In the first episode of our new podcast series, Fixing Aid, host Alae Ismail explores the hurdles people living in humanitarian crises face when they want to report a problem with the goods or services they’ve received – or even if they just want to offer candid feedback.
As those who’ve experienced a mismatch between their needs and the aid they received explain, they’re often frustrated by not knowing who to contact, feedback mechanisms that use technology or languages they’re uncomfortable with, or concerns that reporting a problem or making a request could jeopardise access to crucial support for them or their families.
Ismail looks at an innovative approach to addressing this issue: a feedback platform called Loop that uses familiar and easily accessible formats – anything from social media and text and voice messages, to email and old-fashioned phone lines.
She talks to the founder of Loop – a former humanitarian worker – and organisations and individuals who have used it, including the head of Ecoweb, an implementing partner in the Philippines. Together, they address issues of privacy and data security; funding; and how to scale up the small not-for-profit’s services across countries where attitudes towards reporting problems and offering feedback differ, and where technologies and languages can vary.
Guests: Alex Carle, founder of Loop; Nanette Antequisa, executive director of Ecoweb.
Do you know of innovations in the aid sector that are genuinely improving the lives of people in the midst of humanitarian crises, or others that have really missed the mark? Let us know: [email protected]. We’re interested in everything, from tech and AI, to environmental projects, to supply chain delivery. Tell us!
Our flagship podcast, Rethinking Humanitarianism, just wrapped up its second season and will be back soon. In the meantime, we’d be grateful if you’d share your thoughts on the series here.
Hey listeners, welcome to the first episode of the new podcast by The New Humanitarian: Fixing Aid. I’m Alae Ismail, and in the next six episodes we’ll look at innovations meant to improve the lives of people in a humanitarian crisis — from those who fled war, to flooding, prolonged drought, and hunger.
Today we look at whether there are easier ways for people depending on emergency aid to give feedback about the services they’ve received — or haven’t received.
Have you ever given feedback or filed a complaint against a GP, the police, or even at work? A quick Google search, and several links pop up to help us process a complaint.
When you are in need of aid or protection, as 270 million people around the world are in 2022, where do you give feedback on the aid that’s meant to support you? Now that might not be as easy as a Google search.
Mohammed Dahir lives in a camp for displaced people in Somalia. He and other residents were forced from their homes by drought that left their families short on food and killed off their livestock. Mohammed says, people are hungry:
Most households don't have food to eat. In addition, the animals such as camels and goats are dying because of these severe droughts. We received a distribution of non-food distribution items, and sanitary pads, which is inappropriate in this situation, to someone who does not have anything to eat.
What Mohammed and his neighbours want is food, water, or cash — so they can buy basic items. Instead, they received things that didn’t even solve the main problem: not enough food. It would have been great if the people handing out the items asked Mohammed or others in the camp what they actually want and need. And, it would have been great if Mohammed could have told them that the items they delivered weren’t what was needed. But Mohammed did not know who to turn to and say, ‘This isn’t what we need.’
We don’t know where to contact most of the NGOs. A few share their hotlines and other contacts with us. The people in need know what they need most, but most humanitarian organisations don't consult with the community, and they design the project without the participation of the community in need.
Some aid agencies are working to change that. But even when there are ways to file a complaint or offer feedback, a power imbalance between those who need aid and those who provide it can get in the way — do you really want to openly criticise the organisations that give you food, water, healthcare, or cash transfers, or even other items you didn’t want? Will speaking up jeopardise your access to these necessities?
Mohammed’s experience is not unusual. Filipino Padoman Paporo was displaced in her own country in 2017, following a violent conflict between the army and militants. Aid groups worked with the IDPs — internally displaced people — but, she said, they didn’t reach everyone who needed help:
When the siege broke out, we received aid like rice, hygiene kits; relief assistance like blankets, kitchen wares, and other essentials. What was wrong about the aid they received was that the relief assistance [was] given only to the IDPs who were in tents and evacuation centres. Those in the home-based facility, meaning those living with relatives and friends, have not received anything. The IDPs not receiving the correct aid made their daily living more miserable.
Padoman is a lawyer and was part of a group who identified what they actually needed: aid to be delivered more quickly, and to reach everyone who needed it.
Today we look at why it's so difficult for the millions of people who rely on humanitarian support to communicate with aid groups about what they need — and whether what they receive will indeed help improve their lives. Customers of most other organisations can easily share their thoughts about the products and services they purchase, use, or receive which ultimately makes the customer feel important and can help improve the end product and service. Can the aid sector do the same?
