Nishant Das, giving a presentation.

Special mention: Faster and early action

Nishant Das, Somali Response Innovation Lab World Vision (SomRIL) / Somalia and beyond

You were nominated in the category of faster and early action. Can you tell us more about your work in this area?

In February 2020, with COVID-19 spreading around the world, I quickly realised that the impact of the pandemic here in Somalia could be catastrophic. Everyone would scramble to quickly put together a response, and at this point I had not seen much movement in prepositioning.

I reached out to one of my local partners, a health-tech start-up with a digital library of public health videos, to develop COVID-19 specific messaging in Somali. Soon we had a general awareness video in Somali, ready just in time to release when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Somalia in March.

I then began consulting various stakeholders to understand their plans for responding to COVID-19 in Somalia, and I realised that most of them had limited resources to pivot quickly.

One of my donors allowed me to reallocate some of my own funding to support the development of more public health tools, and to make them open-source and freely available for anyone to adopt and use. I utilised a co-creation process, bringing together global and local experts to take generic WHO guidelines and contextualise and translate them for the Somali context. This process meant that the stakeholders involved would have ownership of the content, endorsing and promoting the material.

I began to bring in more partners in the content development process, including those with expertise in edu-tainment – where we crafted messages that addressed complex topic like stigma, domestic violence, mental health and the disruption to education. We also developed radio messages to reach a wider audience in remote areas. All tools included disability inclusion elements.

What challenges have you faced? Have there been any solutions that worked particularly well?

Limited resources to pivot quickly – we’ve worked hard to be seen as a service for all humanitarian actors, so we were able to get resources from our donors to support the wider ecosystem of responders.

Geo-politics – Somalia is complex when it comes to the different regions, and we didn’t want the tools we were developing to become politicised. But we also knew it was important to engage with and work with the government. The first three videos we supported were developed before the Federal Government had a review and approval process in place. But, because our initial content was so well received, they have approved all our content.

Limited health infrastructure – in order to avoid “brick and mortar” facilities being overwhelmed, we developed a self-assessment checklist for a layperson, designed to virtually replicate a visit with a health worker. We also worked to make sure that recommendations were actually actionable. For example, lock-downs weren’t feasible in places like Somalia, so we worked on Ebola best practices around shielding.

Rumours, misinformation and trust-building – most experts advise that a COVID-19 public health awareness campaign will be needed for about two years. So that people continue to adhere to the guidance and to combat message fatigue, we worked to develop engaging content that can address COVID-19 directly and indirectly through various familiar situations. We also equipped partners’ early warning committees – groups of local and trusted leaders – by sharing tablets with pre-loaded content to use in their communities.

Where do you see your work going next?

The work in Somalia, and its ability to scale into Kenya and Djibouti and influence work in Iraq, have shown that it wasn’t just the products that were innovative, but the process of developing them. We are now in the midst of a pilot in Yemen, and we hope we can replicate our approach around the world.

Why is this work so important to you?

It has been humbling to see the work that we began in Somalia grow far beyond our country. This was aided by the fact that the pandemic forced many people to be more open to collaboration. I hope that this becomes the next normal in the humanitarian sector.

What changes to the humanitarian sector are needed in the next 10 years? What are the main obstacles to achieving this? 

We need to invest and focus on the process of developing solutions – building consensus and ownership – not just on outputs. Challenges to this are around funding, and the desire to show quick results that are measurable.

2020 has presented multiple challenges globally. What are the key lessons for the humanitarian sector this year? 

When globally deploying “boots on the ground” was no longer feasible, humanitarian actors were very open to collaboration. This can enable a response to mobilise and scale quickly. For a successful response one must work with “non-traditional” actors like the private sector and academia from the beginning in a genuine partnership.

This interdependence can work to strengthen the capacity of local actors, helping to pursue the vision in the Grand Bargain to “get more means into the hands of people in need and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the humanitarian action.”

Why do you think that in an era when we have more access and communications, crises have increased in numbers and gravity? 

Increased access can help spread both good and bad things, for example, life-saving information or rumours via social media. it is important that people can “trust the messenger” when the message may be hard to understand.

Why is important to transform the sector and if there is one thing that you would encourage your fellow humanitarians to do, what would it be? 

Innovation can be risky but as funding becomes more competitive, finding innovative solutions will be critical to support good work that is sustainable. Sometimes what is needed is not abrupt change as this can be too disruptive. So, look for ways to add innovative components to larger projects. Bring onboard partners with different perspectives, explore new things and be adaptive to an ever-evolving context.