Communicating with Communities


Communicating with communities is not an option. Listening and talking to communities is a fundamental part of humanitarian response, including UNHCR and its partners’ work. It is essential in ensuring our accountability to our constituents – the communities affected by crisis, alongside operational effectiveness, security and stability. It is important for emergency responders to understand different groups and individuals’ information needs, their preferred channels and trusted sources. It is equally important that communities’ voices inform humanitarian decision making thus, emergency responders should demonstrate they’ve listened and proactively explain the changes they’ve made and why certain actions cannot be taken.

Emergency responders are encouraged to be open to adopting new channels of communication. They should be aware that while communication should not be technology driven, new technologies can often be appropriate for certain population groups and contexts. The importance being to focus on the purpose of establishing dialogue, the target population, and content before determining the channel.

This short guide consolidates UNHCR Innovation Service’s views and experiences of Communicating with Communities, and contains a selection of tools and videos to help field practitioners enhance their practice.

The Theory


There are number of reasons why we communicate with communities. To some it may seem common sense, but there are numerous different theoretical angles that frame this work. Fundamentally, the idea of informing communities, and listening to their feedback has a goal of putting them in the driving seats of humanitarian response, rather than humanitarian organisations making decisions on their behalf.

Accountability with Affected Populations (AAP): Engaging communities through effective, inclusive and consistent communication is key to strengthening UNHCR’s accountability to affected populations (AAP). UNHCRs commitment to ensuring that people are at the centre of what we do is outlined in our policy on Age, Gender and Diversity (AGD). This policy outlines Communicating with Communities as: activities where the exchange of information is used to save lives, mitigate risk, enable greater accountability and shape the response, as well as support the communication needs of people caught up in conflicts, natural disasters and other crises.

The policy outlines key areas of engagement and core actions related to CwC:

  • Communication & Transparency
    Effective communication with communities ensures they have access to timely, accurate, and relevant information in languages, formats and via the relevant channels that are culturally appropriate and accessible for different groups. The AGD policy states that all country-level protection and solutions strategies will detail the operation’s approach to communicating with women, men, girls, and boys of diverse backgrounds, through means that are appropriate and accessible to all groups in a community.
  • Participation & Inclusion
    Establishing and sustaining multiple inclusive channels for sustained dialogue, strengthens the engagement of communities in programming. The AGD policy states that country operations will employ participatory methodologies at each stage of the operations management cycle, to incorporate the capacities and priorities of women, men, girls, and boys of diverse backgrounds into protection, assistance, and solutions programmes.
  • Feedback & Response
    Through systematic assessment of appropriate channels, effective feedback (including comments, suggestions, and complaints) systems can be established. Adopting/leveraging plural communication channels – including high tech, low-tech and no-tech options – improves accessibility and the ability to cater for sensitive and non-sensitive feedback. The AGD policy states that all UNHCR operations will establish and promote feedback and response systems, including for confidential complaints.
  • Learning & Adaptation
    Documentation, analysis, and reporting on feedback from communities through multiple channels enables humanitarian organisations to learn from continuous engagement with them – and adapt interventions accordingly to both specific information and emerging trends. Adopting context appropriate technologies and new channels – such as mobile data collection or SMS surveys – can support this learning and adaptation process. The AGD policy states that UNHCR operations will adapt programmes and strategies in response to input from persons of concern, and document this.

An effective humanitarian response that adapts to people’s needs does not rely on one actor alone, UNHCR understands the importance of reaching out to non-traditional actors – including media and media development agencies, telecommunications organizations and software developers.

Community Based Protection: Investments in direct and sustained engagement with communities plays a key role in securing protection outcomes. The community becomes more empowered and directly engaged in decision-making.

Core Humanitarian Standard: The Core Humanitarian Standard includes aspects specific to engaging communities including feedback and complaints:

Core Humanitarian Standard 4: Communities and people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decisions that affect them.
Quality Criterion: Humanitarian response is based on communication, participation and feedback.

Key Actions

4.1 Provide information to communities and people affected by crisis about the organisation, the principles it adheres to, how it expects its staff to behave, the programmes it is implementing and what they intend to deliver.

