Written by Silvia Polidori,
The number of people in need due to humanitarian crises resulting from conflicts, climate change-related events or population growth is on the rise. The crises are becoming more complex and protracted, while, at the same time, technological progress advances at an ever increasing pace worldwide. Does technology offer a means for preventing or mitigating the implications of crises?
This question was at the centre of a meeting organised by the Science and Technology Assessment (STOA) Panel on 7 September 2017 at the European Parliament in Brussels to kick off and provide input for a study on technologies for humanitarian aid, involving high-level experts in the field. The aim of the study will be to evaluate technological applications for disaster risk reduction and propose new ways of improving aid delivery and needs assessment, as well as of facilitating humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable, while providing a broad view on the role of technology in this area. Following an analysis of existing technologies and EU policies, the study will provide policy options focused on technologies that can help to reduce disaster risks, and those which can come into play after a disaster. It will take into account the relation between technology applications and humanitarian principles, encouraging cooperation among humanitarian organisations, governments and private sector companies, active in the technological innovation domain related to humanitarian aid. The study will also take into account the potential of innovative finance for humanitarian impact.
Opening the high-level event, STOA Chair Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), underlined that, if we succeed in proposing the right technological solutions to humanitarian needs, and in teaching everyone involved how to use them properly for their own benefit, we will help protect human beings and empower them in the face of crisis situations.
Enrique Guerrero Salom (S&D, Spain), member of the Parliament’s Committee on Development (DEVE), (who proposed the study), chaired the event and moderated the debate. He noted that instruments are needed urgently to improve humanitarian aid, not least because there are around 65 million displaced people worldwide.
Several high-level experts in the field from various European and international governmental and non-governmental institutions and organisations (NGOs) were invited to present their views, followed by an open discussion with questions from the audience.
Although the European Union is the world’s biggest donor of humanitarian aid, Jean-Louis De Brouwer, Director of the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) at the European Commission, noted that, before proposing technologies for humanitarian aid, a better understanding of the potential beneficiaries’ needs is necessary. Outlining the innovative technology applications available for disaster risk reduction and aid delivery, De Brouwer presented the current policy framework.
In future, humanitarian disaster response is likely to benefit from new technologies, innovation and implementation of research in the field. Andrew Harper, Director of the Division of Programme Support & Management at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), noted that it is crucial that industry and governments work together in this respect, to enable access to technological solutions aimed at supporting vulnerable populations. Cyprien Fabre of the OECD stressed that this includes encouraging technology providers to give priority to humanitarian aid principles. In developing countries, nearly 70 % of the population have a mobile phone: for refugees, access to the internet can provide crucial contact with their family during difficult times. Innovative technological solutions, such as a smartphone game application for refugees to learn languages, presented by Alf Inge Wang, Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), can help with integration, giving children a brighter future by ensuring access to education during ‘refugee-life’. However, the remaining 30 % should also be taken into account. Equally, a project developed by Emi Kiyota, of the Ibasho NGO, looks at maximising the potential of elderly persons who are often treated as a cost for society, while their traditional knowledge is often a resource in difficult times, when technology may not be available or adapted to specific circumstances. Imogen Sudbery of the International Rescue Committee highlighted that access to money transfer or to cash are also issues which make a great difference to the lives of, sometimes long-term, refugee populations. Nevertheless, there is often an imbalance between the available technology and human capacity to use it – education and skills training are equally important considerations.
Cooperation between governments, humanitarian organisations, and technology companies can help to improve disaster prediction and prevention, and the reactiveness to crises in the world community. A low cost technological solution to disaster preparedness includes investment in alert systems, such as alarms, which, when used efficiently, can save lives and mitigate humanitarian need by allowing for timely intervention. Agostino Miozzo, of Emergency, an NGO, spoke passionately about the role of technology in disaster management, noting that political commitment to fully exploit existing technologies is of the essence to ensure that the relevant institutions act promptly in dangerous situations. In this respect, during the debate the speakers agreed that connectivity is fundamental for all actors involved in humanitarian crises. However, while technologies can indeed help vulnerable people, above all, human action remains essential. Political will and decision-making needs to guarantee that technology serves people and is used effectively by them, especially for the benefit of those most vulnerable.
The high-level experts concluded that priority technologies for humanitarian aid are those which will improve disaster prediction and prevention, speed reactiveness, increase technological skills, and foster connectivity and cooperation. Priority should be given to human empowerment to use the available technologies, and action guided by humanitarian principles.
STOA plans to publish the related study on technology for humanitarian aid in 2018. The study will include policy options for the legislator. The publication of the study will be announced on the EPRS blog in due time.