asset, especially in circumstances such as this.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

The Malaria-Ebola Nexus

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of other illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak an international health emergency, with 2,000 people infected so far and more than 1,000 deaths in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. As these countries frantically try to contain Ebola, fearful people are not going to health clinics or hospitals for other illnesses. These illnesses add to the burden created by Ebola.

Malaria is one of the diseases either not being treated or being treated through self-medication, which creates its own  problems. The rainy season is under way, when more malaria cases occur. This compounds the problem. Improper use of malaria medications can result in resistance to the drugs. The medications require a patient to follow a course of treatment, and failure to do so can result in a more drug-resistant parasite in the future.

Researchers suspect a highly resistant parasite now affecting people in south Asia is a result of haphazard malaria drug usage during the Vietnam War.

Both diseases disproportionately affect the poor and ill-informed. Because Ebola and malaria have common early symptoms, such as fever, headache and vomiting, there may be confusion about the cause of illness among both those who are ill and health care providers.

Life-saving messages needed

While malaria is curable, Ebola is not. But there is real concern that the mortality rate from malaria may rise because patients will not seek treatment. Therefore, it is critical to get accurate, life-saving messages to people in these areas.

Communication and education are two of the four pillars The United Methodist Church and its health workers are using in the fight against malaria and Ebola. Neglect of any disease of poverty is costly in human lives and productivity, which means costs to national economies, added burdens for weak national health services, and great human suffering and death.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria's toll. Graphic by Work the World.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria’s toll – as well as lives saved by international efforts. Please click on the infographic link in the narrative to see the entire infographic Graphic by Work the World.

An infographic by Work The World of the UK illustrates both the severity of the toll malaria takes and also the hopeful potential to reduce its consequences. Behavior change communication is essential to reducing the humanitarian crisis of Ebola and the ongoing crisis of malaria.

Responding to the crisis

United Methodist Communications has provided $10,000 crisis communications grants to United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in Liberia and Sierra Leone to help get out health education messages through printed fliers, banners and radio. United Methodist Communications is also networking with other church agencies and international and interreligious organizations to coordinate communications efforts. It has also provided training and software to local communicators to enable them to send broadcast text messages to local people.

Similarly, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Indiana Annual Conference and the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection have provided cash assistance to affected regions for medical supplies and communications.

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund to provide support during situations such as this one so that funding will be readily available in the event of a crisis or disaster. Your help is needed to ensure that we are able to meet these needs as they occur. You can donate here.

This situation also underlines the ongoing need to continue the malaria work the people of The United Methodist Church have supported for the past seven years. The world has made great strides in reducing deaths from malaria, but we are still working toward the goal of elimination. To give to Imagine No Malaria, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

 

Poverty: The Common Vector

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

While the Ebola outbreak continues, media coverage, at least on television, seems to be waning. Print media continue to provide stories that enlarge understanding about how the crisis is being managed and its effects on people across the region. But this too will fade, and that’s part of an ongoing problem.

In this crisis, a familiar pattern of media coverage has emerged: Ebola has been presented as a mysterious viral disease with a horrific reputation. An outbreak is news. Blogger Michael Byrne, whose blog influenced the title of this post, attributes the mystery to the fact that the virus occurs in remote Africa and not in countries with facilities to provide the supportive care necessary for the body to rally its own protective measures. It’s there, not here, and it’s horrific. That’s sensational.

But once the sensational elements have been covered, unless a new angle appears, the media moves on. And the suffering continues out of sight.

Ebola, malaria, cholera and many other diseases that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions are diseases of poverty. Whether the disease is borne by a virus or a parasite, the common vector is poverty.

Profits, neglect and the value of life

Diseases of poverty occur in places where life expectancy is already low and well-being already compromised by inadequate health care, sanitation and economic development. They are in locations where communication and education are weak. And these conditions are long-term, ongoing results of poverty.

In addition, more than one commentator has noted that research and development of drugs to prevent and treat Ebola lags because there is little profit in saving the lives of poor people in rural Africa. For example, Sierra Leone has three doctors per 100,00 population, Liberia one per 86,275, Guinea one per 10,000 and Nigeria one per 2,879 people. Pharmaceuticals and health care follow the money.

Beyond this neglect, corruption, poor governance and wars have kept these countries from building strong economies with an informed citizenry. And, as blogger Lindsay  Hilsum writes after decades of development schemes poverty persists.

