Wednesday 23 October 2013, 15:55
Listening to people's everyday experiences is at the heart of the Climate Asia research project, the largest ever study into how people in seven Asian countries live and deal with climate change. So it was no surprise to me that last month I found myself in a remote Indian village doing – yes, you've guessed it – more listening.
I was in the tiny village of Balikuda on the coast of Odisha to continue the training of non-governmental organisations which we've rolled out in India after launching our findings last month. I had travelled to the village with a local NGO called Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) and we were there to carry out what we called a 'co-creation session'.
This meant that instead of focusing purely on improving the skills of the NGO's communicators, we concentrated on gathering insights from the audience and how these can be used to shape more effective climate change communication projects to support them.
To do this, we had come armed with a deck of cards to get people talking. Part of the Climate Asia toolkit which can be downloaded here, they come in five categories: themes, objectives, audiences, partners, formats and channels.
So, for example, if an NGO wanted to find out the priority issues facing a community, they would hand over the cards – with options ranging from 'education' to 'livelihoods' – and ask them to pick the top three or arrange them in order of importance.
The insights gained from the various combinations of the cards can help us understand the aspirations and needs of communities with whom we work and avoid the top-down approach that all too often marks climate change communications. The approach also works to also break down the concept of 'climate change' into simpler elements, such as rain, forests, agriculture, flood, drought etc.
Responding to past natural disasters
In Balikuda, the mostly female group we spoke to were initially reticent to give their opinions.
But when given the cards, they told us they felt more 'in charge'of the conversation and started to give very animated and nuanced answers.
The villagers of Balikuda know all too well the cost of natural disasters. Located only 5k from the coast, Balikuda was devastated by the Odisha Super cyclone of 1999 which decimated land and livelihoods and left over 15,000 dead.
Thanks to the painstaking efforts of the village community and RCDC, the village had successfully rebuilt itself on a more resilient basis. They had diversified their livelihoods so they wouldn't be so reliant on one source of income; created disaster reduction and response teams; planned evacuation strategies and increased their general awareness of disasters and what it means to be more resilient.
Using the cards, the group quickly identified the top five areas where they needed information so they could improve their lives; water, health, forests, disasters and methods to improve existing livelihoods and agriculture.
Their choices reflected the findings of our Climate Asia research in the state which found that 23% of those surveyed in Odisha worry about not having enough drinking water and 29% fear not having enough food. (For more detail on our findings in Odisha and in the other seven countries in which we conducted over 33,000 interviews, visit our data portal.)
The group then matched each of the five priorities with the formats and channels they preferred, coming up with some great ideas.
Some women suggested that information about health could best be delivered through storylines in their favourite soap opera.
Other members of the group, meanwhile, said a toll-free phone service from the Department of Agriculture would be a perfect way of getting hold of information about best farming practices and weather information about when to sow or reap for example.
And they had some very strong opinions about what worked best. In terms of better agricultural practices, the women commented vociferously that they preferred watching films or documentaries featuring examples from other villages and told us that this is because they only trust fellow farmers.
When it came to disasters, they chose a mixture of what is called 'on-ground activations' (street theatre, community discussion, community screenings and posters/pamphlets) before disasters strike and then mass media (including information on mobile) for dealing with the aftermath.
Most trusted sources
The women also identified certain institutions as being most trustworthy: mass media (TV and Radio) and local NGOs were perceived to be the most trusted sources. They also had faith in their local governments when it came to information on a few specific issues such as disasters and health.
One woman commented: "Official institutions play a greater role in the domain of health. We cannot trust any pamphlet handed out by any and every one. Similarly in the face of a disaster we cannot evacuate unless a trusted media source of governmental source tells us to."
Indeed, as a result of this observation, the group came up with their own solution to how information about emergencies should be communicated to them. "The state government should set up a service which calls the gram panchayat (village level government) or maybe even all of us on our mobile phones so that we know to respond in time," they said.
The sad irony was that only 12 days after we were discussing disaster response in Balikuda, Cyclone Phailin – the strongest tropical storm to hit India in more than a decade – slammed into Odisha.
Thankfully, the death toll remained low thanks to an evacuation effort that saw 900,0000 Odisha residents moved into emergency shelters. But the massive storm has caused widespread flooding, destroyed crops and made more than a half a million people homeless.
In Balikuda, the lessons learned from the cyclone in 1999 combined with NGO support helped the villagers respond. Suresh Bisoyi, the director of field operations for RCDC, told me, "The village disaster reduction task force worked well and the mock-drills and training were used. Although we were a little low on resources and some people refused to evacuate their homes, people came together to deal with Phailin."
Now the hard work to rebuild homes and livelihoods is beginning in Balikuda. And if our session helps that hard work to be more effective and responsive to the villagers' needs, it'll be worth it.