Late last year, UNICEF conducted a study on the appropriateness of its emergency preparedness strategies in Uganda as a means of providing more accountability to affected populations in humanitarian situations. To collect data, researchers used UNICEF Uganda’s innovative U-Report system, a free SMS network service designed to empower young Ugandans to participate and have voice in development issues affecting them and improve accountability and transparency in governance and policy.
Launched in 2011, the U-report system now has over 240,000 active users across the country. Participants were asked to share their thoughts on what emergencies were most pressing to them, what they’re doing to prepare for these emergencies, and what assistance would help them to better prepare. The project supports UNICEF’s commitment to accountability to affected populations in humanitarian situations, while assessing the appropriateness of the organization’s approach to emergency preparedness according to the perceptions and needs of beneficiaries.
UNICEF received over 16,000 unique replies to the survey questions. Respondents overwhelmingly identified outbreaks of infectious disease as their top emergency concern, with particular focus on Marburg virus followed closely by Ebola. Concerns regarding flooding, road accidents, conflict (including terrorism) and fires were also prevalent. Given that Uganda experienced a Marburg outbreak in October, in addition to the scale and media attention given to the Ebola crisis in West Africa in late 2014, it’s no surprise that the threat of a public health crisis was at the forefront of the population’s concerns. Similarly, the WHO found in 2013 that Uganda is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in terms of road safety – an issue that the government has taken efforts to address in recent years. Apprehension over flooding and landslides aligns with the timing of the survey during Uganda’s late annual rainy season from October to December.
When asked what they needed to better prepare, participants emphasized first the need for support to public awareness, sensitization and education about emergency risks, particularly in regard to preventing the spread of Marburg and Ebola. Support for medical facilities and protective medical equipment (gloves, boots, etc.) followed closely as a key request. Interestingly, the need for mobile communication networks for connection to others (e.g. access to mobile phones, airtime credit, strong network signal) was toward the top of the list with specific mention often given for the need for widely known toll-free emergency numbers and hotlines. Cash transfers were also frequently mentioned as a desired form of emergency assistance.
When asked what they needed to better prepare, participants emphasized first the need for support to public awareness, sensitization and education about emergency risks, particularly in regard to preventing the spread of Marburg and Ebola.
Respondents’ top requested support for emergency preparedness widely validates the approach that UNICEF has taken in to address preparedness for Marburg in Uganda as well as the Ebola crisis in West African countries, including through mobile communication strategies. UNICEF Uganda’s is currently collaboration with the national Ministry of Health and WHO to use mTrac (a UNICEF mobile phone-based innovation) to strengthen surveillance of Marburg cases as well as stock levels of medications. Already over 20,000 health workers at all 3,500 government health facilities are using the system. Information on the prevention and protection against Marburg is also shared with U-Reporters in affected areas who further spread public awareness about the virus and feed into national case surveillance systems to track epidemiological spread.
In the Ebola outbreak countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, UNICEF is serving as lead agency on social mobilization for the UN in working with partners to drive public awareness and community engagement/mobilization initiatives, including through local radio/ television broadcasts, door-to-door campaigns, training of community based workers, teachers and local leaders and cellphone messaging. To complement these efforts, UNICEF is also procuring essential medical supplies including protective equipment and health kits, as well as non-food items/materials for use in prevention and treatment in care facilities and households in affected areas.
Establishing accountability to affected populations in humanitarian situations can be an elusive goal for humanitarian actors, as the urgency of meeting the basic needs of beneficiaries often takes precedence to establishing feedback mechanisms for populations to participate in decision-making related to emergency response. By soliciting beneficiary feedback in advance of a crisis, UNICEF has been able to critically assess the appropriateness of its own preparedness and emergency response planning in meeting with the expressed concerns of young Ugandans with the support they find most useful.
While the findings of this survey support the appropriateness of UNICEF Uganda’s existing planning for emergency preparedness, opportunities remain for further exchange to shape UNICEF humanitarian strategies to best meet the needs of affected communities while opening up the dialogue between aid actors and recipients.
Please see the full study report, including detailed graphs of participant responses, attached below.