Technology and the Future of Humanitarian Aid
April 20, 2011
Senior Director of Technology Partnerships, United Nations Foundation
In emergencies, communication can mean the difference between life and death. Responses to large-scale humanitarian crises like political conflicts and natural disasters are no exception.
As number of natural disasters and civil conflicts rise worldwide, so too does access to communications technologies. Challenges like climate change, and the interlinked food, fuel and financial crises increasingly define our geopolitical landscape. To build resilience in the face of these more frequent and complex humanitarian emergencies, the ongoing revolution in human connectivity may provide our greatest opportunity.
Today there are more than 5.3 billion cell phone subscriptions worldwide. The fastest growing mobile markets are in emerging economies. In many places where there are no paved roads or running water, mobile networks are connecting the unconnected. Along with the uptake in cell phone usage is the rise of the mobile internet, which is fueling the rapid growth of web-based social networking.
These tools, and improved access to these tools, are enabling a new culture of community driven communications that is challenging and changing the nature of disaster response. Technology is enabling people to increasingly be at the heart of humanitarian aid.
Take, for example the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Survivors sent pleas for help via text message, and concerned citizens around the world plugged in to help out. Volunteer-based and other technology groups used cloud-, crowd-, and SMS-based technologies to gather, translate, geolocate, and publish information about urgent humanitarian needs. Nearly all of this happened outside of the traditional humanitarian system.
To assess how this revolution in connectivity is reshaping the information landscape in which aid groups respond to sudden onset emergencies, the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership that I manage recently partnered with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to produce the Disaster Relief 2.0 report.
The report is a contribution to an ongoing discussion about the opportunities, and challenges, that this new era of human connectivity presents. Technology is not a solution to all problems, but in the right conditions it can be a powerful enabler of development and disaster relief work. It provides a platform for people, including those worst affected by humanitarian crises, to become active participants in development and aid work.
This is a significant transformation, and can help ensure that innovation is harnessed to serve those who stand to benefit from it the most.