In late 2015, UNHCR – in collaboration with local partner AMIDEAST – established Tawasul, a humanitarian call centre in Yemen. Tawasul, meaning dialogue in Arabic, was the first of its kind in Yemen and shared humanitarian information through a toll-free number five days a week. As it opened, UNHCR’s representative in Yemen – Johannes van der Klaauw – described the call centre as an ‘avenue for complaints, criticism and feedback’ and a mechanism to strengthen accountability across the humanitarian community.
Within a few months, the call centre was receiving 1,091 calls per month, AMIDEAST had established a caller database, and staff were managing incoming questions on medical issues, food distributions and requests for individual protection. However, in late March the call centre had to suspend activities following an intervention from the authorities; and Tawasul was closed completely in June 2016.
The Emergency Lab, with a focus on communication with communities, has been supporting interagency research into humanitarian call centres – contributing to learning on what has worked, and what hasn’t. Tawasul provided an exciting opportunity to feed into this research, identifying considerations relating to operating call centres in insecure contexts, with remote communities and diverse partnerships. The Emergency Lab was working remotely with the UNHCR operation in Sana’a – particularly with Ahlam Alsayaghi who focuses on community engagement – to document this learning. The premature closure of the call centre in Yemen means that this service is now no longer available to communities, which has of course limited the scope of the research. However, the following 5 lessons have been drawn from Tawasul’s short running period and we’d like to share them as critical considerations for other contexts:
Outreach and socialisation of the call centre is critical.
In the Yemen context outreach for the call centre was far more effective than anticipated. Initially, the plan was to advertise Tawasul in a limited number of governorates (Sana’a and Aden) and expand nationally as the project grew. However, in Yemen, partners and communities were very effective at ‘spreading the word’. Printed cards with the toll-free numbers were shared widely and partners and communities circulated the number through social media. The call centre began with 100 calls in its first month, to receiving 1,091 in March from across the governorates. There were plans to run a media campaign to further advertise the services – but this was cancelled due to the suspension. The call centre had also planned to extend its outreach through an established youth network who would run consultations with community groups and members and then phone through the issues raised. Although the team in Yemen did not have the opportunity to test this initiative they thought it an important step to roll-out in terms of improving the inclusivity of Tawasul – by reducing the ‘digital divide’ and providing persons of concern without the means or resources to call Tawasul to still have an opportunity to make their voices heard.
Adopt trusted communication channels for sensitive topics.
It is often debated if call centres – a remote engagement channel – can support individuals who have specific protection concerns, especially concerning sensitive issues. Tawasul demonstrated that in certain contexts a call centre would be appropriate for these issues. The type of calls being received covered a range of protection issues – for example one journalist reported being threatened and was asking for support. This level of sensitive information was being shared from February onwards – just two months into the project – showing that people were beginning to place trust in the mechanism. Ahlam explained that in Yemen people commonly communicated by telephone and it was generally a trusted channel. Call centres were commercially used in Yemen, with the AMIDEAST operatives having previously worked in similar roles within the business world – so community members were familiar with the concept. The call centre also had dedicated toll-free lines – one for women and one for men – this helped create an environment conducive for sharing sensitive information. It is critical that information isn’t just shared and that issues raised are acted on. AMIDEAST and UNHCR had mapped referral pathways so that information shared – including sensitive concerns – could be responded to and services provided when necessary.
Never underestimate the sensitivity of a context.
The suspension and subsequent closure of the call centre highlights how sensitive operating in active conflict contexts is. Conflicts are about weapons, but also about narratives, information and dis-information. As such, activities involving the sharing of information – particularly visible ones such as a call centre – are often subject to censorship. Agencies are now seeking alternatives to reach out to remote communities who had previously been contactable by phone and online. It is not possible to assess how this closure could have been mitigated, as negotiations were held with the authorities prior to Tawasul’s set-up and from March as soon as the initial concern was flagged. As situations evolve, issues become increasingly sensitive; the context today is different to when Tawasal was being planned. The learning from the Yemen experience highlights the importance of ongoing consultation and planning with key stakeholders – including those with the authorities. In addition, it is important that planning includes contingency for premature closure. This includes alternative channels and close-out activities should services be terminated.
Not listening disincentivizes communities to engage.
Following closure of the call centre, AMIDEAST recorded a message for callers to explain that the service was suspended and information could not be provided at that time. The number of calls coming through very quickly dropped off as word spread that the call centre was closed. There were few repeat callers testing if the line was reopened. The rapid decrease in callers shows how quickly communities disengage from communication channels that are no longer open and providing information or listening to feedback. A certain lack of trust will have been created following the suspension of Tawasul. While there wasn’t the opportunity to restart activities in this context, it is likely that sensitization and outreach would have been more challenging than during the initial start-up phase. If it is possible to re-establish a call centre in Yemen in the future, the legacy of Tawasul’s early closure may affect the new project’s success. Communities may well be sceptical of a channel that could close again. This demonstrates how important it is – wherever feasible – to keep established communication channels open and listening.
Coordination and mutual accountability are key features.
To adequately respond to feedback and ensure adequate referrals, every stakeholder must have a clear understanding of the role they play in maintaining the mutual accountability of the mechanism. This was a challenge in Yemen. Some partners were less engaged than others, in some instances cooperation broke down and referral pathways were not maintained. The resources needed to coordinate information sharing, curate content and ensure adequate services were substantial. The challenges faced were not fully addressed in the short timeframe, however, a key learning was the importance of integrating the call centre within the existing humanitarian architecture. The team in Yemen detailed how they were starting to take up key issues through working groups working on specific themes – such as nutrition, food, shelter etc. To do this, the call-centre team began to forge effective partnerships with each of the working group coordinators. It was felt that this collective sharing of common challenges was more effective than addressing concerns bilaterally with specific agencies. Discussing issues openly reinforced the transparency of the mechanism, and reinforced accountability with communities and between humanitarian actors.
Situations, technologies, communities and conflicts continue to evolve – as will the way we share information with communities. As such, the UNHCR operation and partners in Yemen are continuing to explore ways to effectively engage communities post-Tawasul. Certainly, a challenging task, given the complexities of the operating environment. While these 5 considerations are by no means an exhaustive list nor a ‘how to’ to set-up a humanitarian call-centre, we hope that some of the challenges faced by Tawasul have generated helpful learning for other contexts.
A project is only a failure if we fail to learn.
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