Oxfam @ 25 Ebook: "Celebrate Change" (and my own article in it "What's on your mind: Forays into Social Media"
Oxfam celebrated 25 years of change in the Philippines last year and we came up with an ebook documenting stories of all those years. Check it out here!
(I also wrote an article on page 243 on social media!)
"What's on your mind?: Forays into Social Media"
My entry to Oxfam in 2009 was my first venture in the humanitarian field. Working in disasters was a huge wake-up call, and I needed to learn an entire language, culture and movement to be able to understand and respond to disasters. Eventually, I could connect the dots from different pieces of disasters to changes in the history of disaster management and disaster risk reduction. Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009, for example, became the impetus to pass the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Law, which stagnated in Congress for the last two decades. As a new humanitarian practitioner, what amazed me the most was that every disaster, whether inside or outside the country, made little but smarter changes as to how we understand disasters. Responding to an emergency has gone beyond the provision of search-and-rescue assistance and food aid, to a complex set of interventions that respond to water, sanitation and hygiene needs; emergency food security and livelihoods; nutrition; humanitarian protection; advocacy; and shelter, on top of gender and many other considerations. A deeper understanding of disasters, on the other hand, strengthens the relationship between disaster risk management and development work as the focus zooms into forming resilient communities, rather than simply just responding to an emergency.
Now, there is the push to identify the needs of affected populations and develop interventions adapted to different sectors for faster recovery. The goal has become not just to save, but also to improve lives. My biggest realisation was more people needed to know about this! Outside the humanitarian field, the public has
only a vague sense of the work we do during disasters or a shallow perception of what is needed by an affected area. As a newbie, I despaired a little about what I could contribute to this field. I’m fortunate to be in Oxfam because I get to work, interact and pick the brains of Philippine disaster greats—old-timers who have been in the business of saving lives longer than I’ve been around.
As I marked my years in Oxfam disaster upon disaster, I became more and more desolate over its impact on people, and more and more frustrated of not being able to share this feeling of ‘rawness’ with my colleagues. Sometimes, I would read the news and punch out holes in the stories: How come we never report what this LGU did to reduce the impact of disaster? Why are we focusing on sob stories? Why are we harping on their pain? There was this wide disconnect between what was happening, what I could see with my own two eyes and what other people were seeing—or not seeing. When Tropical Storm Sendong (Washi) struck in 2011, I thought to myself that since people couldn’t come down to see the effects of the disaster for themselves, I could bring the images and pictures to them. I began taking photos with my camera and mobile phone and posting these on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Complete with my reflections. I could capture not only the devastation but also the recovery and resiliency of affected populations. Instead of dwelling on sad stories that mainstream media seemed to prefer, I would choose stories of positivity, of what could be done during a disaster.
The response from people, whether by likes or comments, was amazing. I had become their eyes and ears. I was gratified that my friends and contacts began asking more questions, offering themselves as volunteers and asking where to course donations. Right within my own circle, a little more awareness of disaster mitigation was happening.
However, as with any issue, disaster-related or not, one has to reckon with the problem of short attention spans. A disaster has ramifications months and years after it occurs but public interest is only as good as the last big media story. More people will ‘like’ a photo a few days after a disaster than they will a month after, even though the issues remain as pressing than when the disaster struck. My intention to bring my work life to social media was to bring the issues to a mainstream setting. I know now that to do so, one has to keep in mind three things: (1) To look at the disaster matter-of-factly, without taking advantage of the affected people; (2) In some sense, look at the disaster positively by finding what is being done to recover; and (3) Try to surface issues about the disaster.
After you build awareness of disaster mitigation, what happens next? The concept of the ‘I Commit to DRR!’ social media campaign arose from the learning that there has to be personal follow-through after awareness-building. The last few disasters in the Philippines have demonstrated in social media the public’s concern for the affected areas. Oxfam and other partners wanted to translate this to a call to action: What can you personally commit to reduce disaster risks in the Philippines? And because the country has such a strong sense of community in social media, we invited people from all walks of life to post their commitments in any social media. We then consolidated these in the #icommittodrr Facebook page, complete with the DRR mascot, the superhero Cristy SuperPinay.
The campaign was an eye-opener, allowing us to reach networks we could not have reached otherwise. If the goal was to make disaster risk reduction accessible and turn this into a personal call to action for people, then #icommittodrr was a success. At the height of the campaign week, 579 people were talking about the campaign at any one time; 2,692 Facebook stories were created; 892 users were engaged; 356 likes were gathered; and the campaign reached a total of 14,662 users. The commitments came from people on the street, NGO workers, politicians, disaster risk reduction and management officials and donors, women, children, men, older persons, persons with disability and many others. It was a start in changing the public’s role from observer to actor working on disasters.
I am personally excited by the possibilities in using social media as a platform for humanitarian work. For every idea elicited and every person reached, there are potentially many more ideas to elicit and people to reach. But for me, the most important takeaway about using social media for humanitarian work is that this allows us to make more and more people aware of what the most vulnerable populations are experiencing during a disaster, and persuade them to do something about it. At the heart of Oxfam’s humanitarian projects is a belief in the collective power of people to bring about lasting change that spare people from the worst and the most debilitating effects of a disaster.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.