4.2 Communicate in languages, formats and media that are easily understood, respectful and culturally appropriate for different members of the community, especially vulnerable and marginalised groups.

4.3 Ensure representation is inclusive, involving the participation and engagement of communities and people affected by crisis at all stages of the work.

4.4 Encourage and facilitate communities and people affected by crisis to provide feedback on their level of satisfaction with the quality and effectiveness of the assistance received, paying particular attention to the gender, age and diversity of those giving feedback.

Organisational Responsibilities

4.5 Policies for information-sharing are in place, and promote a culture of open communication.

4.6 Policies are in place for engaging communities and people affected by crisis, reflecting the priorities and risks they identify in all stages of the work.

4.7 External communications, including those used for fundraising purposes, are accurate, ethical and respectful, presenting communities and people affected by crisis as dignified human beings.

Core Humanitarian Standard 5: Communities and people affected by crisis have access to safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints.
Quality Criterion: Complaints are welcomed and addressed.

Key Actions

5.1 Consult with communities and people affected by crisis on the design, implementation and monitoring of complaints-handling processes
5.2 Welcome and accept complaints, and communicate how the mechanism can be accessed and the scope of issues it can address.
5.3 Manage complaints in a timely, fair and appropriate manner that prioritises the safety of the complainant and those affected at all stages

Organisational Responsibilities

5.4 The complaints-handling process for communities and people affected by crisis is documented and in place. The process should cover programming, sexual exploitation and abuse, and other abuses of power.
5.5 An organisational culture in which complaints are taken seriously and acted upon according to defined policies and processes has been established.
5.6 Communities and people affected by crisis are fully aware of the expected behaviour of humanitarian staff, including organisational commitments made on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.
5.7 Complaints that do not fall within the scope of the organisation are referred to a relevant party in a manner consistent with good practice.

The Grand Bargain – A Participation Revolution: The Grand Bargain is a shared set of commitments from donors and aid organisations to revolutionise aid delivery. One chapter within the Grand Bargain covers what is described as the ‘participation revolution’. It states:

“We need to include the people affected by humanitarian crises and their communities in our decisions to be certain that the humanitarian response is relevant, timely, effective and efficient. We need to provide accessible information, ensure that an effective process for participation and feedback is in place and that design and management decisions are responsive to the views of affected communities and people.” – A Participation Revolution, The Grand Bargain

Good practices

Coordination and Strategy

Coordination of communication initiatives is critical, both within organizations and at an interagency level. This minimizes the risk of causing confusion through the circulation of contradictory or duplicative information, enables the creation of joint messages, and allows for the pooling or resources and sharing of channels. It is particularly important to have clear commitment and agreement on roles and responsibilities – both internally and inter-agency – in order to effectively manage and respond to community feedback. Responders should draft Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which clearly indicate the agreed commitments, timeframe for follow-up, as well as different agency/individual roles. There might be existing coordination mechanisms for communication activities which vary from context – for example a Communicating with Communities Working Group, as a sub-working group within the Protection working group (if activated). Additional actors – such as the local media, telecommunications companies – may need to be proactively engaged to ensure representation.

Using multiple channels

Adopt multiple communications channels to promote inclusivity and accessibility. The more channels you establish, the less risk there is of complete loss of engagement with a community if/when access to one fails. In changing contexts, new channels may become available, and existing ones disrupted. Information needs will change over time and different groups of people may be affected by information gaps. Think about how different technologies affect information ecosystems; and how hi-tech tools integrate with more traditional tools (i.e. with information from Facebook being transferred onwards face-to-face). Reaching out to non traditional actors – including media and media development agencies, telecommunications organisations and software developers – as they can provide expertise and support in such contexts.

Dialogue and Feedback

Don’t assume a communication channel is only ‘one-way’ – communities want the opportunity to question or respond to the information they receive. For example, a common mistake is to broadcast ‘bulk’ SMSs without planning for inbound messages from the community. This can result in a large number of enquiries – and potentially protection concerns – going unanswered. It is important to establish a forum/platform for discussion and debate, to generate new ideas and enable people to challenge and contextualize the information being shared. These can be high-tech, low-tech or no-tech and examples- including refugee-led Facebook groups, call-in radio shows or Town Hall Meetings.

