'It’s hard to communicate in soundbites' - comms challenges facing aid groups in Afghanistan

What are the main communications challenges for aid bodies and charities working in Afghanistan following the Taliban's seizure of power last week, and what kind of messages have the biggest impact? We hear from three organisations.

Image of Kabul, Afghanistan (picture via Upsplash)
Image of Kabul, Afghanistan (picture via Upsplash)

Sarah Sheffer, director of communications, Refugees International

From where I am sitting in the refugee advocacy community, there are two main communications challenges: one of narrative and one of messengers. And a lesson for communicators that I share below.

On narrative: after 20 years of war, countless lives lost, and trillions of dollars spent, communicating that we still owe something to the Afghan people is a tough sell. But we do—urgently.

The refrain that ‘we couldn’t have stayed forever’ is a powerful and convincing message. But we need nuance: we had a responsibility to prepare for the inevitable humanitarian disaster we’re seeing today. Instead, we abandoned people who served alongside us—Afghans who risked their lives to translate for our troops, or the brave local journalists, activists, and civil society leaders striving to achieve peace in their lifetime. We promised them protection and a pathway to safety after all they’ve done. And we failed to follow through.

It’s hard to communicate in soundbites when two things are true at once: the United States eventually had to leave Afghanistan, but the withdrawal was poorly executed. There are immediate actions we can take to offer refuge to Afghans fleeing the Taliban. By loudly and clearly communicating to the American people that we still have a promise to fulfill, we can start to fix the grave mistakes we’ve made.

On messengers: there are not enough Afghan voices in this debate. We need to do a better job centering Afghans and their perspectives. Instead of giving the mic to talking heads and armchair analysts, let’s hear from the people who call Afghanistan home.

That said, Afghans are rightly concerned that speaking out may endanger them or their families as the Taliban closes in. Journalists and bookers must be willing to work with people anonymously or use pseudonyms so they can tell their stories without risk of retribution.

Finally, a lesson for communicators: don’t write your press release before the job is done. The Biden administration wanted to be able to say they had left Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In doing so, they rushed the withdrawal and endangered countless lives. Good press rewards great work—not catchy soundbites.

Laura Padoan, external relations officer, UNHCR

We’re all deeply concerned for the people of Afghanistan and for our colleagues who are there delivering humanitarian assistance. At UNHCR we have experienced staff who are used to communicating in emergencies. Even still, it’s challenging trying to respond to a situation that is so distressing for those on the ground and that changes so quickly.

We are coordinating with colleagues in different time zones and trying to understand the latest government positions as they are announced around the world. Working for a UN agency, all public messaging needs to be cleared in advance because what we say in one country can have an impact elsewhere, and our priority is to ensure the safety of our staff and the refugees we help. With rolling news coverage and desperately worried Afghan friends posting on social media, it can be difficult to switch off.

Women for Women International, statement from the comms team

Our first priority is always the safety of our colleagues and the people we serve. As women's rights advocates, our staff in Afghanistan are terrified of reprisals and so any communication from them has to be done in a way that doesn't compromise their safety. There are challenges with internet connectivity as well as an understandable reluctance to talk to journalists on the ground.

At the same time our supporters are concerned and of course want information and ways to help. So, we're finding ways to get our message out through anonymously written quotes, statements on social media and interviews with our spokespeople in the UK, US and Germany who can relay what our colleagues are telling us on a daily basis from Afghanistan. Women for Women has been operating in conflicts for decades and many of these challenges are familiar to us. We've reached more than 120,000 women and their male allies in Afghanistan and we're working as hard as we can to continue serving those who need us most now.

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