At Davos: mobile recognised as a critical tool in humanitarian response

February 2, 2017 | Disaster Response | Global | Jenny Casswell

The world is facing unprecedented humanitarian challenges with widespread acknowledgement of the need to change the way the international community responds to increasingly complex crises. In 2017, the humanitarian sector is seeking USD 22.2 billion to reach more than 93 million people with life-saving assistance. This is the result of the soaring rate at which people are fleeing war, persecution and natural disasters. These are global challenges we cannot ignore and that no single sector can tackle alone.

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) last month, our Director General, Mats Granryd, reinforced this message making it clear that, as communication providers, our industry has a leading role to play to ensure that crisis-affected people are not left behind. We have seen time and again the power mobile phones have for refugee and displaced populations; from communicating and reconnecting with loved ones, obtaining vital information, accessing basic services like education via digital tools such as apps, and obtaining financial services. Mobile technology is not only a tool that enables refugee communities to organise and empower themselves, it is also increasingly being recognised as a way humanitarian organisations can more efficiently deliver assistance, for example in the form of cash aid.

Refugees and Connectivity

The European refugee crisis was the first of its kind in a fully digital age, and the importance of mobile connectivity for refugees has come to the fore.

Our report launched yesterday, The Importance of Mobile for Refugees: A Landscape of New Services and Approaches, provides a landscape review of the mobile services and approaches offered by humanitarian organisations, the mobile industry and technology players, aimed at improving the lives of refugees and internally displaced populations.

Download the report

Compelled by corporate social responsibility (CSR) and commercial drivers, mobile network operators (MNOs) in Europe are seeking to provide connectivity and develop innovative new services for refugees, while humanitarian players are moving beyond traditional ways of providing humanitarian assistance, leveraging new technologies and partnering with the private sector.

Mobile connectivity has also proven to be a lifeline for populations outside of Europe, where all of the top ten refugee hosting countries can be found. MNOs and humanitarian agencies have been delivering mobile connectivity and creating services for these populations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in a variety of rural and urban contexts for many years. Innovative examples include Zain Group’s partnership with UNHCR to provide free high-speed 4G internet access to over 700,000 refugees in Jordan, and Turkcell’s ‘Hello Hope’ app which provides Turkish language learning, instant speech translation and more for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Refugees are 50 percent less likely than the general population to have an internet-enabled mobile phone and the barriers to providing mobile connectivity for underserved populations globally are even more acute for these refugee populations. More needs to be done to improve accessibility, affordability and literacy to ensure that these populations can use mobile technology to its full potential. This report attempts to consolidate the wide-ranging approaches taken to provide connectivity for displaced populations across different sectors and regions, in order to share challenges and opportunities experienced with the multitude of stakeholders involved in this shared end goal of improving the lives of displaced populations.

“Preparedness is a down payment on response and a discount on recovery”

As the number of displaced people continues to rise, demand for mobile technology will also grow. For all stakeholders working to improve the lives of displaced populations, it is critical to realise that long-term, sustainable solutions are required to meet the connectivity needs of millions. Incorporating the appropriate level of preparedness into these long-term strategies will also be crucial as outlined by Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the World Food Programme during WEF: “Preparedness is a down payment on response and a discount on recovery.”

In 2017, we will continue to work with the mobile and humanitarian industries to reduce fragmentation within and across sectors, and continue to share lessons from initiatives in order to ensure that connectivity efforts can evolve as fast as they must to serve people in crisis.

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