The scene is well known to many of us. You run into an acquaintance in a shop, or in the street, and it’s impossible to get away without a chat. Once you’ve exhausted the ordinary “how’s work?” and “how’s the family?”, you struggle with what to talk about and in desperation, you turn to the topic that everyone has an opinion on – the weather.
Although it may be a last resort for your street conversations, talking about the weather is becoming increasingly important. Especially when it comes to extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and landslides, which have devastating effects on people’s lives, livelihoods and communities.
And even more important is to make sure that communities and authorities that are most likely to be affected by such weather events, are part of those conversations. Community engagement and accountability has become a buzz phrase in the humanitarian sector. But what does it mean in practice?
Two-way communication is key
“Getting meteorologists to engage in conversations about the weather with the communities that are affected, is actually more challenging than you may think,” says Collison Lore.
He is currently working as a User Engagement Expert with the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.
In line with international commitments to ensure increased community engagement and accountability in humanitarian programming, Lore’s job is to make sure weather and climate information is distributed to the people who need it, in a way they can understand. And to give them the opportunity to ask questions and give opinions on the information they have received.
“Previously, information was given to users. But there was no two-way communication, no way for the meteorologists to know if the information was understood and used in the right way,” he explains.
Instead, meteorologists would send often very scientific weather forecasts to the media, and the media would do their best to broadcast the forecasts to listeners, but in reality neither the journalists nor the listeners would understand the information. According to Lore, this led to the perception that weather forecasts could not be trusted and therefore they were not used by the people they were intended for.
For a number of years, NORCAP has worked to make sure weather forecasts and seasonal forecasts are available to people and communities that are most affected by changes in weather and climate patterns.
Through our work with the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC), NORCAP has focused on how to increase local engagement and make ourselves accountable to the communities we work with, especially when it comes to distribution of weather and climate information. Our experts, like Collison Lore, have organised workshops with scientists, journalists and communities, to discuss how to make weather alerts more user-friendly and in line with communities’ needs.
In order to build accountability, we have brought together meteorological services, farming and fishing communities, traditional climate experts, local authorities, the media, civil society organisations and private sector companies.
“While this was not the first time these different stakeholders met, the workshops offered a new way for them to work together and ensured the production of the season media action plan, which safeguards the relationship in all seasons”, Lore explains.
He gives an example from Taita, Taveta county in coastal Kenya where journalists and the Kenya Meteorological Department have developed a collaborative relationship to produce timely weather updates for communities in the flood prone areas of Kimorigho and Mata.
“We have been able to provide a platform for conversations between those who produce the climate information and the users. And we see that when people begin talking, when information is provided in advance, it can save lives and property,” Lore says.
The way they get people to talk is through community meetings and regular press conferences.
“We issue regular forecasts and when there are updates, we do press conferences, where the meteorologists explain why the forecasts haven’t met the users’ expectations. At the community meetings, we also talk about how the season went and present issues that affect a community. That way, we ensure a continuous flow of information and the opportunity for users to give feedback,” he explains.
But press conferences and local meetings are not enough to reach audiences across East Africa. Collison Lore and his colleagues have also targeted the media to get their messages out.
“When I started this work, the meteorologists expected the media to report word by word what the forecasts said. But people didn’t necessarily understand what “below normal rains” meant. So, we had to train the media on how to communicate weather forecasts,” he says.
The media met with the meteorologists and farmers through social media, where journalists would share forecast clips and the other groups provided feedback, which enhanced the communication.
“Structured collaboration between the media, the meteorological department and partners has been very useful. As a journalist, I now understand better weather and climate terminologies. My access to weather and climate information has increased considerably. My audience is pleased that the quality of my stories has improved”, says Solomon Muingi from Radio Jambo and the Star Newspaper in Kenya.
No "one size fits all"
"I’ve become a bit of an old man because of this work,” laughs Collison Lore, underlining that while many felt it was unnecessary and expensive to ask communities their opinion on the weather forecasts, they have come around to the idea when they see how it increases trust and makes communities better equipped to face the challenges.
“There is no fixed solution, no “one size fits all”. You have to understand the fundamentals that govern a community to engage effectively. Otherwise, you’re doomed to fail. Also, transparency and structured approaches are important to sustain the project in the long term,” Lore insists.
What is he most proud of having achieved?
“I would have to say the season media action plan. Before I came, journalists would report in their own way, but through the action plan, we provide a structured way to give users information. It is used in Kenya, Somalia and parts of Uganda.
In the beginning, we would do the action plans together. Now, every media outlet does its own. We also train the journalists, who increasingly appreciate the link with the policy makers and the communities. The amount of information they are sending out is increasing, and it’s easier for people to find and understand,” Collison Lore says.
Training all experts
In NORCAP, the increased focus on community engagement and accountability has led to experts being trained in how to use this method in their work. So far, cash specialists and energy experts have learned how to strengthen community participation and communication and ensure better feedback mechanisms.
“Evidence, experience and common sense tells us when communities are engaged and play an active role in designing and guiding the services aimed at supporting them, the outcomes will be more effective, sustainable and of a higher quality. That’s why NORCAP is committed to developing our work on community engagement and accountability to support this work within the humanitarian sector, says Sharon Reader.
She works as an adviser to NORCAP's global thematic team on community engagement and accountability.
"By mainstreaming this approach within NORCAP’s own processes and procedures, we ensure that all our experts, whatever their technical discipline, have the skills and knowledge to engage with and be accountable to communities during their work”, she says.