By Sophie Boudre and Charlotte Morgan
How do you share critical information with people at risk while maintaining social distancing measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic? A question that we are all grappling with, as the virus spreads to some of the world’s most fragile environments. With 13 peace operations deployed across the world, United Nations Peacekeeping is no stranger to this challenge.
Under the complex conditions brought by COVID-19, 95,000 UN peacekeepers continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, promote human rights, all whilst applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and help respond to the pandemic.
Peacekeeping in the times of COVID-19
Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach — a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates — approaches to continue connecting with and supporting communities, civil society and local organizations, while limiting the risks borne from social contact.
Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups and other messaging platforms, as well as social media to reach audiences.
Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeeping operates, but it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.
Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80% of production has been shifted towards COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates and internet reach, and a multilingual landscape.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN Secretary-General has called a global ‘infodemic’. Which is why public communication is central to help dispel rumours, counter misinformation and provide local populations with timely and accurate information.
Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing 63 community radio stations with pre-recorded prevention messages in five local languages and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.
Some of our Missions are also now providing education on the airwaves, with schools closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces 14 weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to help children with their educational needs.
The right tools for the right audiences
Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.
Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, our Missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites and remote villages.
As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.
Our Mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched ‘MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon’ (MINUSMA info hut) whereby each month, communities from a different region interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.
Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues and to increase sensitization on Covid-19, including to non-majority communities. The debates are also broadcast on national television. The Mission also launched a digital trust-building platform, focusing on multiethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger physical groups.
Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a ‘captive audience,’ while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at multiple markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.
Empowering through partnerships
Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.
Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumours. Arts, sports, socio-economic and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with artists Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force (UNFICYP) has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.
Engaging with the media is yet another way Missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to inform on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops — held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines — over 50 journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.
Patrolling and informing
Strategic communications are part of our daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. Community Violence Reduction projects, such as in Central African Republic, also involve at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making, to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.
It is in this challenging context, and through the many examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that we can leverage the power of information and its ability to both build strong partnerships with local communities and save lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.
Read more on UN Peacekeeping’s response to COVID-19 here.
This article was originally published by the Institute of Development Studies. Sophie Boudre is Public Information Officer at the UN Department of Peace Operations’ Strategic Communications Section and Charlotte Morgan is intern at the UN Department of Peace Operations’ Strategic Communications Section.