Designing Solutions

Test and refine your communications activities: Consult with communities to understand why/why not they are not engaging. Work with specific groups within the community – such as the youth, disabled groups, women’s associations – to brainstorm solutions which would overcome the challenges.


Identify what capacities and resources you need to implement, receive and react – building on existing capabilities and established services. Work out what activities are already underway and build on these; identify which community members, partners and staff you can work with. For example, if people are regularly attending schools, medical centres, or distribution points then you can plan to integrate your communication activities into these services – working with teachers, parents, medical staff and distribution volunteers etc. Depending on your plans, you will need additional staff and materials, including tools, expertise, budgets, and possibly technology to make your strategy a reality. It is critical that this planning includes resourcing for ‘listening and responding’ – so that the operation is in a position to receive and respond to information being shared by communities. Consider the sustainability of activities, and exit strategy/scale-out planning. For example, if feedback boxes are considered appropriate, ensure they are accessible (location, language, access to writing materials) and that the contents are regularly reviewed and followed-up on.

Understanding information and communications needs

Emergency responders should consult with communities to determine what channels of communication they are currently using, what sources they trust, and how they would like to talk to humanitarian agencies. This includes an assessment of the local communication and media landscape, and how information is shared by the community. Consider leadership structures, and age, gender and diversity (AGD). The information habits of a target audience, and the level of access of different AGD groups, are key factors when determining which channels to adopt and how to share information. Responders should understand levels of literacy, what languages are spoken, and relevant cultural practices. These are all elements which make-up the communications ‘eco-system’. An Information and Communications Needs Assessment can be led by UNHCR or undertaken jointly with other humanitarian/non-traditional actors. Within UNHCR, it is possible to include specific sections on information and communications needs within a Participatory Assessment.

Access to Information

Provide factual, objective and actionable information that enables people to make their own informed decisions, countering rumour and misinformation. Work with team members and partners across sectors to define what information needs to be shared, and ideally what  response/information you would expect back. Be sure to address the information gaps highlighted in the Information and Communications needs assessment. Establishing the sign-off procedures/development protocols for new information/messages amongst stakeholders is a key step – particularly for sensitive information/content. Within a community, expectations are normal and so are rumors – they both love information vacuums. They cannot be ignored. Rumors only have value when they are the only source of information. By listening to a community’s concerns, monitoring ‘misinformation’ and proactively providing factual and verifiable information through trusted channels responders can help devalue rumors.

Working in partnership

Working in open and transparent partnerships is a central to the approach the UNHCR Innovation Service and when designing communicating with communities initiatives, it is important to consider partnerships with a variety of different organisations beyond traditional humanitarian actors.

Collaborative initiatives such as the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, in which UNHCR is an active member, help bring together collective expertise. This Network brings together over 30 Members from technology providers, UN agencies, INGOs and the ICRC; field presence of these members will vary between contexts but the international secretariat (based in London) can help broker these partnerships should it be needed. The UNHCR Innovation Service leads the Network’s Community of Practice on Innovative approaches to Communicating with Communities.

Examples of partners to consider in your location include, but are not limited to:

  • Local Media (TV, Radio, Newspaper and Social Networks)
  • Mobile Network Operators (MNOs)
  • Government agencies – for example Communications Regulators or Licensing Agencies
  • Technology providers and software developers
  • Art and theatre groups

For UNHCR field operations, the UNHCR Innovation Service is available to help broker these connections as applicable, simply get in touch.

If you’re interested in working with us, check out this post to get a flavour of what to expect.

Tools and Resources

The CDAC Network Tools and Resources page includes tools and guidance from a range of humanitarian contexts. This includes Media Landscape Guides from a number of countries as well as guidance on Information and Communications Needs Assessments.

The CDAC Network Message Library also includes generic sector specific messages which can be contextualized and tested in operations.

Media landscape surveys have been undertaken in many countries and can be obtained via the Network for Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) website.