Twenty-two-year-old Gambian TV reporter and presenter Jainaba Sonko is attending for the first time a workshop for journalists and national DRR platform representatives on Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in Accra Ghana. “Within five minutes of participation in this meeting, I had realized what I want to do after the training. I want to bring the young people of Gambia into the fight for a transition from Disaster response to Disaster Risk Reduction.” Jainaba’s show, Youth Dialogue, which airs on Gambia’s only private Television channel – QTV, is one of the most popular TV programmes among the youth in the country. This is the platform she is “…inspired to leverage” in furthering the disaster risk reduction agenda, coming from the workshop.
And inspiration, as one of the facilitators explained, is what the meeting really envisioned. “We would like to inspire, much more than present new information; inspire new action for a safer world. If after the training, every participant can do something and do so consistently, then we sure will make progress.” Said Edward Wanyonyi, chairman of the Disaster Risk Reduction Network of Africa Journalists – DIRAJ, who led several sessions at the workshop.
The two day workshop (19, 20 November 2019), organized by Economic Community of West African States – ECOWAS – Commission and the UN office for disaster Risk reduction UNDRR in collaboration with Disaster Risk Reduction Network of Africa Journalists – DIRAJ, was a platform for government agency representatives and journalists to explore ways to work together to ensure better informed publics before, during and after a disaster.
Driven by climate change, environmental degradation, conflict and political insecurity the scale of vulnerability and exposure to hazards, are expected to increase considerably over the coming years in the West Africa region. According to the ECOWAS commission, cross-border flooding and droughts remain the most severe hazards in the region. In 2010, during the worst flooding experienced in the region in over 50 years, close to 200 people died. Hundreds of others have died in different flooding events across the region since then, and in 2017, over one thousand people died in Sierra Leone in a massive landslide.
ECOWAS has been making efforts to improve its technical capacity to support countries in better understanding of risk and integrating DRR in national development planning. Some of these efforts include the development of a regional climate change adaptation framework, adoption of a regional strategic program for vulnerability reduction and adaptation to climate change and the launch of regional university collaboration program on flood management and disaster observatory among others. However, engaging vulnerable communities remains a challenge.
The workshop was therefore part of deliberate efforts by the regional body to turn a new leaf in disaster communication as a way of cascading progress to the grass roots. Mohammed Ibrahim, Head of Humanitarian & DRR Division at ECOWAS commission who was present at the workshop said, “Media coverage of the various disasters that occur each year arouses attention, sometimes even alarm, at national, regional and international level, but journalists can do better than this; they can shake up mentalities and cause behavior change… public awareness and public education for disaster risk reduction can empower normal people everywhere to participate in reducing future suffering.”
The workshop involved plenary and deliberately designed practical sessions in which participants worked in groups. Journalists and government agency representatives had a chance to work together on tasks that built on their isolated and collective duties; an opportunity to experience collaboration as envisioned in the Sendai Framework. Ms. Sabiatu Bakarr, research officer in the disaster management department, Office of national security of Sierra Leone, discussed this experience in her interview; “It is like an open space and we have the freedom to agree and disagree on opinion and issues without the fear of being misquoted or misunderstood. And they (journalists) are giving us an understanding of what they look for in terms of messaging and how government can communicate more clearly, and now we have a clear picture of the news cycle. But they also now appreciate our challenges and how we work and the way in which we structure information flow.”
According to Arthur Obayuwana, Communications Officer at the ECOWAS Commission, the kind of media landscape that such meetings create is “very supportive of positive and impactful DRR reportage, and one that must be cultivated and sustained” adding that the organization is sending out a simple positive message; “through this, we are telling the media that ECOWAS is an ally and we are opening our doors to them. As part of strengthening public engagement, ECOWAS is supporting national authorities to have special desks for media engagement to coordinate better flow of information and training.
As the meeting ended at the Tomreik Hotel in Accra, Ghana, participants expressed hope of a more proactive engagement between journalists and national DRR agencies, even making collective and individual commitments besides proposing to ECOWAS, UNDRR and DIRAJ to support the formation of an ECOWAS regional network on reporting DRR issues that will make them accountable to each other while also being a peer mentorship platform.