In Burundi, a humanitarian hotline to address people's needs better and faster

Thirty-two-year-old Laurent Hatungimana sits outside his tent where he is currently living with his wife and his five children. He was one of the 697 people affected by landslides in Rumonge Province in October. Photo: OCHA/Rita Maingi.
Thirty-two-year-old Laurent Hatungimana sits outside his tent where he is currently living with his wife and his five children. He was one of the 697 people affected by landslides in Rumonge Province in October. Photo: OCHA/Rita Maingi.
21 December, 2015

When heavy El Niño-related rains pounded Nyamusenvi village in Bujumbura Rural Province for three consecutive days this past October, Laurent Hatungimana, 32 and father of five, remembered an important number he had saved in his phone. Three weeks earlier, a volunteer from the Burundi Red Cross Society (BRCS) had given him an emergency hotline number.

“Things got so bad, a lot of the houses in the village were destroyed and many of us were left homeless,” he said. The humanitarian community in Burundi set up the hotline to get a better sense of people’s immediate needs, as well as to update them on the wider humanitarian situation in the country. The hotline is partly supported by the Australian Embassy, with inter-sector support from partners, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Community Response Map

BRCS led the humanitarian community in establishing a temporary settlement and building shelters for 697 persons displaced by landslides at Gitaza, a Nyamusenyi hill in Rumonge Province. Other aid agencies helped provide food, shelter and basic survival items.

When Laurent made the call, he was asked to explain what the issues were, to estimate how many people were affected and he was promised a follow-up. No later than the following day, Laurent received a call from that same hotline operator who assured him that the community would be assisted shortly. After that, the Red Cross dispatched a team to the area in just two days.

“The project has picked up amazingly well and has very good potential to connect the needs of the affected communities with the humanitarian community,” said the Director of World Vision in Burundi

Most callers ask for support with shelter problems, general protection issues–such as arrested family members–child protection concerns–schools taken over by soldiers, for example–as well as lack of sufficient food, or health concerns.

Donatien Bigiraneza, who manages the hotline with World Vision, said the project is going very well so far, though there is always room for improvement. According to him, one third of issues raised have been taken care of, another third are in the process of being addressed, and the rest are referred to sector groups.

Hotline operators refer all protection cases to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The hotline operators receive 10 to 15 calls per day on average, mostly from rural areas, even though the city of Bujumbura has been riddled with political turmoil in recent months. This is because inside Bujumbura, outreach on the existence of the hotline has been limited due to insecurity and lack of access to most neighborhoods.

The need for reliable information is particularly high currently in Burundi as five private media stations–both radio and TV stations–were attacked and destroyed by Government forces, claiming that they were relaying inaccurate information. This happened in April during the presidential campaign, before the general elections in May.

This, in addition to the lack of good feedback mechanisms, makes the hotline “a good tool for improving accountability and two-way communications with affected communities,” said Pete Manfield, head of OCHA East Africa.

Now that the hotline has successfully finished its pilot phase (October through December 2015), partners have been able to identify achievements, challenges and lessons learnt to inform next steps. Key to this will be to raise awareness more widely so more people will use the feedback mechanism.

Cleaver Nkeshimana, a Burundi Red Cross volunteer, has been spreading the word about the call centre in Nyamusenyi area: “The more the people can call the hotline about their issues, the more the humanitarian community will be convinced of the importance to respond swiftly,” he said.

For IOM's Chief of Mission in Burundi, Kristina Mejo, the best way to promote the hotline will be to improve the response to concerns raised and ”respond to queries from the communities in a timely manner.”