One organisation trying to solve that problem is Loop. By using existing technology — everything from social media to text messages to the internet and old-fashioned phone lines — it’s a platform that allows people who receive aid to provide feedback to aid organisations, governments, and others. So, in a crisis where Loop operates, when people like Mohammed and Padoman don’t receive what they need, they can let someone who may be able to do something about that know. It's not only people who receive aid who can use Loop: others can also reach out, such as people who did not receive aid but want to, or aid workers who feel they can’t report a problem within their organisation.
Audio clip, Loop IVRR, Feb. 2021
“You can now share your feedback about humanitarian organisations operating in your community. You can also use this platform to file an anonymous report. To proceed, please record your opinion, suggestion, or report after the beep, and disconnect the call once you're done. Thank you.”
Loop can give people an opportunity to report what they need, what they’ve experienced, and how aid can better meet their immediate needs. We'll talk more about what happens with the feedback, and if institutions and governments are willing to change based on people’s experiences.
But first, let’s hear from someone who tries to get people who depend on aid to speak up about what they do and don’t need, and what is and isn’t working for them.
Nanette Antequisa is the executive director of a Filipino NGO, Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits. She also advocates on behalf of people affected by disaster on a government committee at the national level in the Philippines.
We just heard from Padoman, who was displaced by a violent conflict in the Philippines. But the country is also often affected by natural disasters which shut down communication — the internet, phones — and make it difficult to determine who is in need:
Here in the Philippines, we are very prone to disaster and we're even facing right now a major disaster in the country with typhoon Rai. Millions of people are currently affected. And even the government and all the agencies here are currently overwhelmed with the huge magnitude of the disaster impact and the needs of communities. It has been so challenging. Not all communities have [had] power, have electricity, and have communication, especially in the last two, three weeks since the disaster [struck]. So this is actually where the challenge of not hearing that much about the condition and the feedback of the community [is]. It [was] just recently that we’ve seen the overall picture and the great need of so many communities in the country as of the moment.
Nanette’s NGO uses Loop to help people and communities affected by disasters — such as typhoon Rai — to be heard. She encourages them to use Loop to report their immediate needs. And it also works for feedback after the worst of the crisis, because people might want to share afterwards what would have been useful. That could help those who respond to future disasters.
Nanette believes that people should have the power to decide when to give feedback, instead of waiting for organisations or aid agencies to ask for those thoughts. So when she heard about Loop, she decided to try it. Nanette says people she works with have said the tool has made a real difference to them:
I could remember when we just started to introduce Loop in the community and test it and run it, and to get feedback from the people on the ground. When they tried to make use of the platform, some were really very emotional, saying that at last they have actually a platform to turn to where they could report any time — if they feel like a program is not doing good, or they feel that there is lacking or there’s an absence of any services. And that they hope that through this platform the humanitarian agencies, NGOs, UN International, local, but also the government could hear them.
The feedback on the right kind of support — whether it’s food, shelter, or otherwise — is passed to the aid organisation or institution by moderators who review all the comments.
Nanette says her work to push communities to speak up is starting to pay off: The government agency responsible for people during disasters and emergencies has decided Loop should be used to review aid programs in the country.
This idea about how to provide an easier way for people to speak up about the aid they need comes from Alex Carle.
After working in the humanitarian world for 25 years, it often struck her as surprising that it's not so common for people who depend on aid groups for basic needs like healthcare, food, and other things to be able to review their experience with receiving this aid at a time that they choose, using a format that is accessible and comfortable to them.
So, in a different community from Mohammed’s, Alex started Loop as a small pilot project in Somalia in 2020.
We did a very small pilot in an IDP camp. So one example is in Somalia, and the main thematic areas coming out were water, food, and shelter. And all of the complaints, all of the concerns they registered were around food and water. So statistically, that's interesting. But on a human level, three, four times the word thirsty was used. And you don't hear ‘I'm thirsty, my child is thirsty, there's not enough food and water.’ That sort of real feeling of what it's like for a human.
So if I'm an aid recipient, what can Loop do for me?
