Connectivity counts as much as food and shelter in humanitarian crises

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 May 2013 20:04 GMT

Residents stand in line to receive aid from International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a camp for displaced people in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti on August 26, 2012. REUTERS/UN/MINUSTAH/Logan Abassi/Handout

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Aid agencies must recognise importance of new communications technologies and employ them in crises

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In August 2012, Kassy Pajarillo issued an urgent appeal on  Twitter: her mother and grandmother were trapped by surging floodwaters in the Filipino capital Manila, could anybody help? Within minutes, emergency responders had dispatched a military truck, and her family was saved.

The story is more than just a happy ending in a disaster – it’s an example of how the response to humanitarian crises is changing because people in need of aid are connected more than ever, thanks to mobile phones, social networks and increasing use of the Internet.

Survival in a crisis is often based on survivors’ ability to connect, call for help and network with others. Humanitarian responders must recognise that information and communication are basic humanitarian needs, just as much as food, water, shelter and sanitation, a new report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says.

“It’s no longer just about technology, it’s about connectivity…and increasingly connectivity is aid,” Imogen Wall, global coordinator, communications with affected communities at OCHA, said at the UK launch of OCHA’s report “Humanitarianism in the Network Age”.

Take Pakistan, for example: 61 out of 100 people have a mobile phone subscription, while in Afghanistan the number is 54. Connectivity is not universal - in Somalia, not even 7 out of 100 people have a mobile phone – but global growth in access is accelerating fast.  Data in the report shows that mobile phone subscriptions among the top 20 recipients of humanitarian aid rose by almost 400 percent between 2005 and 2011.

Aid agencies, private companies and governments are racing to understand how this increase in connectivity will change the way they do business in disasters and other humanitarian emergencies.


The report suggests a fundamental shift in power is under way: the people aid agencies aim to help are  in the driver’s seat because communities are increasingly informed, connected and self-reliant. They no longer simply demand to be heard, they make themselves heard and organise themselves thanks to technology.

That is a direct challenge to aid agencies, often criticised for helping without communicating properly with the people they are supposed to be serving.

“To be fit for purpose within a rapidly evolving landscape, and to be more effective in our response, we must innovate – not just in the tools we use, but in the ways we work,” said Gwi-Yeop Son, OCHA’s director of corporate programmes. “If we don’t, we risk losing touch with the very people we aim to serve.”

In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, hailed as the first example of “Disaster Relief 2.0”, response teams spontaneously used Twitter to share information and gather donations for the relief effort. Remote crisismappers mashed up information sent via text message by survivors onto digital maps.

Since then, mobile phone-based and other technology-focused humanitarian projects have proliferated but coordination and collaboration are lagging behind, the report said.

The CDAC Network aims to improve communications with disaster-affected populations. Rachel Houghton,  its global coordinator, said communication should be recognised as a critical component of humanitarian response.

“However, much work needs to be done to make sure that communication as aid becomes a consistent, predictable and recognised part of humanitarian response,” Houghton said Wednesday in a live online debate on the subject hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

The network age offers scope for a rapid increase in participatory approaches, the report noted, allowing humanitarian organisations to incorporate more information from people affected by crises into their decisions and make them part of the relief effort, rather than just recipients of aid.

Community-driven systems, such as an early warning system for floods in Malawi, can buy people time to implement plans and reach safety. The programme serves 36,000 people along the banks of the Katchisa-Linthipe River, a high-risk area for floods. Using mobile phones, upstream villages monitor water levels and use mobile phones to call their downstream counterparts to report their measurements.

The European Union's disaster preparedness programme DIPECHO worked with Italian NGO COOPI to support the programme but the villagers fund it themselves through income from small businesses. The system functions partly because of personal relationships between monitors positioned along the river and has helped deepen ties between villages.


The  OCHA report spells out four recommendations for the humanitarian community and calls for progress to be monitored by 2015:

-          Recognise information and communication as a basic need in crisis response: governments  and humanitarian agencies should formally endorse this as a principle by 2015

-          Ensure that information can be freely shared: all donors and U.N. agencies should commit to the adoption and implementation of open-data policies by 2015 and to investing  and implementing these standards in disaster-prone countries

-          Build the capacity to use this information: ensure that governments and major humanitarian responders can manage, analyse, share and use new data sources to improve decision-making

-          Develop robust ethical guidelines regarding the use of information: create an open charter with binding principles, standards and guidelines against which the signatories agree to be monitored and ensure it is signed before the end of 2015





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