Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller – Opening remarks at the 2019 Mobile World Congress: The future of digital humanitarian response: Partnership & Innovation, 28 February 2019

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 28 Feb 2019

Barcelona, 28 February 2019

As delivered

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, distinguished participants,

I am honoured to be back here at the Mobile World Congress, the mobile industry’s largest annual event. It is always enlightening to be here. And it is inspiring to see just how much emphasis the mobile industry is putting on advancing and showcasing solutions to humanitarian and development challenges.

I would like to start by sharing the stories of two people I recently met who exemplify the impact and importance of the mobile industry in humanitarian action.

This past October, I met Rakima, a mother displaced by violence, who now lives in a temporary shelter outside Marawi City in the Philippines. Times are hard and Rakima struggles to support her family. One thing that would help, she told me, is a new feature on her phone – an application that would remind her when to take her children in for vaccinations.

While in Turkey the year before, I met Mohammed, a visually impaired man who was able to use public transportation with the help of an application developed by Turkcell. This one innovation meant he could go where he wanted without outside help – his phone provided him mobility and independence.

These encounters told me two things. The first is how central mobile technology is to people everywhere, no matter what their circumstances are. (As we all know, more than two-thirds of the world’s population have access to mobile phones). And the second is how important a partner the mobile industry is in humanitarian action. It is already putting its access to good use, improving the lives of many vulnerable people. I would like to applaud you for that.

The theme of this year’s event is “Partnership & Innovation.” I know the participants in this room are not short of innovative ideas. I do hope that Rakima in the Philippines has prompted someone in this room to design a new phone application.

Recently, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres remarked that we live in a world in which “global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented.” A forum such as this one gives us all the opportunity to reverse that trend, by developing joint, integrated solutions to humanitarian problems.

But first, allow me to step back and take a broad look at the humanitarian landscape and some of the challenges we currently face.

This year, 132 million people in 42 countries will need humanitarian assistance and protection. UN agencies and our humanitarian partners are aiming to reach nearly 94 million of the most vulnerable among them.

Most of these people need help because their lives have been torn apart by conflict. These conflicts have forced them to flee their homes, schools, businesses and farms, and seek protection elsewhere.

In each of these crises, pre-existing inequalities grow, and the challenges that many vulnerable people face are heightened.

Today, I’d like to highlight the particular needs and capacities of two groups – women and girls, and people with disabilities – who would benefit tremendously from more targeted digital solutions. Women and girls face a heightened risk of sexual violence in conflicts – one in five displaced women and girls have experienced some form of sexual violence – and these are just reported figures.

Girls in crisis countries are twice as likely to be pulled out of school as boys.

Every day, more than 500 women and girls die from pregnancy and childbirth complications in crisis-affected countries, because they cannot access decent reproductive healthcare.

People with disabilities also face harsh realities in humanitarian settings. Some of them cannot flee danger on their own, or are left behind by families who do not have the strength or means to assist them. Even when they reach relative safety, people with disabilities often lack access to humanitarian assistance. According to a global study by Humanity and Inclusion, three quarters of people with disabilities living in emergency contexts reported not having access to adequate basic services such as water, shelter and food.

Almost 10 million people with disabilities have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, and human rights violations. And the number of people with disabilities tends to increase in emergencies, as people may be injured by fighting or falling debris, or lack of access to essential medical care.

The humanitarian sector has come a long way in improving the quality and impact of its assistance for all conflict-affected people – women and men, girls and boys, the elderly and people with disabilities, among others.

We are better at identifying and targeting their specific needs.

We are quicker to respond.

We work more closely with affected people when designing our programming.

And we are using new innovations to better reach people in need.

We only do this effectively when we work with technology leaders across the private sector. Including many of you here in this very room.

Over recent years, humanitarian organizations have forged important partnerships with the GSM Association and some of its members. Mobile companies are enabling refugees to communicate with separated family members, to connect with the wider world, and to receive income via remittances and humanitarian cash transfers.

We are working together to ensure that disaster survivors can access the information they need to make informed decisions, to form networks and be effective leaders in their own recovery. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources. Information is a vital form of aid and, in many cases, it is as critical as water, food, medicine or shelter.

