The Collection of Early Warning Information Through Community Resource People – A Case Study from the Red Sea State

Beja Nomads in the Red Sea State

By Mahomed Dien, Fatma Musa, Alawia Osman who are field officers for the Oxfam Community Situation Indicator (CSI) project since its inception in December 1994*.

We have been working as field monitors on the Oxfam Community Situation Indicator (CSI) project in the Red Sea State (RSS) for over four years. Oxfam set up this project at the end of 1994 in recognition of the need for good information on the food security and livelihood of the Beja population in this extremely drought prone area of Sudan. The RSS has a population of approximately 600,000 (based on the 1993 census). The rural population are very dispersed with many living in remote and inaccessible areas.

The CSI project operates largely as an early warning system for the RSS with information collected on price of sorghum (dura), price of livestock, terms of trade between goats and dura, agricultural production, income sources, health and nutritional information (from clinics) and, when there is food stress, coping strategies employed to survive.

The Beja people are extremely resourceful

When Oxfam began working in the RSS in 1985 most of the population were pastoralists with large viable herds of goats, sheep and camels. However, a succession of drought and food emergencies (the worst being recorded in 1984) decimated the livestock population so that the majority of Beja have had to diversify food and income sources. Most now cultivate sorghum and are also involved in income earning activities, e.g. port work in Port Sudan, charcoal production and other forms of petty trading. Food security in the RSS has been likened to the carriage of a coffin, which needs four bearers to be carried. Similarly, food security and survival in the RSS now depends on four components:

The CSI project produces a monthly bulletin which summarises the food security situation in the RSS. The information is collected as follows: Community Resource Persons (CRPs) from 25 sites across the RSS collect food security and livelihood information. This work is carried out on a voluntary basis. These CRPs are selected on the basis of being:

Beja Nomads in the Red Sea State

They receive training in Participatory Rapid Appraisal (PRA) techniques and how to collect specific kinds of information, e.g. market prices. Where possible one male and one female CRP are selected for each site. CRPs fill out a form once a month. As OXFAM field monitors we visit CRPs on a monthly basis to collect these forms and to collect similar data so we can fill out our own 'Field Monitor' forms. We also hold discussions with community members and visit markets. We think that a major strength of this type of information system is that the CRPs enable us to collect data from all over the state at relatively little cost. In a state like RSS where infrastructure is so poor, this type of state-wide information collection is probably only really feasible using CRPs.

CSI information has regularly highlighted emergency food security problems and led to further assessments by agencies like WFP and the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC). However, although the CSI identified the major looming crisis in 1996 when terms of trade between sorghum and goats declined from 1:1 to 1:17 and there was widespread starvation, the CSI information was not immediately believed by decision makers. This partly explained the very late emergency response (starting in mid-1997).

Beja Nomads in the Red Sea State

As field monitors we have many thoughts and feelings about the use of CRPs in an early warning system which we would like to share with other readers who may be considering setting up a similar type of information system.

Strengths of the CRP system

  1. CRPs provide an outreach for collecting information which would be hard to replicate at comparable cost by any other means. The CSI programme is substantially cheaper than comparable information systems operated in Kordofan and Darfur provinces.
  2. The process of selecting and training CRPs leads to much discussion in the community regarding food security and disaster preparedness activities which heightens awareness of these issues within the community. Also, during training of CRPs other literate members of the community attend so that if CRPs have to leave or relinquish their posts others can take their place.
  3. The selection of female CRPs contributes to the empowerment of women in a society where women are marginalised and vulnerable. Female CRPs lead by example and improve the status of women.

Problems with the CRP system

  1. CRPs spend between 3-4 days per month collecting information and many have requested some form of incentive payment.
  2. Many CRPs ask for some form of transport assistance to visit more remote villages. They have proposed that they be provided with bicycles or reimbursement for monies spent on buses or lifts.
  3. CRPs are often refused information by other NGOs or government agencies on the basis that they have no status.
  4. CRPs complain that they continue providing certain types of information (e.g. morbidity statistics) for which no feedback or follow-up action seems to occur.
  5. all CRPs feel that they have not received sufficient training.
  6. it is difficult to find women CRPs as so few women are literate in Beja society. In the 25 sites we only have 8 female CRPs.

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. We would argue for some form of incentive payment for CRPs. Other NGOs in the RSS and Sudan are known to pay community members who voluntarily assist in village committees with cash or food. CRPs may spend up to 4 days a month doing CSI work.
  2. CRPs should be given an OXFAM identity card and introduced to relevant agency officials so that they can access information more easily.
  3. Greater effort needs to be made to select female CRPs. We do not think that illiteracy is a reason for excluding women from this important job. Women have a perspective on household food security that men do not have. As they are more home-based they have a better sense of quality of pasture, local agricultural production and health and nutrition problems. Men spend less time at home and are often far away earning income. They tend to be better able to give market information. Illiterate women have learnt to store up and impart a lot of information orally. They are quite capable of teaming up with literate males and getting them to fill out the CRP forms. The more women CRPs the better.
  4. CRPs should be given stationery and reimbursed for any travel expenses incurred
  5. CRPs should be given regular training. Many have over two years experience doing this job and are a valuable asset for their communities.
  6. There is a big danger that CRPs and those who provide them with information will lose motivation if information given is not acted upon. There needs to be a better response mechanism for the information provided by CRPs and field monitors. The more situations in which we and CRPs provide information on impending crises to no avail the more we all lose heart. There could come a point at which the system grinds to a halt due to an exhaustion of good will. A lesson here surely has to be that there is a responsibility incumbent on those who set up this type of information system to ensure that response mechanisms are in place before setting up the system. Also, communities should not be asked to collect types of information for which it is unlikely that there will be a response. If agencies are not going to rehabilitate health centres and re-stock these with drugs then why are we collecting information on numbers of cases of disease?

Show footnotes

*This article was written with help from Jeremy Shoham who was on a field trip in the Red Sea State

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Mahomed Dien, Fatma Musa and Alawia Osman (1999). The Collection of Early Warning Information Through Community Resource People – A Case Study from the Red Sea State. Field Exchange 7, July 1999. p15. www.ennonline.net/fex/7/collection