From digital promise to frontline practice: new and emerging technologies in humanitarian action



As humanitarian crises become increasingly complex and protracted, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has soared, from 78 million in 2015 to an unprecedented 235 million in 2021. Humanitarian funding requirements have grown accordingly, from US$16 billion to $35 billion over the same period according to the Global Humanitarian Overview released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In 2020, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic alone caused $9.5 billion in humanitarian funding needs.

Owed to donors’ unwavering commitment, humanitarian funding has risen steadily, with record funding for inter-agency coordinated plans of $19 billion and total reported humanitarian funding of more than $27 billion in 2020. Yet every year a large funding gap remains to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. As Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, has noted: “It would be nice to think we can fill the gap just by raising more money. But we can’t. We also have to make the money we have go further. The best way to do that is to change our current system from one that reacts, to one that anticipates.”

New and emerging technologies can support this paradigm shift from reaction to anticipation by enabling earlier, faster and potentially more effective humanitarian action. Artificial intelligence can facilitate analysis and interpretation of vast and complex humanitarian datasets to improve projections and decision-making. Mobile applications, chatbots and social media can create immediate feedback loops with people affected by humanitarian crises. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remote sensing can speed up the assessment, mapping and monitoring of vulnerabilities. Digital cash can provide rapid and flexible assistance. And biometrics can help establish digital identity and reconnect families. Together these technologies can lead to better access to information, assistance and livelihoods, and facilitate stronger, more relevant needs analysis, a more prioritized and people-centred response, and more meaningful and systematic monitoring.

But these advantages come with an array of complex challenges and risks. Inadequate data protection can cause harm, intensify insecurities and hinder the principled delivery of humanitarian assistance. Unequal connectivity, access to technology and digital literacy can exacerbate core vulnerabilities and intensify gender biases. Incomplete datasets about affected people can lead to digital discrimination. Technologies can malfunction, break down, and sow mistrust. And technology’s potential is only ever as strong as its underlying data set, decision-making process, user distribution, and political buy-in.

The COVID-19 response showcased both the promise and the pitfalls of new and emerging technologies, while simultaneously accelerating their adoption and use. Artificial intelligence facilitated outbreak mapping, diagnosis, and the development of treatments and vaccines. Biometrics, blockchain and digital cash enabled contactless access to aid. UAVs delivered medical supplies and testing samples. Chatbots provided vital information and telehealth support. Digital tools enabled children to continue their education, businesses to remain open, and health professionals to provide care online. At the same time, concern mounted over data protection and privacy, cybersecurity, personal liberty and misinformation. The massive overnight shift to virtual environments, remote education, videoconferencing and e-commerce also raised fundamental questions about technological preparedness and effectiveness, as well as digital inequality.

This study examines opportunities for solving technology-related problems across the humanitarian programme cycle, challenges posed by new and emerging technologies in humanitarian contexts, and enablers of technology in the humanitarian sector. It is divided into three main sections. The first section highlights key opportunities and challenges of individual technologies identified as particularly relevant for transforming the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the coming years.

The second section delineates seven interconnected and mutually reinforcing enablers for the adoption of new and emerging technologies in humanitarian action. Broadly aligned with the recommended actions in the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, these enablers can create the underlying conditions that will allow humanitarian actors to effectively deploy technology solutions.

The third section covers a set of recommendations drawn from the framework of enablers that will apply to many of the humanitarian actors designing, carrying out, evaluating or supporting projects, programmes and policies with a technology component. Many of these recommendations also support transformations underway across the sector to make responses more anticipatory, long-term, coordinated, and people centred.

The study’s methodology comprised bilateral interviews with more than 80 humanitarian and technology experts, a horizon scanning exercise, and a literature review. Initial findings were tested and validated through a survey with OCHA field colleagues, confirmatory consultations, and a panel discussion at OCHA’s virtual Global Humanitarian Policy Forum 2020, with participants spanning the humanitarian and development communities, government, the private sector, non-profits, civil society and academia. The findings were also presented and tested at the NetHope Virtual Global Summit 2020, which convened the global humanitarian technology community.

As humanitarian action is linked to numerous sectors and Sustainable Development Goals, the following analysis is not exhaustive. It does not delve into important advances in fields such as biotechnology, agronomy or clean energy. Further, while “technology” was approached through a broad lens, research and consultations led to a focus on digital technologies— most of them information and communication technologies (ICTs) and many of them interconnected. Not all technologies discussed will be considered “new and emerging” by all from a technological standpoint. However, their rapid and irreversible arrival in the mainstream of the humanitarian toolkit is novel, making their systematic professionalization for the humanitarian sector more relevant than ever.

Finally, although myriad projects are underway, and considerable progress has been achieved – as illustrated by select examples and case studies throughout the study – the field remains nascent, with many projects in pilot stages. Further research, monitoring and evaluation is therefore crucial, particularly of the long-term viability, scalability and effectiveness of technologies in different contexts.

The past decade has seen recognition of information as a basic need in humanitarian emergencies, and great efforts towards better data-driven decision-making. In the coming decade, technology can further enable earlier, faster and more effective humanitarian action. But technology is not an end in itself, and its adoption alone cannot shift a paradigm. Rather, investment in technology must go hand-in-hand with efforts to ensure that it is responsible, sustainable and inclusive and that it protects, above all, human life and dignity. Undertaken jointly with affected communities and partners across sectors, such converging efforts could powerfully enable transformation in the years to come.


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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