Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller, Remarks at The Mobile Future of Humanitarian Crises at the Mobile World Congress, 1 March 2018

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 01 Mar 2018

Barcelona, 1 March 2018

As delivered

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the GSMA for this invitation. It is my honour to be here. This is the first time I attend the Mobile World Congress, and from what I have seen and heard so far, I am already greatly impressed by the collective spirit of the mobile industry to work towards ‘Creating a Better Future’.

From my personal point of view, ‘Creating a Better Future’ means ‘a better future for everyone’, especially for those caught up in armed conflict and affected by natural disasters.

This year’s Mobile World Congress takes place against the backdrop of a widening gap between humanitarian needs and response. In 2018, 136 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. Current UN-coordinated humanitarian response plans are costed at US$22.5 billion to provide urgent assistance and protection to help 91 million of those affected across 26 countries. The most vulnerable people in particular deserve to get the support they need more quickly and more efficiently. And even more, they also deserve to be empowered to become more resilient and better able to get back on their feet after a crisis hits.

So, there is a lot of work ahead of us, and we in the humanitarian community cannot do it alone. As you well know, more than two thirds of the global population – or 5 billion people – are now connected to a mobile service. This is a significant milestone for the mobile industry and an extraordinary opportunity, considering the mobile market is only three decades old.

The GSMA has come a long way in assisting mobile network operators to engage with affected populations more effectively and at scale. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is delighted to be working with GSMA and partners on critical and life-saving humanitarian initiatives, including the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, the Big Data for Social Good Initiative and the upcoming Mobile for Humanitarian Programme.

Our partnership goes beyond delivering assistance digitally. It is a recognition that information is a vital form of aid, often on a level as critical as water, food, medicine or shelter. Through our collaboration to date, we have seen first-hand that information can save lives, livelihoods and resources.

Without access to information, disaster survivors often cannot access the help they need, make informed decisions or be effective leaders in their own recovery. Without functioning communications channels, they cannot easily seek support from their own networks – extended family, diaspora, social networks. Late last year, I travelled to southern Turkey where I met Najlaa, a Syrian refugee who had fled the fighting in Aleppo. As she scrolled through her photos, she told me that her mobile phone was the only way to communicate with her friends and loved ones and to receive news from home.

At time when global humanitarian resources are so overstretched, this kind of support is more critical than ever. Mobile networks can and must play a key role in this.

Our partnership is also helping to ensure that communications is a two-way process, helping not only affected people source information they need, but also ensuring their voices are heard by responding humanitarian agencies and Governments, thereby supporting accountability and transparency in aid efforts.

For example, the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter outlines a series of steps that mobile network operators can take to improve access to communication and information in crises, and as of today, more than 146 operators in 78 countries have signed up. The Charter initially started as a global initiative here in Barcelona. It is encouraging that we are now seeing its effects having a concrete impact on the ground, through collective and coordinated action. In Sri Lanka, for example, a Connecting Business initiative local network is working with local telecom providers, most of them signatories of the Charter. Together they have developed an innovative app solution for locating flood victims through mobile phones, and they are using Google Earth to identify safe centres where affected people can take refuge, and risk-affected areas that people should avoid. They also send free SMS warning messages in local languages. This is one of the first such early warning systems for disasters in all of South Asia.

In the next hour, we will hear numerous other examples of how telecom operators and technology companies can and are shaping innovative solutions for digital humanitarian assistance and offering solutions to people in need - be it in disaster response or in a refugee setting.

On behalf of the international humanitarian community, I welcome such enthusiasm for engaging in humanitarian action across the globe, and I would like to encourage even greater collaboration to learn from one another and to be better able to replicate success stories at an even greater scale. More than anything else, I look forward to seeing how community voices can be amplified to keep humanitarian responses relevant, accountable and fit for the future.

I would now like to give the floor to Ms. Heather Johnson, Vice-President of Strategic Programs and Engagement, Sustainability and Public Affairs at Ericsson, to moderate the panel.

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