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Using technology to help those in need

Written by Nera Kuljanic,

As a result of conflict and protracted crises, 200 million people are currently in need of international humanitarian assistance around the world. Providing timely and adequate assistance to everyone who needs it is an increasingly challenging task, due to the growing needs of people and the complex nature of the crises. To make things worse, billions of dollars are still needed to close the funding gap. All of this places the humanitarian system under considerable strain. Can technology help to do more with less?

Technological innovations are perceived as an enabler in preventing such crises and helping to reduce human suffering during crises. A new STOA study analyses the impact of technological innovations in humanitarian assistance as transformative tools for both people in need and humanitarian actors. Although humanitarian innovations go beyond ICT, such as new shelter, sanitation and water solutions, this study is oriented towards ICT-enabled improvements. The technologies are considered to be part of preparedness, response, and recovery, reconstruction and risk reduction activities. The study provides an overview of the current state-of-play and developments with regard to ICT-related innovation in humanitarian assistance, and lists a number of options for policy-makers to further technological innovation in humanitarian assistance.

overview of technologies assessed in the study

Technological innovation in humanitarian assistance

ICT technologies and digitalisation are not new to the humanitarian domain. Nevertheless, ongoing developments in the field and the ubiquity of technologies such as mobile devices, are fundamentally transforming humanitarian assistance. The availability and use of mobile phones and social media platforms by people affected by humanitarian crises; geospatial technologies and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) to detect crises; biometric identification to facilitate humanitarian support; a shift to digital payments with e-vouchers and mobile money as relief provisions, are just some examples. Embracing technological innovation is a way forward to better address the needs of those affected by crises and the challenges of providing humanitarian assistance. Interpretations of what this entails however vary among actors. For example, some may focus more on the ‘innovation process’, whereas others focus on ‘technology’ and its ‘adoption’. There is also an ongoing discussion on ethics, technical standards and responsible innovation, as well as ‘information as a right’ in the humanitarian domain. In addition, involving local communities and capabilities is important to foster local ownership and engagement.

Transformative nature of technologies and how to make the most of them

Technological innovation in humanitarian assistance is maturing and growing, and this has led to an increasing awareness of challenges and opportunities in the field. Innovation transforms the way in which humanitarian assistance is organised and executed, it redefines relationships between actors in the field and it affects financial flows. It can facilitate new ways of addressing the humanitarian funding gap. It also enables a shift of focus from response and recovery to prevention and preparedness and offers opportunities for increased local ownership and engagement. However, the use of technological innovation in humanitarian assistance raises serious concerns about inclusiveness and the protection of the most vulnerable due to privacy and cybersecurity issues, and it requires shared technological standards. Additionally, the use of technological innovation requires different ways of working, skills and capabilities of institutional and individual actors.

The study lists and explains a number of policy options to further technological innovation in humanitarian assistance. These are divided in three categories: (1) those related to ‘objectives’ of technological innovation; (2) those that focus more on the technological innovation ‘process’; and (3) those related to ‘implementation’ of technological innovation.

The above points are the main conclusions of the recently published STOA study on technological innovation in humanitarian aid. Requested by Enrique GUERRERO SALOM (S&D, ES) through the Committee on Development (DEVE), the study was carried out by Capgemini Netherlands, under STOA management. A list of sources complements the study, which draws on information and feedback collected during 11 interviews with various experts on the topic.

If you read the study, please get in touch via email to let us know what you think. Your opinion counts for us.

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