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Humanitarian aid is as close as your phone

by Gary Fowlie, ITU
Monday, 23 May 2016 06:18 GMT

A woman shows residents images of the damage left by heavy rains caused by Hurricane Patricia on her mobile phone at a shelter in the town of Comala, in the Mexican state of Colima, October 24, 2015. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The need for connectivity in crises hasn’t gone unnoticed by aid workers

There are more than 60 million people in the world today who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence and armed conflict. Images of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe have become a grim reality of our 24-hour news cycle.

But instead of reaching out for food or medical attention, they got their mobile phones and began waving them toward the sky, desperately searching for a wireless signal. 

We shouldn’t have been shocked. While it’s certainly true that ‘you can’t eat a phone’, mobile connectivity is rapidly becoming both an essential tool of personal empowerment and a catalyst for sustainable global development. In fact, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, agreed to by all 193 member states of the United Nations, recognised that “global connectivity and information and communication technologies (ICTs) hold great potential for human progress”.

Headlines such as ‘Smartphones bring solace and aid to desperate refugees’ (WIRED) and ‘For refugees smartphones are a lifeline, not a toy’ (CBC News) gives clear recognition of their value.

And this need for connectivity by those fighting for their own survival, hasn’t gone unnoticed by aid agencies and workers who deal with the consequences of humanitarian crises on a daily basis.

Oxfam reports that they use ICTs to deliver life-saving services to those in need in the majority of the countries where they work.  ICTs allow aid workers to increase their immediate impact, broaden their reach, reduce costs and increase speed, responsiveness and accountability – and it is the reason many aid agencies are setting up WiFi networks and distributing SIM cards almost as quickly as they’re distributing food and water.

The need to find new and innovative solutions to providing humanitarian aid, such as those deployed by frontline aid agencies including Oxfam, the World Food Programme (WFP) and UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), is one of the principle reasons that the UN will convene a World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey on May 23-24. 

The summit has specified three main goals:

  1. To re-inspire and reinvigorate a commitment to humanity and to the universality of humanitarian principles.
  2. To initiate a set of concrete actions and commitments aimed at enabling countries and communities to better prepare for and respond to crises, and be resilient to shocks.
  3. To share best practices that can help save lives around the world, put affected people at the centre of humanitarian action and alleviate suffering.

The ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development is lending its support to these goals by urging summit delegates to recognise that humanitarian challenges can be more effectively addressed by fully harnessing ICTs.

This will require a global roll-out of broadband infrastructure (including mobile and satellite) with relevant applications and services, and the right skills to drive development and enhance humanitarian work around the world.

The Broadband Commission is calling for the summit to make the most of the potential of ICTs as enablers for development; to enhance planning processes for broadband infrastructure so that ICTs and broadband can help improve and facilitate disaster response and prevention; and to develop capacities and relevant content ahead of time, especially for youth.

Additionally, as the UN specialised agency for ICTs, ITU has made specific commitments to support the World Humanitarian Summit.  These include:

  • Achieving the Sendai Framework target to increase people’s access to multi-hazard early warning systems, and disaster risk information and assessments by 2030, through initiatives like the Climate Risk Early Warning Systems.


  • Investing in national early warning capacity in a disciplined manner that leverages global and regional support structures, is cost-effective, reaches the last mile, and engages the private sector.


  • Consolidating data in open and accessible databases to guide the efforts of actors nationally, regionally and globally, and generate common analysis of the most pressing risks.


  • Making the private sector an integral part of all natural disaster response and recovery planning, and to promote business continuity.


  • Ensuring all critical infrastructure investments is risk informed, and aligned with national preparedness planning and policies.


  • Joining a new coalition to strengthen the resilience of 1 billion people by 2025.

A mobile phone may never replace food and water as the first priorities for human survival but there is no doubt that ICTs save lives. And as we become more connected, ICTs will only become more invaluable when a crisis threatens our very existence.

Gary Fowlie is the Head of the ITU Liaison Office to the United Nations in New York, where he actively promotes ICTs as a tool of empowerment and development.