This makes it more important to tell the story of people in these circumstances as well as address the conditions that persist and affect their quality of life. Otherwise, they will continue to be overlooked until another crisis strikes.

But in the 21st century, it may be even more critical to build the communication infrastructure that will enable people to gain access to information they need to improve their own lives and to communicate with each other and the outside world.

Combating information poverty

The Ebola crisis demonstrates that information poverty is a significant contributor to the spread of infectious diseases that can destroy whole communities. It points to the need to strengthen educational systems as well as national health systems. And it points to the necessity of major international organizations and partner governments to push for accountable governance and an end to corrupt practices.

At United Methodist Communications, we are providing skills training as we introduce technology after assessing needs with local partners. Technologies can be as complex  as servers and wifi systems or as simple as solar chargers for mobile phones. The technology must fit the day-to-day realities of climate, environment, power source and maintenance. But these are not insurmountable problems. The key is skills training and appropriate solutions for long-standing problems of info poverty.

Ebola is neither mysterious nor inevitable. With information, adequate facilities and procedures, it, along with the other diseases of poverty, can be contained if not eradicated.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Response to Ebola counters fear, disbelief and cultural insensitivity

Misinformation and lack of understanding are contributing to the spread of Ebola. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Council of Bishops

Misinformation and lack of understanding are contributing to the spread of Ebola. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Council of Bishops.

The Voinjama region near the border with Guinea is in the epicenter of the Ebola crisis in Liberia.

“This area is overwhelmed with fear, disbelief, and cultural insensitivity to the disease,” the Rev. Cecilia Burke Mapleh, superintendent of the Voinjama District of The United Methodist Church in Liberia, said recently. “At the moment, most of our preaching points stand abandoned if we do not act quickly with preventive messages to and for our members.”

The Ebola crisis has exposed not only the under-resourced health systems in the economically deprived countries of West Africa but also the lack of communications infrastructure essential to everyday survival, contributing to the negative effects of misinformation, superstition and denial.

As the crisis spirals in widening circles, misinformation, mistrust and disbelief not only spread the virus but also contribute to the risk of death from other untreated diseases, as people avoid medical clinics and health care providers.

In the struggle against this virus, information and communication are significant tools.

Getting ahead of the chain

Ironically, modern transportation has contributed to greater mobility among rural peoples in isolated regions, leading to the spread of communicable diseases. Without early detection, tracking and reporting, it’s difficult to identify and isolate those infected with Ebola. Diagnosing Ebola  has been haphazard and slow. Without more health workers, it’s nearly impossible to get ahead of the transmission chain.

But as modern transport contributes to the spread of the virus, so must modern communication be used to contain it. At United Methodist Communications, we are working with African episcopal leaders and their staffs to support communications work they’re already doing and to meet new challenges. We’ve made crisis communications grants to the Sierra Leone and Liberia annual conferences, and we’re in contact with episcopal leaders in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria.

African religious leaders have engaged the crisis in several ways. They have prepared messages for radio, funded posters and billboard messages, conducted training for pastors to deliver messages to their congregations and distributed print materials, and they are exploring other ways to communicate accurate information. Bishops have released pastoral letters to assure people God is present with them in this crisis and not the cause of it. Bishops in Sierra Leone and Liberia are also participating in interreligious coalitions and working with national and international health organizations, in addition to local chiefs and other officials.

Saving lives with communications

We’re connecting church-related communicators on the ground with tools they can use for same-day, real-time communication. We’re introducing FrontlineSMS, an open source text-messaging service that allows a sender to broadcast text messages to a wide number of contacts at minimal cost. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have cell phones, as do 67 percent of people in Sierra Leone and 38 percent in Guinea. We’re also supporting the creation of illustrated print and audio messages for those who are illiterate.

We’re networking with the major international organizations and connecting them with church communicators in the region to address both the myths and the truths of Ebola and will be used by health workers, on TV, DVD and internet video.

 We’re prepared to purchase printers and solar power supplies to print fliers for distribution by hand.

And we’re also supporting person-to-person communications. In Liberia, we’re helping with portable sound systems that local young people can carry as town criers to communicate relevant information.

We will also assess the needs of annual conference offices in the affected areas and develop plans to upgrade their communications capacity, including Internet connection.

Many health officials are saying this outbreak will take several months to get in check. We are working with producers for animated messages that can be used in the future on TV, the Internet and in local villages by health care workers with laptops to illustrate hygiene and prevention.

