The place of telephone helplines in the humanitarian accountability toolbox goes back to the first HAP standard in 2007. At the time, HAP called on organizations to make sure affected people could make complaints in a safe, accessible and effective manner. Because of their track record in mental health programs, helplines seemed like a good bet – and that view continues to hold true for many organizations wanting to apply the new Core Humanitarian Standard (the successor to HAP).
But does the evidence justify their proliferation? Unfortunately, this may be another case where the aid sector has been seduced by a technology without first establishing if it is the most appropriate, relevant and effective means of dealing with complaints.
The literature is sparse but there is growing evidence that the percentage of the intended or target populations using helplines is small, and relatively few calls received are actual complaints. For example, the majority of calls received by the IOM’s nationwide Humanitarian Call Center in Pakistan established after the January 2010 floods were from people searching for information about how to get help rather than to raise concerns. Similarly, after the earthquake in Haiti, some 80% of calls to the hotline set up by OXFAM to handle issues like extortion and sexual exploitation were not made by people who wanted to report specific incidents but by callers with queries about essential services. In Kenya, most calls to WFP’s complaints and feedback mechanism are also in fact general enquiries.
These examples underline the need to do a better job of providing information about accessing services and staying safe. But they also beg an important question: why are affected people apparently loath to take advantage of helplines to draw attention to their problems? Sometimes it’s simply that they don’t know about them. In other instances, people’s reticence is more complex. According to a 2008 study of a call center in Gaza, many people consider seeking help from third parties as an admission of weakness, failure, or dependence. This mindset may impede people from using such services, the study argues.
Meanwhile, class, gender, race and ethnicity all affect how helplines are used (or not) and can prevent them from achieving their purpose. A recent study on the utility of communication technologies used in the aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines concludes that ingrained attitudes of ‘dependence of poor people on powerful benefactors can lead to silencing, as people weigh the benefits of speaking out against potential consequences, which can include the loss of privilege and protection’.
Even more alarming is that the most vulnerable people are less likely to make complaints than those who are better off. The study suggests that the use of communication technologies, including SMS helplines, did little to address power asymmetries. This undermines the claims of many humanitarian agencies that helplines are an equaliser by providing greater access to complaints mechanisms.
A 2011 evaluation of OXFAM’s participatory mechanisms in Haiti, which included a helpline, concluded that the agency ‘did not fully meet its own standard of empowering aid recipients.’ In Pakistan, a 2013 ALNAP study observed that call centers can ‘potentially displace more meaningful participation, engagement and accountability’.
IFRC’s Noula hotline, used in Haiti in 2010-11, did better. It served 800 families in the Annexe de la Mairie camp. With an average of just 3 calls a day, demand was low enough to make follow-up action manageable. At the other end of the spectrum, Nepal’s government hotline reportedly received some 5,000 calls a day in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake. After the first week, it had only logged 700 of them and the system essentially collapsed.
The Nepal example illustrates the challenges of going to scale. WFP, UNHCR and OCHA’s interagency call center in Northern Iraq opened its lines this summer, after taking a year to set up. Its annual running costs are $720,000. Despite the price tag, the call center has only 7 staff to field a wide range of questions in an area hosting 3 million displaced people. If operators can’t answer the questions, they are logged and passed on to the thematic clusters for follow-up action. This kind of stretched out referral process is the Achilles’ heal of call centers everywhere. The ability to act quickly on phoned-in queries and concerns is crucial.
Another drawback is that helplines don’t provide a good metric to manage by. Even if affected people use them as intended, which is rarely the case, they may only provide a random or biased range of complaints, that may or may not reflect the broader concerns of the community. The Philippines study points to the reluctance of agencies to base course-corrections on ‘angry voices that are articulated in bursts’. Sustained voices are more likely to be listened to, the study argues.
Where does this experience leave us? Carefully designed and managed helplines can in some instances play a role in surfacing abuse and misconduct. Where this is the case, they should be considered as a complement to, not a replacement for more comprehensive efforts to understand – and act on – the perceptions of the wider community. As with any tool, the most important test relates to whether helplines serve their intended purpose: allowing people to make complaints and providing organizations with an effective way to track and then respond to concerns. So far, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Nick van Praag directs Ground Truth Solutions which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the IKEA Foundation and DFID.