With Loop we put the affected person at the centre and say, ‘How would you like to [give] feedback? What would you like to talk about?’ So, you can [give] feedback in any language, the language that you feel comfortable in. You can [give] feedback on an issue that's important to you. They can speak directly to organisations that they may not be able to go and speak to because of COVID, or because of conflict, or because they can't get access, or they wouldn't feel comfortable speaking to them face-to-face. They can share their story, and it might be somebody from the project itself, can reply to them, answer their questions, take the information that they've shared, learn from them, and take that into helping to provide a better response. And so I think the thinking is that it's not just a bilateral conversation between those who received the funds to deliver a project. But these are complex issues that we're trying to resolve in the humanitarian sector, specifically, that take a lot of different voices and a lot of different angles and a lot of different input and experiences to try to resolve some of these, often, very ingrained, long term issues.
I'm curious: what other types of things do people reach out about, beyond water, food, and shelter?
It's different in each context. In Zambia, some of the things that we're seeing coming through [are] around the violence that they’re experiencing. And they're not necessarily expecting a reply or a direct action to their individual story, because they're reporting anonymously, they're choosing not to be able to be contacted by Loop. But it’s more about building up a picture of the scale of the issue that is happening for them.
Loop isn't about a specific thematic area, or even necessarily humanitarian response. It could be used across development projects. Local people wouldn't define my need at the moment as humanitarian and my need tomorrow as development. So it's really about listening to what is important to them. And I think that is interesting too, to fill a gap that quite often we ask people who are already on a beneficiary list, how was the service that they received, but what about the people that don't get onto those beneficiary lists? And what about the services that we're not specifically asking about because of our siloed structures? Are there other things that we're missing as a sector that are actually the highest priorities for people and how their experiences are living out?
From the need for food in Somalia, to confronting violence in Zambia: Speaking out is not always easy. It doesn't always feel 'safe', if you're noting a problem about an individual or organisation that has a lot of control over your life and your family's.
So the question is, no matter how easy platforms like Loop may make it to file a complaint or note concerns, you may still feel it’s risky to do so, especially if you’re worried about protecting your privacy — and maybe even your safety. One person who was looking to report a difficult situation considered using Loop but decided to stay quiet.
Pauline is a young woman from Zambia. When faced with a difficult situation, Loop sounded to her like the kind of tool she might have wanted to use — a place to share her story with someone who could take action. But she still decided not to:
I got to know about Loop through social media, specifically Facebook. I heard so much about it, that it’s a safe platform, but on my end that was not convincing enough. Because I feel the story I had to share was very sensitive, and I was not ready to disclose so much information.
Pauline’s hesitation is easy to understand. We all share lots of data about ourselves online, sometimes unintentionally. But when are you willing to share sensitive and private information online?
For a platform like Loop — that’s all about an easy way of sharing your personal experiences — do privacy concerns hold people back from reporting and sharing?
Yeah, that's a great question. So in the DRC, for example, people didn't feel safe to report to the organisation who had the control over the resources that they needed. So people can choose what information they want to share about themselves, they can choose whether they want to be contacted by Loop or not.
Data stored in the Loop system needs to be secured for people to feel safe. Alex tries to ensure the security of the feedback and stories that come into the platform. A lot of the initial funding that came in was used to focus on safe reporting — reporting anonymously while at the same time trying to have enough contact information in case a report requires further investigations.
Obviously, Loop doesn't follow up on investigations like [The] New Humanitarian does, we can't provide assistance. We're a mechanism for people to feedback safely, and then we have professionals who work with our local partners to identify the most appropriate place to refer an allegation of sexual exploitation, abuse, harassment, fraud.
In every country where Loop is used, moderators look into every story that is shared before deciding what should be done with the feedback. These moderators are vetted by Loop, speak the language, and understand the context. While some people, like Pauline, might think twice before sharing personal details after a difficult experience, Alex says that for those who do, Loop could help point them to groups or individuals that could assist.
For platforms collecting people’s stories, experiences, and feedback, more input means more data. And more data means trends can be spotted. That’s why Alex could tell us earlier that in Somalia a lot of the feedback is about food access, while in Zambia it focuses more on confronting violence. And that information is then used when doing advocacy with government institutions, or other partners working in the humanitarian field.
We’ll look at who is funding all of this in a bit. But first, I’ve been wondering how to address the varying attitudes and habits of people around the world when it comes to sharing feedback? How does a platform like Loop account for cultural differences in terms of comfort with technology and the sharing of information. Does one size fit all?
In my years in business, I’ve seen epic cases of ventures expanding into different countries without truly understanding the environment they are operating in — and failing miserably! We’ve even seen it with one of Africa’s largest and most successful mobile money services. When trying to set up shop in another African country, it became clear one size does not fit all.