As important as these tools are, the crisis is revealing something even more important. Clear, accurate messages delivered by a trusted voice in a timely manner  to those who need information can save lives. Communication must be viewed for its strategic importance. It is not simply a support function; it is central to the mission of the church.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Communication is Aid–and More

Ebola Prevention Banner

Workers hang an Ebola banner in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photos courtesy of Bishop John K. Yambasu.

Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee writes that her mother showed up at her office recently dressed head to toe in a winter coat and headdress in 82ᴼ temperatures. Her mother explained that she wanted extra protection against the Ebola virus.

Misinformation and misunderstanding along with superstition about Ebola abound. The virus is not airborne.  According to medical experts, it spreads through contact with the body fluids of an infected individual or the body of a deceased victim.

Lack of information is the fulcrum on which the spread of the virus tilts toward epidemic. With information about sanitation, abstinence from eating bush meat, and awareness that the disease results from a virus and not from evil spells or spirits, the Ebola outbreak can be contained. But this depends on timely, accurate and effective communication.

The role of communication is being recognized as critical to the well-being of people no matter where they live in the world, and no matter how well connected to the communication networks they are.

When Hurricane Yolanda struck the Leyte region of the Philippines a year ago, one of the first needs the Philippines government identified was for the restoration of the area’s damaged communication capacity.

Similarly, the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola in Sierra Leone, chaired by United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu, listed a comprehensive communications strategy as its first priority in a longer document spelling out response to the crisis.

Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, Sierra Leone

United Methodists in Sierra Leone are working with the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola to share information.

We live in a connected world, and lack of accurate information, coupled with incomplete communications infrastructure, is a matter of life and death. Ebola, as the world now understands, is only a plane ride away, no matter where you live.

At United Methodist Communications, we live by the phrase, “a clear message saves lives.” But we also understand that the ability to communicate is equally important.

In the Philippines, we helped to restore Internet connectivity and provide aid agencies with tablets, software and training to enable them to identify where aid was needed, coordinate with each other, and communicate with and distribute aid to survivors.

In the Ebola crisis, we are supporting the efforts of those already at work disseminating accurate information in the countries affected. We are also consulting about infrastructure and distribution tools that can reach the most people with accurate information.

Today, the ability to communicate and the quality of information that is communicated are critical to well-being in local communities and to people in every other part of the world. Communication — and the ability to communicate effectively — is not a simple matter of technology, tools and software. It is a matter of strategic importance.

In many emergency situations, communication capacity precedes other forms of critical aid. In the Philippines, communication preceded material aid. Communication had to be restored to get food, medicine and construction supplies to those isolated and stranded in places cut off from others.

In the Ebola crisis, communication precedes prevention and treatment. The contagion cannot be contained without greater effort at sanitation, isolation of sick people, and proper handling and burial of the deceased. And this has to be communicated effectively and widely. In these circumstances, a clear message saves lives.

Over a lifetime of covering natural and human-caused disasters and writing stories about poverty and development, I’ve come to see that communication is more than the tools we use, more than the software that powers them, and more than the technology that drives the devices. It is a strategic asset that is important to our well-being.

In some circumstances, communication is aid, as a wonderful video produced by Infoasaid demonstrates.

And, if we believe (as I do), that it is God’s intent for all people to find meaning and purpose in life, and to flourish, then communication is actually doing theology. It is a way to fulfill our beliefs and follow our values.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–In Summary

In the past four posts, I’ve pointed to how information communication technology and communications strategy have been employed to encourage transparency as we discuss how new media influence us and the practices of the church.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

We’ve seen how the power of social media can unleash giving and provide a way for us to contribute to changing the world.

And we’ve reviewed how strategic use of communication and various technologies can connect us and be used to express how Christians understand our global responsibilities.

Moving forward

I attempted to provide a theological framework for why communication can be viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of the church in the post yesterday. I believe communication is more than a technical support function and when we fail to see it in this more complete role, we reduce our capacity to communicate the Good News of God’s love for the world. Communication is ministry.

From the perspective of the practice of communication, the thread that ties these four posts together is that they are all about communicating with people using the media with which they are familiar (whether that is mobile technology, social media, low-wattage radio or other channels) in an environment in which they are comfortable.

We live in a communications environment that is shaping us and our unique cultures, no matter where we live in the world. For example, messages by global corporations are tailored to different contexts, but the use of media to deliver those messages and our response to the messages affects us in similar ways.

