Speak up via WhatsApp: A Qualitative WhatsApp Survey of Syrian Refugees and Lebanese Host Communities

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This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)

The United Nations Development Programme Lebanon used WhatsApp to conduct qualitiative surveys to listen to Syrian refugees in Lebanon dealing with conflicts with the local Lebanese community. Using Whatsapp is an effective tool for collecting qualitative data from vulnerable communities at scale. WhatsApp is widely used, with 84% of refugee households in Lebanon on WhatsApp. WhatsApp's voice message function allowed us to send survey questions as voice messages and collect people’s stories directly including from people who are illiterate. 1036 people participated in our survey showing its success as a bottom-up, people-driven method.


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Innovation Overview

Seven years into the Syrian crisis and with almost a million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, a country of 6 million inhabitants, surveys show that fatigue is rising in host communities. In 2014, when there was still hope that the displacement crisis would be temporary, 40 percent of Lebanese said that there were no tensions with Syrians. By 2018, that number had dropped to 2 percent.

What exactly drives Lebanese-Syrian tensions and how can conflict be prevented? In the absence of rich qualitative data from the people themselves, it is left to the media to shape that discourse; and that media narrative increasingly uses blunt stereotypes and pits one supposedly homogeneous Lebanese community against an equally homogeneous Syrian community.

Our WhatsApp tool ‘Speak Your Mind’ aims to address this data gap by more effectively harnessing Lebanon’s vibrant social-mediascape. Digital literacy is widespread among both host communities and refugees in Lebanon: 84 percent of refugee households use WhatsApp (VASyR 2017) and younger people in particular consider information relayed through WhatsApp as more trustworthy than traditional media. Tapping into these digital possibilities helps UNDP Lebanon have a more egalitarian relationship with people on the ground and collect real-time, localized data to strengthen its conflict-prevention systems.

The desired outcome is that Lebanon will remain stable and refugees will be safe through a crisis response that proactively responds to people’s fears and needs and detects early warning signs to prevent conflict.

We piloted our first WhatsApp survey in November 2017 in the village of Qaraoun in the Bekaa region, which hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The WhatsApp tool was developed together with target users, using a design thinking approach, during a one-day workshop. We then sent the survey questions as voice messages to mobile phone numbers registered in the area. Participants were asked to tell a story recorded as audio WhatsApp messages responding to questions on community needs, conflict dynamics and feedback on stabilization projects in the area.

The voice message option helped us to reach people who struggle with literacy. The survey ran for a whole month, with a new topic starting each week. A total of 242 people participated in the first survey, and 794 people participated in a second WhatsApp survey that we implemented in Bar Elias (also in the Bekaa) in March 2018.

The unique contribution of WhatsApp surveying is that it makes the collection of a large qualitative sample possible in a very short time. The narrative data we received was very rich, giving us a data volume comparable to conducting 1036 qualitative interviews (which would take months if not years). The story data added much nuance to our understanding of host community/refugee relationships in tense and vulnerable areas. It also shed light on some ‘hidden barriers’ to stabilization projects for vulnerable populations in the area, which will help us to refine these projects in the future. Crucially, our respondents gave positive feedback on the tool itself, saying it was an easy way to communicate their needs and concerns to international organizations.

We have now integrated the WhatsApp deep-dive qualitative survey tool as part of our regular early warning and tension analysis. Going forward, our objective is to use WhatsApp more broadly to support research, programming and coordination in the humanitarian and development sector in at least three ways:

1) Human-Centred Design (HCD) Tool: HCD is a problem-solving strategy that incorporates the needs, feedback and suggestions of end users of services at every stage of the design process. As an HCD tool, WhatsApp can facilitate consultation, prioritization, ideation, and prototyping with end users to ensure that our services are accessible and relevant for people on the ground.

2) Real-Time Monitoring Tool: WhatsApp can also support programming as a ‘real time monitoring’ tool by collecting input and feedback from beneficiaries and the wider community before, during and after project implementation. As such, the tool helps to remove barriers to inclusivity, facilitates ‘on the spot’ adjustments to programming and measures the impact of our interventions.

3) Cross-Country Communication Tool: The tool also allows for continued contact with respondents after they cross borders. Even when people change phone numbers as they move to new countries, they often maintain their WhatsApp contacts either by linking their existing WhatsApp account to a new phone number or by continuing it on the previous number. Such cross-country communication could help protection actors to better understand the protection needs of refugees who returned or resettled. For instance, the tool could offer a means of communication with Syrian refugees after they leave Lebanon.

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