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Bots on the ground: How tech can help us beat hunger

by Enrica Porcari | World Food Programme
Tuesday, 22 January 2019 11:45 GMT

A worker gives a boy bread at a Mercy charitable bakery in Sanaa, Yemen November 9, 2018. Picture taken November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

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

In an age of receding multilateralism, the private sector and tech community must help ensure the 2030 Development Agenda stays on track

Enrica Porcari heads the Technology division of the UN World Food Programme (WFP)

You know how Outlook pings you fifteen minutes before your next office engagement? And it makes you jump and fret that you’re unprepared?

Well, put me down as a worrying sort, but I’m already hearing the ping for 2030. That’s when the Sustainable Development Goals are due, including an end to hunger and malnutrition.

Are we doing enough to achieve the Goals? Are we even on course?

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is also the most destitute: most of its people would die without humanitarian aid. If you’re reading this in a place like New York, imagine having to pay two days’ earnings for a bowl of soup.

South Sudan is a chronic emergency. But so is Yemen. So is Syria, and northeast Nigeria. Other emergencies, such the Rohingya exodus into Bangladesh, strike like lightning: tackling them requires massive resources to be mobilized overnight. In yet more cases, we face what you might call emerging emergencies. The Sahel. Venezuela. And that’s without counting natural disasters.

It’s always tricky to pass judgment on history as it happens. But speaking with my humanitarian and development goggles on, I have no doubt that we live in paradoxical times. Even as the clock chimes down to the SDGs, the multilateralism that inspired and underpins them is being eroded.

The long-term global reduction in hunger has juddered to a halt. Numbers are creeping up. More than 820 million people are struggling to feed themselves. Nearly 125 million are close to desperate.

Meanwhile, developed nations are increasingly consumed by domestic concerns. In poorer countries, institutions, fragile to begin with, are ailing. Under pressure from civil strife, climate shocks or governance shortcomings, states splinter and fail. For all the generosity of donors and the goodwill of beneficiaries, world governments – the nominal signatories to the SDGs – are running out of political, financial and operational bandwidth to get us there.

UN agencies are hard at work –  together with their field staff, and their local and international NGO partners. Many of these put their lives on the line to save the lives of others. Every year, the World Food Programme (WFP) provides food and cash to over 90 million people. Still, that’s not enough. Those pings are getting louder.

Now, having expounded on my worries, let me tell you some of the things that give me hope.

Technology adoption is speeding up exponentially. Two-thirds of all people, including some of the world’s poorest, have a mobile phone. In Jordanian camps, Syrian refugees cash their benefits over blockchain and pay for groceries by scanning their iris. Digital platforms are being developed that integrate all stages of food assistance, from needs assessment to distribution to nutritional monitoring – but could go even further to offer millions of undocumented people a full digital identity, and thus access to a range of health or education services.

High in the skies, satellites allow us to predict droughts and plan food security interventions. Closer to the ground, in sudden-onset crises – floods, quakes or acts of war – drones tell us at a glance how the ground has shifted or where uprooted communities are settling. In the digital space, bots interact with individuals in need, offering nutritional advice and intelligence on food distributions. Overall, data is arguably more crucial now to the food assistance sector than the physical food shipments we have historically been identified with.

But most of these tools are being developed in-house, with support from a handful of dedicated partners. Processing raw data into actionable knowledge still has far to go. And there is yet to be an awareness, among the tech community and wider tech sector, of their potential to accelerate humanitarian outcomes. If a fraction of the budgets and ingenuity spent on, say, games development went into food-security R&D, hunger could soon be condemned to obsolescence.

Industry as a whole could do more. Technological innovation saves money in the long term, but doesn’t come cheap. Yet at WFP, barely a fiftieth of our budget is sourced from the private sector; the rest still comes from cash-strapped governments, subject to growing domestic constraints. Nor is it all about direct funding. Research partnerships; scholarships; logistics and operational know-how; analytical tools; artificial intelligence; awareness raising through corporate channels – all could contribute to delivering a world without hunger.

This is a matter of self-interest – today’s furthest behind are tomorrow’s potential consumers – as much as one of pragmatic solidarity. In a system as complex and globalized as ours, no single force can accomplish universal aims. And while governments are officially responsible for delivering the SDGs, the moral ownership is shared by all of us.

If my years as a humanitarian have taught me one thing, it is this: It takes a world to save the world.