Shaped by technology and by messages

In this mediated process we are shaped by both the technology and the messages that are exchanged within the process.

More than ever, we in the church need to view communication as an integral part of the mission and ministry of the church. How we communicate–the technology we use and the conversations we engage–is extremely important.

Communication is more horizontal today than ever before. I’m not naive about who owns the transmission towers: large corporations do, and as Egypt proved, threatened governments can shut down these media when the government is under duress. As the NSA story has shown, these media can also be used to invade our privacy, so they come with a substantial downside as well as a positive upside.

But it’s clear that we can work within this corporate/government reality to interact with each other more easily and immediately than ever before. Therefore, we can be better informed and we can act globally with greater ease than at any time in human history. And we should.

The Absent Voice

We should tell our own stories and assist others to tell theirs. A significant change in mainline Christian communions in the U.S. in the past several decades has been their persistence in reducing their capacity to communicate by cutting communications budgets and staff. By abandoning the field, they have left it to others to tell their story.

And some storytellers have an agenda contrary to the well-being of the denomination, while others lack essential understanding and have been less enlightening.

This failure to be in the communications environment with adequate resources, creativity and consistent presence has left them marginalized. It is often said about my denomination, The United Methodist Church, that no one speaks for the church but an elected body that meets every four years. Thus, we have no “spokesperson.”

While that is true, it is also revealing. There are spokespersons by default. They are often detractors who speak about the church and whose critiques, inaccuracies and agendas go unchallenged.

The Default Position

Out of this default position, perceptions are formed and opinions about the church are expressed, but, too often, the voice of the church is absent because no one is sanctioned officially to speak for it. But those who are unabashedly willing to authorize themselves to speak, do so, often presenting a viewpoint that reflects a narrow slice of the church’s full teaching, or worse, bending the teaching to fit a particular agenda.

It has also meant that we have not given attention to communication as a legitimate field for doing theology. Thus, humane values and the ethical and moral witness of the church have been absent. I believe faith is formed in the interactions we have with each other in the world and out of this interaction we deepen our understanding of God at work in the world, and within us.

This is also where we come to terms with the sacredness of life and Creation. When we are disengaged from a significant part of the exchange that is taking place in the public conversation, and cultural and social interaction, we exclude a significant piece of the quilt that makes up the fabric of our lives.

While I’m not an academic theologian, I hazard to suggest we cannot do theology apart from the conditions in which people live, nor apart from the powerful influences that affect our lives through culture, commerce, governance and many other dynamics that shape life. This is the gritty stuff of life that the apostle Paul used to shape the earliest teachings about what it meant to follow The Way, as the earliest followers of Jesus were known.

The Demise of Vertical Communication

Paradoxically, the world has moved beyond the age of vertical communication in which edicts were issued, a receptive audience awaited them, and the edicts were received and followed. While this is much too simplistic, it’s a way of saying that more people are communicating more ideas in more ways than ever before, and top-down communication must compete with the noise and distraction of a media environment that is as participatory as it’s ever been. Several years ago, Jay Rosen made the point clearly when he said “the people formerly known as the audience” are no more.

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New media provide new ways to practice old spiritual disciplines such as Bible study on tablets with online connection for referencing additional content electronically. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

We’ve also seen how the gatekeepers of the old media are being challenged to adapt to the new environment and come up with new ways of delivering information and interacting with the users of the information.

This is the environment in which Christian values can be projected, and where those values can participate in shaping the culture and, hopefully, humanizing the conversation.

The ease with which we communicate today is deceptive. The communication environment is more complex and fraught with risk than it’s ever been. This is why mainline communions should give more attention to strategic communication, and not disengage from the field.

Communication is Ministry

More people are producing and sharing information, and in the process finding their voice. Sometimes this is for good, sometimes for ill. When the church enables communication in places where people are off the grid, it is engaging in an important mission. When the church introduces communication technology to provide spiritual development, education, health information, connection and empowerment, it is offering ministry. Access to information has become a human right and an expression of justice.

I hope that 2014 will bring the development of more communication networks, more use of social media tools to communicate more widely, and a continuing effort to add new technology as it becomes available to build on these efforts started in 2013. While I believe the technology and the messages shape us, I believe that communication rooted in Christian community is not just about tools and technology, but about reaching out to people with concern and compassion as an expression of our ministry.

As always, I invite your comments, insights, or corrections.

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