Digitalisation in Humanitarian Action: the path forward

by Dr. Kerem Kınık | Jul 26, 2022 | Thought Pieces

As crucial key enablers in delivering effective and timely humanitarian aid to the people in need, digital technologies allow aid organisations to improve collaboration and communication while enabling the delivery of aid more efficiently; rendering a tailored emergency response based on the needs of the beneficiaries. In this scope, digitalisation is one of the Movement’s prioritized topics because it is rapidly shaping how our humanitarian operations and assistance activities are carried out; therefore, impacting how the humanitarian sector is serving the aforementioned affected populations. To stay up-to-date and relevant in different contexts, the humanitarian sector is testing and adopting digital technologies on a multitude of different levels in order to improve the speed, efficiency, and effectiveness of humanitarian operations. By doing so, it aims to reach more people in need while spending less funds on administration and overheads, improving the design and delivery of humanitarian action as well as services.

Facts

  • Every day, we send 306.4 billion e-mails, make 3.5 billion searches on Google, have 300 million calls on Zoom and 145 million people use Microsoft Teams daily.
  • In 2021, 59,5% of the world’s population had access to the internet, but this is only 35% in less developed countries, meaning 2.9 billion people are still offline. The main challenge is connectivity and internet access as well as affordability, hence the digital divide.
  • As a result of the divide, the access to internet is not uniform across the globe. While mobile phones are becoming more affordable and being utilized globally, only %40 of adults — about half of mobile phone owners in the world — in developing countries have access to both internet and mobile phones.

The Digital Divide

In our World, there has been a digital divide between the North and South. This divide is still vast especially between developed and least developed countries. According to 2021 ITU (International Telecommunication Union) digital development statistics, by the end of 2021, roughly 63% of the world population was using the internet; an estimated 4.9 billion people. Also, 2.2 billion – or 2 in 3 children or young people aged 25 years or younger – are still offline. One exemplary case of an initiative in regards to narrowing the digital divide which I find worth mentioning is South-South Cooperation. This manifestation of solidarity among people and countries of the South focuses on national well-being, collective self-reliance, and internationally agreed developmental goals. The initiative focuses on de-mystifying and measuring digital economy, promotion of e-commerce in the region, and implementation of digital services in manufacturing output to boost industrialization.

Humanitarian interventions to narrow the divide

As the world’s largest humanitarian network, the Movement coordinates and supports sector- wide initiatives to develop norms and standards around digitalisation. As an emergency management organisation, we support the implementation of new technologies to improve the cost-effectiveness of humanitarian interventions and focus aid on where the needs are greatest. Some examples include CRM and SAP integrations, volunteer management systems, disaster management systems and emergency response infrastructures.

Also, to respond to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Movement is involved in education projects that utilizes new technologies. Our aim is to find creative ways to engage with the communities by using messaging, conferencing and distance learning modalities in various forms. The Movement also supports digital approaches in order to maximise the benefits of digitalisation for humanitarian aid and/or solutions built into the design and implementation of humanitarian actions and activities.

Under this framework, Türk Kızılay’s comprehensive digital transformation has introduced several major outcomes that enhance the speed and efficiency of its activities as a major humanitarian actor in its region. These breakthrough initiatives have been achieved in resource management, donor relations, data storage and management, case management, disaster and surge management, training and education, and many more innovations regarding our areas of work.

Risks and Considerations

In digitalization, we may review the risks under the categories of coordination, access and usability. When designing services and solutions towards digital transformations in order to enhance and improve our way of work, from the onset, we must keep relevance and appropriateness in sight. At times, when humanitarians do not take into consideration the various opinions and assess the needs of the beneficiaries precisely, the solutions they try to implement may turn out to be irrelevant of the context without adequate community engagement. These scenarios usually end up with products and services that would work but are not adopted and employed.

