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Supply food aid for Afar people, Red Cross, Ethiopia

Mobile tech is delivering most benefits for aid operations, poll reveals

Image credit: Sjors737 - Dreamstime

According to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, mobile technology has had the biggest benefit of all technology on aid operations in 2019, with drones and satellites also strong contenders.

Humanitarian groups across the globe have said that new tech has helped them respond to disasters sooner in 2019, assess needs more accurately, reach far-flung communities and mitigate potential risks.

For example, drones have delivered children’s vaccines in the remote Pacific island Vanuatu, while satellite early warning systems have helped in Africa’s drought-ravaged Sahel region.

According to the United Nations children’s agency Unicef, drones “held great promise” for delivering medical supplies to rural areas and responding to disasters such as earthquakes and floods, with the technology’s potential being explored from Namibia to Kazakhstan.

Last month, Sierra Leone launched a drone-testing corridor with Unicef’s support, while Malawi plans to open Africa’s first drone and data academy next year to train drone pilots and data scientists.

However, most of the 18 agencies polled between 25 November and 8 December 2019 declared that mobile technology had brought the biggest benefits to the people they were helping.

“The increased global access to mobile devices has had a massive impact on the humanitarian world,” said Danish Refugee Council’s Christian Gad.

According to the agencies polled, with more than five billion people globally now having mobile phones, this allows people caught up in crises to get vital information for staying safe; keep track of loved-ones; access services, and receive cash transfers.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) described mobile banking as “a real game-changer”, with Somalians using a pioneering phone-based system that allows money to be sent directly to participants in livelihood protection programmes.

“This avoids a raft of challenges we’ve long faced in getting cash to remote parts and safely into people’s hands so they can buy food locally and avoid selling off assets to get through lean times," said the FAO’s Dominique Burgeon.

US non-profit organisation Mercy Corps said “bundled mobile services” providing multiple tools and resources in one place had been a huge benefit for those in need.

In east Africa, it has provided more than three million farmers with apps aggregating information on everything from weather forecasts to livestock market prices to help them boost harvests and incomes.

For millions caught up in crises, some nations offer electronic voucher (biometric) cards to families, giving them the freedom to buy what they need, all while supporting the economy.

In Bangladesh, the World Food Programme has given cards to more than 200,000 Rohingya refugee families. Here, fingerprint verification is embedded in the cards to ensure people receive their correct entitlement and prevent fraud.

World Vision also pointed to the use of biometric technology in ebola vaccine trials in Sierra Leone, where hand-held tablets with iris-scanning cameras help ensure participants get the right doses and deter impersonation.

Other agencies, including CARE, said open-source tools that can be used with mobiles were transforming the collection and processing of information in disasters, replacing cumbersome paper-based assessments. This speeds up decision-making, allowing humanitarian workers to get aid to the worst-hit places faster and respond quickly to changing needs.

Agencies are also using technology to collect feedback remotely from communities receiving assistance.

“I’m most excited about the technologies that focus on giving the people we work with a greater voice and the ability to hold us to account better,” said Oxfam GB’s Danny Sriskandarajah.

Meanwhile, international Medical Corps said innovative software was also transforming what is known as “the last mile”, helping streamline pharmaceutical supply chains and slash delivery times to hard-to-reach places.

Also according to several of the agencies polled, technology is not only helping aid agencies respond to disasters, but also to mitigate them.

For example, Action Against Hunger has created a Pastoral Early Warning System which uses satellite data to track droughts and anticipate risks in the semi-arid Sahel that skirts the Sahara. The data collected enables the agency to measure plant growth and surface water across the 4,000km (2,500 miles) Sahel.

“To have such a phenomenal level of information is totally transforming how we plan for and respond to crises,” said Action Against Hunger’s Marie-Julie Lambert. “This year, we already know that vegetation levels in Senegal and Mauritania are alarmingly low. Without this technology, we wouldn’t have been able to predict the sheer scale of the looming crisis.”

Several organisations have also highlighted how tech was helping empower and protect girls and women, with Plan International aiming to roll out a social media platform called Girls Out Loud, providing a safe, private space to discuss topics such as sexual health and gender violence.

In Jordan, ActionAid UK is developing an app to help refugee women access services. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, it has developed a Safe City app which enables users to mark safe and unsafe locations, find the most secure routes, sound an alarm and make emergency calls.

E&T recently looked at how autonomous fixed-wing drones are being used in Rwanda to deliver blood to remote health facilities.

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