This past September, I was in Burundi to see how the Government is working together with humanitarian partners to assist people who were voluntarily returning home from Tanzania.

Digitally-stored data made the returns process much simpler. I met a family who had just returned and they already had their new national identity data, digitally stored. This meant they could access emergency assistance and enrol their children in school almost immediately.

This approach, I am sure, will one day become the norm.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Looking forward, as we deepen and strengthen our partnerships, I think we need to see progress in three areas in particular.

First, access to digital solutions. Second, challenges to data-sharing. And third, addressing the way that we work together and what our coordination looks like.

First, access and inclusion.

I have learned from many years in the development and humanitarian sectors, that, to be effective, our assistance must be inclusive, targeting the needs and priorities of diverse groups.

Mobile technology can promote inclusivity by taking gender considerations into account. But when it does not, women’s access to technology will often decrease in times of crisis, and gender inequality will rise.

According to a recent report by the GSMA, women in low- and middle-income countries are 10 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 23 per cent less likely to use mobile internet.

This gender gap has significant costs, not only for women and girls, but also for their communities and even the global community.

So, how can each of us take on the responsibility to close the connectivity gender gap?

For instance, the mobile industry has developed numerous personal safety applications for women and girls – how can these be extended to crisis countries?

What kind of digital solutions could help lower girls’ school attrition rates?

And what kinds of mobile solutions can help connect, inform and resource women, who are often the first to respond and the last to leave in a crisis setting?

The same goes for extending digital access for people with disabilities. We need to look at designing digital tools to help persons with disabilities access information, basic assistance and support groups when a crisis hits. Maybe the application that Mohammed uses to ride the bus could be tweaked to help people with disabilities find their way to the nearest shelter during a disaster.

We are keen to discuss the development of these solutions with you. Partnerships like GSMA’s Connected Women programme are a good entry point.

Second, let’s address data responsibility.

Collecting, analysing, aggregating and sharing data has vastly improved humanitarian response. It means people can more easily access the assistance they need, and humanitarians can more effectively reach crisis-affected communities.

At the same time however, it has also raised risks and challenges, especially with regards to responsible data management.

We need to ensure data security. Ethical standards and privacy protections must be adhered to, so we do no harm to the very people we are trying to help.

OCHA, through our Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague, is taking this on by developing practical guidance on how to manage data responsibly in all stages of a humanitarian response.

We look forward to further collaboration in this area with the technology sector and other partners. Third, we need to figure out how to better coordinate our efforts.

In most crises, hundreds of aid agencies, NGOs, civil society groups and others will respond. Coordinating them is no easy feat. That is where the organization I work for, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), comes in.

Coordination allows us to eliminate duplication and gaps. It enables us to support people more efficiently and effectively. At a time when our resources are overstretched, this is more important than ever.

But while we have made tremendous progress in coordinating response efforts among humanitarian agencies, we need greater consistency in how we coordinate with the private sector. The Connecting Business initiative is a great example of what effective coordination with the private sector can look like.

A joint initiative between the United Nations Development Programme, OCHA and private companies across 13 countries, the Connecting Business initiative engages the private sector at the intersection of the humanitarian, development and peace agendas. In doing so, it aims to transform the way the private sector engages before, during and after crises.

Last year in Haiti – a high-risk disaster country – the Connecting Business initiative network, GSMA, national mobile operators and other humanitarian partners collaborated with Government authorities in preparedness planning to ensure the private sector is included from day one.

Soon after, in October, an earthquake struck Haiti. And because of earlier planning, the Connecting Business initiative quickly worked with mobile network operators on the request of the Government, sending out a series of SMS messages to 3 million people, informing them of what to do in the event of aftershocks.

Examples like this one are just the beginning. The Connecting Business initiative could become a central hub for the mobile industry to engage in humanitarian action. And it can serve as a platform for shared learning, coordination and advocacy.

Before concluding, I want to assign each of us here – including our panellists – a challenge. I call on all of us to identify practical ways to apply our resources, skills and capacity towards more integrated humanitarian action. I encourage you to find ways to work together – across sectors and industries – to find new and innovative solutions.

In this way, we will be doing our part to ensure that no one – including vulnerable groups in crisis zones – is left behind. Only by working together will we be able to meet the extraordinary challenges facing the world today.

Thank you.

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