Technology in humanitarian response - Lessons we’re learning

Report
from CDAC Network, Emergency Telecommunications Cluster
Published on 18 Feb 2014 View Original

Mariko Hall from the IT Emergency Coordination branch of the World Food Programme – leading organisation of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster – outlines what the relief community is learning in terms of technology in humanitarian response.

Philippines, Mali, Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic – all countries which began 2014 coping with natural or man-made disasters. As the humanitarian community realigns for the New Year, while responding to these simultaneous emergencies, we reflect and consider what lessons learned on the technological frontlines became lessons implemented and where we still need to improve.

During the 2010 Haiti earthquake response, almost every disaster relief operation arrived with equipment to set-up data connectivity. Significant cost savings can be achieved if organisations shared such equipment – collaboration reduces costs and often achieves more. It was reassuring to see that in the first month after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, over 2000 humanitarian workers were using services which were coordinated by the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, and provided by government, United Nations (UN), non-governmental organisations (NGO) and private sector partners. Such predictable services particularly benefit smaller humanitarian organisations which can instead commit funds to other vital areas of humanitarian response.

The Humanitarianism in the Network Age report released by the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in early 2013 underlined the fact that information is a basic need by those affected by crises. The Typhoon Haiyan operation provided a good example of how the information needs of affected populations were responded to with the same impetus as other key areas in the midst of a large-scale emergency. In addition to the ETC, which is currently mandated to provide communications services to humanitarians, there were the likes of First Response Radio (FRR) and Internews which launched public radio stations in local dialects, as well as other NGOs which provided individuals with the capability to make phonecalls. Recognition of the importance of these activities was made through reporting in OCHA Sitreps - under the heading “Communication with Communities.”

Reflecting on our experiences responding to the Philippines crisis, it is obvious that we need to improve the levels of assistance we offer to existing commercial communications providers to support restoration of services to the wider population after a disaster.

In many emergencies, the local service providers suffer considerable damage and are themselves struggling to recover. This leaves a huge gap for the locally affected populations with thousands, if not millions, of people suddenly without the means to communicate. Deploying additional resources to help these private enterprises re-establish their services and by doing so, restore the population’s ability to access information is something that needs to be discussed.

In such situations, it would be imperative to have some sort of relationship with the providers before the emergency strikes, which is extremely challenging as we will never know where and when the next emergency will strike. This is where collaboration with the likes of GSMA, a mobile phone provider and network operator industry association, and Global VSAT Forum (GVF), a satellite operator industry association, would prove invaluable.

ETC Plenary Meetings, attended by representatives of its humanitarian, private and governmental organisation members, and Working Group on Emergency Telecommunications (WGET) are forums for dialogue and engagement. GSMA and GVF are now helping the ETC to shape this new and developing area of humanitarian response.

The positive technology response to Typhoon Haiyan was achieved partly because it was a comparatively secure operation in an already tech-savvy country. Now, as this operation starts to wind down, humanitarians are being reassigned to the likes of South Sudan, Mali and Central African Republic. These are the operations that, in terms of technology, need considerably more assistance and where local technological capacity is much lower.

South Sudan in particular, as the world’s newest country, is one of the most challenging humanitarian operations today. Even before the recent conflict, the challenges presented by the remoteness and underdevelopment of the country were immense. The reality we face is that many private sector and government partners are more reluctant to deploy to countries where they have safety and security concerns and the humanitarian emergency is perceived to be low-profile and out of the public eye.

The relief community whole-heartedly accepts that partnership and collaboration between humanitarian, private and government organisations are the way forward and the key to effective response, but we need genuine commitment and ‘always in’ partners are needed rather than ‘sometimes in’.

The partnership between Ericsson Response and the World Food Programme (WFP), in its role as lead of the ETC, as well as with emergency.lu - with the Government of Luxembourg as an interface between private sector companies and WFP - are key examples of successful relationships.

The digital divide across the world is widening; there are parts of South East Asia where the technological landscape is advancing faster than other regions of the developing world. Our challenge is to make sure those regions that have less capacity are not neglected when we develop this new area of emergency response.

Funding is also a fundamental issue. Sudden onset, natural disasters tend to receive more attention than chronic emergencies fuelled by long-running political and military conflict.

We have to ensure that the same principles that we apply to the provision of food, sanitation, shelter and medical care, also apply to the opening up of communication channels. If we truly agree that the ability to communicate is a basic need in emergencies, then surely the resources to provide these services should be deployed from the very beginning of an emergency. This is already happening to a degree, but we still have some way to go.

It would be an interesting development if key representatives from:

  • Organisations which provide communications services to humanitarians,
  • Organisations which provide communications services to affected populations,
  • Organisations which communicate with communities,
  • Industry associations and
  • Key private sector partners

came together to determine how, when the next disaster strikes, lessons we are just now learning can be implemented.