Troops, police, and civilians deployed under the auspices of United Nations peace operations routinely work under difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional level of challenges for the 95,000 peacekeepers deployed across the world as part of thirteen UN operations, many of them in Africa. They have to continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, and promote human rights, all while applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to contain and otherwise help countries respond to the disease.
Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach efforts—a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates—to continue connecting with and supporting communities and local organizations while limiting the risks associated with social contact. Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups, social media, and other messaging platforms to reach audiences.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers
Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeepers operate, and it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.
Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80 percent of production has been shifted toward COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates, limited Internet reach, and multiple languages.
The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN secretary-general has called a global infodemic. Which is why public communication is central to helping dispel rumors, counter misinformation, and provide people with timely and accurate information.
Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing sixty-three community radio stations with prerecorded prevention messages in five local languages, and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.
Some missions are also now providing education over the airwaves while schools are closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces fourteen weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to educate children.
The Right Tools for the Right Audiences
Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.
Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites, and remote villages.
As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote-access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.
The mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon (MINUSMA Info Hut) whereby communities from different regions take turns each month to interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.
Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues; the debates are broadcast on national television. The mission also launched a digital trust-building platform focusing on multi-ethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger groups meeting in person.
Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a “captive audience” while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.
Empowering Through Partnerships
Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.
Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumors. Arts, sports, socio-economic, and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with the musical duo Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force UNFICYP has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.
Engaging with the media is yet another way missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities, and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech, and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to provide information on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops—held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines—more than fifty journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.
Patrolling and Informing
Strategic communications are part of UN peacekeepers’ daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. A community violence-reduction program such as the one in the Central African Republic also involves at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.
It is in this challenging context, and through the examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that the United Nations can leverage the power of information and its ability to build strong partnerships with local communities while saving lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.
Charlotte Morgan is an intern at the Strategic Communications Section of the United Nations’ Department of Peace Operations
Sophie Boudre is a public information officer at the United Nations