Cutting the cake with CDAC
The one thing we know for sure about the information revolution is that it disrupts existing business models, and that we have just started to feel that disruption in the humanitarian sector. While it's difficult to predict exactly how this disruption will play out, it's increasingly clear that a primary source of that disruption will be increased participation of disaster-affected communities in preparedness, response and recovery; and that this participation will be facilitated by technology.
I used to think there was a clear distinction between information management and public information. At the time I may have been right, but the rapid development of communications technology, and the networks created and empowered by that technology, have made me realise that I was probably completely wrong. This cuts in two ways – both in our relations with affected communities, but also with our donor communities (say hello to Kony2012, by the way).
It's in this context that the importance of last week's CDAC Media and Technology Fair needs to be understood. First, the good news: there's already a lot of solid practical experience to build on. I hate the Ignite talk format – it's the complete opposite of my learning style – but FreedomFone, Souktel, ActionAid and others gave presentations which weren't just PR fluff. There are a lot of ways of cutting this particular cake, and all of them involve a much greater emphasis on communications in partnership than most NGOs are currently achieving.
Mid-way through the second day, however, I realised what was bothering me. The discussions were productive, and the points being raised were solid; but the issues being discussed were basically the same as ones being discussed five years ago. Sure, there are a lot of fundamental issues that haven't yet been resolved, but one reason I don't go to many conferences is that I end up feeling like I'm a on a hamster wheel. I've spoken before about Year Zero tendencies in the humanitarian sector, but this is something we need to get past if we're going to make progress.
Networks like CDAC offer one way out of the Year Zero trap, providing institutional continuity that goes beyond individuals and organisations. I was pleased to find out that CDAC will be taking this show on the road; the fair was the first in a planned series in different regions around the world, and it seemed obvious to me that the discussions in those regional workshops will have more grit in the gears than the London one. I'm hoping that CDAC will also work out better methods to capture the experiences of participants so that we don't just keep
The big issue, the one which I hinted at right at the start of this post, is the question of what our new business model should be. Increasingly, I see the humanitarian community as a delivery mechanism not for relief materials, but for humanitarian principles. If we think those principles are worth preserving; if we want those principles to remain at the heart of humanitarian response; if we want those principles to empower disaster-affected communities, we need to start using communication much more effectively to start that discussion now.
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