Armed with a laptop, data modem and a headset, Harun Jirow, a World Food Programme (WFP) staff based in Dadaab refugee camps, in Eastern Kenya, sets off to work.
Normally, Harun would join colleagues in a motor convoy that would snake its way through the dusty roads dropping off staff at different duty stations in the three camps that form Dadaab.
Harun would then usually proceed to the food distribution center in Dagahaley camp where he would set up his laptop and start attending to the waiting people. Visiting the physical help desks is the most preferred way of seeking assistance or registering a complaint. Nothing beats the one-on-one conversation. Refugees argue that at the help desks, all their complaints are responded to and resolved quickly.
But today, there will be no convoy to the camps — but helping people and addressing their issues remains crucial.
Continued service amid a pandemic
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. With the virus now reaching both Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, WFP cannot continue operating the physical help desks — but this vital service cannot be stopped either.
To avoid interruption of this crucial beneficiary service, WFP was quick to retrain the help desk staff, such as Harun, on how to run and operate virtual stations.
The refresher course covered troubleshooting some common problems expressed by beneficiaries especially on Bamba Chakula, WFP’s monthly cash transfers to refugees.
“Just like at the helpdesk, for us to provide the answers or the solution to the beneficiaries, we must be well-versed with the situation and the operations. People call us because they are facing certain problems, and it is our role to resolve the issues in a timely and satisfactory way.” says Mohamed Weli who operates the Hagadera helpline.
Same service, different modality
Harun attends to a caller in an energetic and friendly manner. The warm greeting is followed by a series of open-ended questions. Harun proceeds to provide pertinent and timely responses to the beneficiary before amiably ending the call.
“The helpline is simply a virtual version of the help desk. The conversations we usually have at the help desk with the beneficiaries in trying to solve their problems and concerns, are the same discussions we have on the helpline,” says Harun. “The only difference is that you are not in direct contact with the beneficiary.”
The new ‘virtual help desk’ is just one of the tools that WFP uses to interact with the people that it serves.
WFP has a robust Complaints and Feedback Mechanism (CFM) whose main role is to enhance its accountability and interaction with beneficiaries. People can call WFP for free, send a text message, or email when they have questions or complaints about food assistance activities.
Prior to the pandemic, the helpline activities were being managed centrally in Nairobi. The function was devolved to the camps as way of adapting to the COVID-19 protocols.
Anab Muhumed Ahmed, a refugee from Dagahaley called the helpline in an effort to have her Bamba Chakula phone line registration error resolved. She was pleased to find a Somali-speaking operator on the phone.
“WFP is able to address our concerns in our own language, and we are now able to put forward our complaints freely, openly and more comfortably and we get very satisfying feedback,” she says.
And she is not the only one. Mohamed Abdi Jelle had a similar problem with his Bamba Chakula SIM card and was worried that with the restriction of WFP staff movements to the camps, he would not be able to receive his cash entitlements for an unforeseeable future.
“With the field offices closed and staff being asked to work from home due to COVID-19, I knew that my wait for a new SIM card would be long. I was worried that my cash entitlements had taken a COVID-19 holiday,” says Mohamed amid laughter. “But through the helpline, I have been assisted in getting a new phone line and I can now redeem some of my cash.”
For WFP, the helpline is enabling a continuation of two-way communication with the people it assists while enabling WFP to know and understand better what is happening in the areas where assistance is provided; detect problems at an early stage; understand beneficiaries’ perceptions of the assistance; alert WFP to cases of misconduct or fraud; and overall ensuring that programmes are implemented in accordance to WFP’s standards.