Another concern is the misuse and mishandling of data. The strive for digital innovation in humanitarian crises without prior necessary data protection practices and digitally tailored protection frameworks in place, can have dire consequences. Indeed, technologies reinforce systems as well as cultures of who adopts them. But digital innovations and data practices employed without a proper anchor can end up further contributing to the power asymmetries between humanitarian actors and affected populations they try to reach. Additionally, data protection is a particular concern considering the sensitivity of some humanitarian data. These data protection concerns must be addressed and common standards have to be developed, while ensuring interoperability of systems and non-sensitive data sharing.

Under the framework of “do no (digital) harm”, the after-effects of what happens in the humanitarian sector when data protection measures are not implemented properly are highlighted through metadata – data that provides information about other data – which can have grave consequences for humanitarian crises and can be used for ill intended gain. Once the data is collected, if necessary data protection measures are not taken, it is highly susceptible to misuse. In misinformation, disinformation and hate speech (MDH) cases, through their actions online, affected populations can unknowingly subject themselves to potential offline harm, including but not limited to being surveilled and profiled in crisis contexts, resulting in being exposed to the threat of violence, hate crimes and/or discrimination. Sharing users’ data with external actors without consent of their users can also pose security risks to citizens living in areas of armed conflict or other situations where acts of violence are taking place. Humanitarian organisations have a huge responsibility to preserve and protect the data of affected people. Even if not shared, the stored data of affected people can be hacked into or stolen if not protected properly. Such risks are there even with the best of intentions. For example, the use of UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) for mapping purposes as well as surveying affected populations in a region without their prior consent remains to be debated in terms of data ethics. Especially during the Covid-19 “infodemic”, we all witnessed the awful lot of widespread hurt inflicted through disinformation and its effects upon our security and our societies. Addressing disinformation is an urgent necessity.

Digital safety and security has multiple facets. As highlighted in the ICRC’s Symposium Report: “Humanitarian organizations collect, store, share, and analyse data that is attractive to parties to armed conflict. As a result, humanitarian organizations are exposed to a growing wave of digital attacks and cyber espionage, and have become highly prized targets.” With the constantly advancing electronic warfare means, the crucial infrastructure such as electric grids, communication infrastructure, healthcare systems and many more are being targeted by conflicting parties.

The Next Step

To account for these digital risks, I believe there are several proactive steps to be taken in order to mitigate the effects of the digital divide and improve the overall pace of digital transformation in a safe manner to improve the efficiency of humanitarian efforts and overall digital security;

  1. Fostering digital literacy at all levels,
  2. Reinforcing data protection practices while creating the right safeguards for the adoption and implementation of digital technologies for an optimal digital culture,
  3. Adopting relevant and appropriate humanitarian policies, in order to ensure humanitarians continuous work in a human centric manner.

In order to get the biggest positive impact on humanitarian services when digitalised, the IFRC’s digitalisation strategy conveys two strategic pillars entitled “pathways to change”. As a part of this initiative it introduces two models; the maturity model and the organising model. Maturity model is the enabler for the IFRC to address the digital divide by providing strategic direction for National Society, encouraging ownership at NS level and provide measurement of progress, while the organising model energises our network through an accelerator team which will run digital transformation throughout the organisation to leverage existing strengths in the IFRC.

All lessons learnt in past and current studies prove that human-centric design should be centralised in our service delivery, as well as fostering behavioural change in the way staff, volunteers and communities at-risk related data and digital interfaces;

  • To benefit from increased service delivery and decreased costs, the Secretariat and
    National Society must align;
  • We must prioritise digital innovation of front-line humanitarian services;
  • We must create better opportunities for private sector partnerships;
  • We must come up with new opportunities for operations teams to utilize data to support decision-making.

While our Digital Transformation Strategy highlights the importance of people and their culture of using data and digital, we acknowledge a strong need to deploy the appropriate technology. In an era where technologies evolve faster than policies, we need to tackle each challenge we are to face with the best of our efforts while adopting and utilizing solutions in line with our guiding principles both instantly and invariably.

1 Comment

  1. PATRICK BRENYA

    In fact the information is very relevant and must be given much attention especially those of us in Africa. I am highly ever ready to help champion this project

    Reply

Leave a Reply