How major tech changes have transformed the way we work

by Dr Alasdair Gordon - Gibson | Jan 31, 2023 | Insights and Inspirations

IFRC Alumni have asked for some contemporary opinion on how changes in technology have affected ways of working in the humanitarian sector. Where do we start?

It might depend on what we consider ‘humanitarian’? From the earliest times, human beings have developed life-saving techniques, when they started to manage the energy of fire for cooking, protection and warmth. Communication is seen as a key humanitarian role (think CEA), and there are records of written alphabets from the 11th Century BCE, developed by Phoenician traders from early Egyptian hieroglyphs. Woodblock printing was practised in China in the 9th century, and the mechanical printing press was invented by the German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th century (though Korean bookmakers were using moveable metal type 100 years before then). Contemporary scholarship considers that formalisation of the modern humanitarian identity began with the foundation of the ICRC in 1863, and the promulgation of the first Geneva Convention the following year, leading to the genesis of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Early developments in human welfare have been transformed into modern technological initiatives, such as electricity for lighting and cooking, engineering initiatives for clean water and sanitation, and communication initiatives for global connectivity and social media.  As well as beneficial progress, there are also negative effects (environmental degradation; misinformation; hate speech) which are the focus of concerned debate today. A reflection on some of the dynamics that have had direct impact for the IFRC alumni group might include the following:

Word processing

The first commercial typewriters were introduced in 1872, and by the end of the 19th century became an indispensable tool for practically all writing other than personal handwritten correspondence. By the middle of the 20th century, electronic typewriters had developed commercially and both mechanical and electric typewriters remained a standard fixture in most offices up to the 1980s, from when they began to be supplanted by personal computers running word processing software. In the early 1970s, word processing began to shift from typewriters augmented with electronic features to become fully computer-based, popularised by new technologies developed by Microsoft and Apple.

Some of us can still remember the days before laptops were the ubiquitous tool for humanitarians on the field and in the office. I have clear memories of stalwarts such as Zacharias Backer typing reports on his old mechanical typewriter from his office in the IFRC delegation in Afghanistan, as late as 1998. Those of us ready to learn and accept the new technology of the laptop and Microsoft Word were obliged to travel through airports with 2 or 3 pieces of hand luggage, one containing an inkjet printer, with an assortment of cables and adaptors, and another with the laptop (large and heavy) and a supply of Floppy Discs. A third piece of hand luggage would include a month’s load of mail from Geneva and our National Society head offices, together with whatever space was left for personal belongings (I am certain many of you reading this will be able to add a cornucopia of other bizarre items we, somehow, managed to carry on board our flight back to the field)!

The Internet and the World-Wide-Web

Perhaps the most significant development for humanitarians and for human society across the world has been the development of the internet and the world-wide-web. How did we all communicate before then? Those of us working before the arrival of internet and mobile phones will probably remember long hours spent sending reports on HF ‘pactors’ and many days of travel attending meetings in Geneva or our National Headquarters: briefings and de-briefings were not available on Teams or Zoom then. Introductions to the Movement and its complex family were highly confusing for new recruits, and operational briefings were often seen as dispensable by overworked Desk Officers. Delegates en route to the field were armed with unexplained documents, adding to the mountain of luggage already held. Wastepaper baskets in hotels before departure became depositories for reams of read and unread documents. On return, de-briefings – if performed well –were an indispensable tool for an exchange of information and learning, with a hope that the process might help us all from ‘reinventing the wheel’ (though successes here were mixed). Online meetings by Teams and Zoom are common platforms now, and internet resources such as the IFRC Climate Centre  and a variety of Movement and non-Movement weblogs (see below) have led to a massive increase in outreach, with – we hope – a corresponding increase in the democratisation of the aid and development sectors.

I won’t extend this (already extensive!) introduction any further, and here below suggest a few weblinks for anyone interested in reading in more detail about the effect of technology in the humanitarian landscape, including opinion-pieces and blogs related specifically to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and how developing technologies might affect the pattern and profile of humanitarian action in the future.

