13th September 2022

Engaging Communities in Emergencies

This article was written by IFRC’s Minna Guigon-Sell (CEA Communications Consultant)

Carla Guananga is a social communicator. She started her career at the Red Cross working for her national society, the Ecuadorian Red Cross. She then moved to the IFRC where she found her calling with the Community Engagement and Accountability (CEA) team.

I fell in love with CEA and that’s what I do now, and I can’t imagine myself doing something different… I think working directly with the communities, improving our work, it’s amazing, it’s something magic.

When the armed conflict started in Ukraine, she wanted to help and traveled to Poland during the third surge rotation. She tells us about her job and how important Community Engagement is during an Emergency. 

Poland Calling

When the armed conflict began and the surge positions started popping up, Carla immediately wanted to apply, initially planning to go during the first rotation. However, many CEA trainings took place during this period and so her departure got delayed. In the end she went for the third rotation and stayed in Poland from mid-March to mid-July.

In the beginning Carla was a bit nervous: because of the emergency of course, but also because of all the great work that had already been done there and how she would be able to catch-up. But the team was very friendly, welcoming, and helpful and she caught-up quickly – a testament to the fantastic teamwork going on there. Things also happen so fast in an emergency setting, she says, and all the great and impressive work that is developed in Poland is a product of this amazing teamwork.

Working in emergency settings  

“When you are not working in an emergency it’s really easy to have a plan.”

During her two years at the IFRC, Carla has already worked in two emergencies. The first one at the very beginning of her employment: the COVID-19 pandemic. The second one the Ukraine emergency. In between, she has done many non-emergency missions and so is well-placed to tell us about the difference between non-emergency and emergency responses.

In non-emergency settings, she says, there is time to establish a plan before the trainings: to create tools and documents and to work with your national society and the focal points. In short, there is time for thorough background work. During trainings in an emergency, all this background work is not always possible. “You often have to improvise and use your creativity”, Carla laughs.

When Carla organized trainings in Poland, she created brand-new training packages, as CEA was a new concept to the communities there. She says that CEA was a whole new notion for most of the participants and it had never been applied within their national societies. So, she created new trainings to suit this context.

Another challenge was the language barriers. Being used to work in Spanish and English, this was a new situation for Carla. And it was particularly tricky, because she was in Poland but often worked with Ukrainian refugees who didn’t necessarily speak Polish either, so there was a mix of English, Polish and Ukrainian in the CEA trainings. She got all the material translated and then conducted the trainings with the support of a translator, in Polish or Ukrainian, depending on the context.

“The language barriers are really present and not only with the volunteers but with the staff as well and of course with the communities as well.”

This is a complex situation. What do you need to be successful? Carla says that she learned a lot every day, and the fact that she had an understanding boss who supported her was very important and helped her succeed in the mission.

Are there typical days in emergency contexts?

Carla says that she had three different types of day. The office day, the days at the information line, and the days when she went to see the shelters or to visit the different branches.

Two or three times a week she went to the information line, which was placed outside the city. There were six amazing women, themselves Ukrainian refugees, working the line. She talked with them about issues they may have encountered, how they addressed them and what they may need to improve the response.

Other days she would go to visit branches where they had meetings, trainings or implemented programs, for example cash voucher assistance (CVA). Carla says that, during these days, an important element was to have lunch and eat together.

Because to share food with the people is a really important part to engage with people… you have really interesting conversations…that you don’t have in formal meetings.

She also made visits to the shelters and other facilities to explore opportunities to set up CVA programs. And she worked on CEA internally with the volunteers and the volunteer team.

CEA in Ukraine response

Carla felt that the CEA component was very important and appreciated in the Ukraine response. For example, when she created the feedback report for Poland, it was widely shared by the Budapest team. She felt that the information was useful and acute for the whole operation, which was really encouraging.

Carla also points out that she worked during the third rotation, which means that they already started to have some feedback from the communities and to know more than at the beginning of the emergency about the different necessities. Right now, the emergency response is going into its next phase, Carla says. It’s moving from emergency to recovery. This means starting to look at the future of the operation and what will be needed longer term – for example extending the CVA for livelihoods, shelters, and other areas.

At the end I ask Carla if there is anything else she would like to add. She says that she wants to say that she is a mom with two kids. She wants to say to all mothers out there that it’s possible to have children and at the same time to do a lot of good work for the world.

Photo credit: Carla Guanga