What are the changes and pivots that Loop must address when working in different communities?
One of the pivots, I think, was in Somalia, where we thought we brought the technology that we developed that was relevant for Zambia, and the Philippines, and we thought we could add on Somali. But after doing some research and looking at the gaps that local organisations and local people identified, it was really [that] we have to bridge the digital divide. We have to find ways to use existing technology to reach more people who are left out — those people who are the most vulnerable are those who don't have internet access, or a smartphone, or speak a majority sort of language.
As Loop continued their work in Somalia after the pilot, one of the ways they chose to bridge that digital divide and make the service inclusive to people who feel more comfortable speaking than writing, was by making sure people can also report using voice messages in their local dialects. Not only can they [give] feedback in this way, if Loop comes back with a response, this will also be shared in a voice message.
That was one big pivot. And I think that really opens up massive opportunities for Loop. So in the Philippines, when we started, it was Facebook, but there are many pockets of populations who are very vulnerable who would really like to use the voice mechanism when we’re able to. And next year, we hope to build out this interactive voice response or reply element as much as possible, test it, and roll it out in the context, and see how we can scale up and down based on the needs and the feedback that's coming in.
Audio clip, IVRR, Feb. 2022:
“Hi there. This is an automatic call from Loop. You recently shared a story using the number 4343. Somebody has replied to your story and here is what they said.”
Starting a new business costs a lot of money. Not just testing the technology and setting up the team, but there are also many hidden costs such as marketing to gain new customers and protecting any intellectual property. And then, there are the pivots to, in Loop's case, adding the voice messaging to make the service more inclusive. All of that costs something. And I'm curious to hear where that money comes from:
So first of all, Loop is a charity, so there's no profits. It's not about trying to make profit out of people's information. We believe that it's a social public good to provide this independent service, and that it will save funds across the sector and increase efficiencies and accountability if it can be a permanent and accessible service. We have done some sort of projections and see that with scale, the cost decreases per unit.
The price tag of running a feedback platform such as Loop depends per country: it’s about 200,000 USD per year in Somalia, while it’s 50,000 USD in Indonesia. Different types of technology work better in different countries - that’s why voice messages in local dialects were important to develop in Somalia. This can cost more or less depending on the context. But Alex says that the price doesn’t go up depending on the number of people who can use Loop, because once the service is working in a country, it’s available to all.
So far it’s been funded by the FCDO, the UK government’s development office; and the Dutch Relief Alliance, which is funded by the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs; and by the foundation Humanity United.
Loop is actively seeking 1 million USD to finish building its technology and launch in more countries. But how sustainable is this when working as a non-profit, when depending on grants? Over 4 million USD is needed every year to run in ten different countries with humanitarian needs.
We're working this year to unpack some sustainable income models. We don't want to be running from project to project budget lines that would have a short cycle, like the value is really [in] being permanent, and people testing it in safe ways, and then using it in more complex ways as they have the trust and build the trust up. And the fact that it would be there before an emergency response hit and therefore, sort of right from the get go would add value to a context for sudden onset crisis.
A platform such as Loop is essential for placing people in need of aid at the heart of service and to allow NGOs and government institutions to make informed decisions on how money will be spent.
Loop still has a long way to go in terms of developing technology that can scale in different countries, find a seamless process to share relevant insights with organisations that result in action, and keep information safe for those who do share their feedback.
Tech companies have been heavily scrutinised for data breaches and the battle for data privacy is just as important in the aid sector, especially when people are already in a vulnerable position.
If using technology, whether by Loop or in any other way, can help people affected by conflict and disaster to speak out, it can provide people like Mohammed from Somalia who we heard from earlier, with not just an opportunity to say what they need but — in a best case scenario — lead to changes so people receive the things they really need when food or water is running out.
This was the first episode of The New Humanitarian’s podcast series: Fixing Aid.
Five more episodes are coming up, and in all of them we’ll start with the people who receive aid, asking them about areas where solutions — innovations — are most needed to improve their lives. And then we’ll look at how to address those problems by talking to the innovators who are trying out new ideas.
Join us next time, when we look at how to get lifesaving items such as food and blankets to Afghans whose world has been turned upside down, and the e-commerce platform that went from selling arts and crafts to helping to do that.
Let us know your feedback — find us on Instagram or Twitter: @NewHumanitarian, or send us an email at [email protected].
Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review.
This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.
This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf.
And I’m Alae Ismail. See you at the next episode!