Almost every day we hear stories of technological innovation and potential that sound like they come from a science fiction movie, not today’s reality. It is no different in the humanitarian sector, where drones may soon be regularly dropping aid parcels. Technology has the potential to turn the traditional top-down model of humanitarian response on its head. After disasters, 90% of lives saved are thanks to the actions of local people. With new technologies, the potential is endless.
However, at the moment, this 90% of first responders in the most vulnerable contexts are often the least likely to be connected. Globally, there are more mobile phone subscriptions than people in Europe, but only 42% of people in low-income countries are connected. Only 8% of households in Africa have a computer, compared to 76% in Europe. And so on.
This is the first challenge: bridging the digital divide to ensure that technology helps vulnerable people.
So what happens if technology replaces aid agencies? Can computers make better ethical decisions than humans? Can we be accountable to people we have never met? Data alone can be meaningless without context and understanding. Furthermore, holding information about affected individuals online presents humanitarian organizations with a new set of responsibilities to ensure security.
The latest issue of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ World Disasters Report argues that aid agencies deliver much more than humanitarian aid – they also promote humanitarian values and strengthen human rights. This is the second challenge. To use technology in ethical ways that help us all save and improve lives, promote accountability, and strengthen human rights.
And finally, if we are to use technology to prepare for disasters and build resilience based on community needs, there must be a far greater level of collaboration between the governmental, humanitarian and private sectors. Development, as a process, is owned by and largely carried out by people themselves as opposed to donors or development agencies. In the same way, the building of resilience must also be driven by the interests and needs of the individual community.
Large corporations with philanthropic arms also need humanitarian partners, which have an in-depth grass-roots knowledge and understanding of the communities they are trying to reach. For example, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ partnership with the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application has enabled 3 million people in Haiti to receive hurricane warnings and disease prevention advice.
This is the third challenge: to find shared value in partnerships and create far greater collaboration between government, humanitarian and private sectors.
These challenges are not insurmountable, but they do require the will from humanitarian agencies, governments and the private sector to work much more closely together so that we can leverage the tremendous opportunities new technologies present. Together we can turn the traditional model of aid on its head and enable vulnerable people to own and drive the development of their communities.
Author: Bekele Geleta is secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Image: A family takes photos of Mount Sinabung volcano spewing ash in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province. REUTERS/Beawiharta