Exploring the future of humanitarian technology

There are numerous discussions in policy and academic circles about the future of humanitarian technology. For example, technology solutions to climate change, disaster response, and global health challenges are explored in MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory lecture series  The Lincoln Laboratory hosts the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group looking at new technologies such as Next-Generation Incident Command Systems (NICS) that enables first responders to coordinate large-scale emergency responses.

ICRC has engaged with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) to discuss the opportunities and challenges that technology brings to the international humanitarian sector and the role of Asian youth in humanitarian action

IFRC World Disaster Report, 2020, highlights the urgency for humanitarian and development actors to be better prepared to confront risks triggered by climate change and emerging environmental pressures. 

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is hosting digital consultations to support and inform the Digital Pledge. The Digital Pledge was presented during the 33rd International Conference held in 2019, which set out a framework for Strategy 2030. Digital transformation is prioritized as one of seven transformations for the next decade. While digital technology can drive greater impact and efficiency in delivering humanitarian aid, it is accompanied by certain risks that need careful attention. IFRC facilitates digital connectivity across National Societies through its Digital Transformation Strategy.

Outside of our Movement platforms, reports on new and emerging technologies have been presented by UN OCHA in its report From Digital Promise to Frontline Practice: New And Emerging Technologies in Humanitarian Action looking at how artificial intelligence can facilitate analysis and interpret vast and complex humanitarian data sets to improve projections and decision-making, highlighted by the risks of global pandemics, such as COVID 19.

I conclude by highlighting two initiatives that, in my opinion, have special relevance to the work of the RCRC Movement, and are becoming a key focus in global humanitarian responses.

Cash Assistance

Cash Assistance is not a new response to supporting vulnerable populations in crisis and emergency (most of us will recall the Cash for Work projects and other cash-based livelihoods initiatives that developed in the 1990s). With the development of digital technologies such as online banking transfers and cash cards in the 2000s, donors and humanitarian agencies embraced this as a means to restore a sense of agency and dignity to internally displaced populations and refugees, previously reliant on handouts of in-kind donations. After a period of testing and trials, notably following population displacements from the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, this pattern of assistance has become the preferred emergency humanitarian response in environments where access to cash and supporting structures, such as shops, schools and medical services, are available. Structures based on cash payment is nothing new. Anyone who has worked in refugee camps will be aware of the coffee shops, tea houses, haircutting stalls and video shacks that emerge even in the hardest, most deprived environments (such as the Goma refugee camps, 1994). However, the growth in cash transfer technology has made these structures more accessible and able to address the demands of human social welfare and dignity. There is a street in the Zaatari refugee camp, in Jordan, popularly called the ‘Sham Elysees’ (‘Sham’ being the historical name for Greater Syria and a local reference to Damascus), that hosts an array of shops providing bridal gowns, hairdressers, internet cafes, bakeries and patisseries. Within the Movement, the British Red Cross has been a pioneer in promoting cash-based services.

War and Law

The ICRC platform War and Law highlights the importance of adherence to International Humanitarian Law and recognition of the Movement’s Fundamental Principles. The development of new technologies in warfare present challenges to IHL and customary law that will affect the approaches that have guided and protected humanitarian action in the past. Artificial Intelligence, drones and other means of modern technological warfare that distance a belligerent from the human effects of conflict raise a challenge to laws of accountability, attribution and proportionality.  New forms of communication, such as social media and automated chats, present platforms of misinformation and disinformation that risk protection and safe access of humanitarians in conflict zones. This has coined the term ‘infodemic’ that first emerged during the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, in 2003, when in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, the political scientist David Rothkopf described the information landscape as:  “A few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics, and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities” [1]. Recent examples include misinformation about ICRCs activities in the conflict in Ukraine.

I close with a link to the ICRC weblog on Law and Policy that offers current opinion and research on the risks and opportunities that emerging technologies present.

Dr Alasdair Gordon-Gibson worked for twenty-five years in the field of humanitarian response, mainly with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. He is part of the IFRC Alumni Association. He is Honorary Lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, and the author of a new book: “Humanitarians on the Frontier: Identity and Access along the Borders of Power”.

[1] – see the report “Mis & Disinformation – Handling the 21st Century Challenge in the Humanitarian Sector

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