The critical importance of connectivity

The critical importance of connectivity

October 3, 2016 | Disaster Response | Global | Global | Guest Blogger

This is a guest blog written by Imogen Wall. Imogen Wall is a freelance communications consultant specialising in communciation and connectivity as forms of assistance for those affected by crisis. A former BBC journalist, she has worked for the United Nations on the front line of disaster response in Indonesia, Sudan, Haiti, East Timor and the Philippines. Working closely with the Disaster Response team at the GSMA, she researched and drafted the content for the new GSMA Refugees and Connectivity portal. She is now based in London and can be contacted on imogenwall@hotmail.com.

In September 2015, at the height of the refugee influx to Europe, I happened to be on Lesvos island on Greece. I was actually there on holiday, but our villa overlooked a beach – and every morning we woke up to the arrival of new boats of refugees. Obviously, we went down with food and water to greet them – only to find that what they really wanted was WiFi. This, it turned out, was not an aberration. Up and down the coast, the aid workers and volunteers meeting refugees started reporting the same thing: what these new arrivals wanted, above all else, was to charge their phones, to get online: in other words, to connect.

As one of those who has worked for many years on the importance of information and communication as a form of aid, it’s been great to see the growing recognition through this crisis of how crucial connectivity is for refugees. But there’s also no doubt that this phenomenon presents a significant challenge. Firstly, the evidence is that connectivity is now a humanitarian need – which cannot be met by the humanitarian sector: no agency is equipped to deliver a mobile network in the way they deliver food, water, health or shelter. But those with the technical expertise and capacity – the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) – are also having to work hard to understand what it means to deliver their service as a form of humanitarian aid.

The research we have been conducting in putting together the GSMA’s new Refugees and Connectivity portal quickly found that MNOs are already stepping up in innovative and important ways. Turkcell, for example are in the process of bringing in a comprehensive range of Arabic language services for refugees arriving from Syria, from a dedicated call centre to subtitles on news broadcasts to Arabic language outreach materials.

The diversity of MNO responses is also very striking. In addition to basic projects such as delivering connectivity in refugee camps/arrival centres, some companies have come up with much more innovative models such as developing bespoke bundles that include calls and SMS to Syria (Touch in Lebanon) to creating online portals that help refugees find jobs.

The reasons some MNOs are going to such lengths are also interesting. For Deutsche Telekom, the long term objective is to support integration in the interests of social stability. For Turkcell and Touch, there are commercial as well as humanitarian motives. In Lebanon, a country in which one in four people is a refugee, the newcomers are becoming a customer base by sheer force of numbers. Turkcell, meanwhile, have found that refugees, with their dependence on international calls and data, are actually higher spenders than domestic customers.

The focus on refugees as consumers is actually welcomed by UNHCR, who point out that while many of those displaced need aid initially, the only sustainable model for their future is self reliance. And as UNHCR points out, it isn’t only refugees who are increasingly dependent on mobile technology – it’s also those working to help them. The impact is being most felt at present in the cash sector, as digital banking becomes more and more significant in the distribution of funds to those impacted by crisis, but is already rippling out to other areas including health and education. Connectivity, as Alan Vernon, head of UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees project makes clear, is increasingly the key to improving the quality of humanitarian work across the board.

The way forward, clearly, is partnerships. As GSMA’s previous work in disaster response demonstrates, humanitarians and MNOs can and do work together to deliver practical outcomes. But strengthening these partnerships, and helping these two worlds understand each other, is increasingly urgent. As migration increases, new challenges lie ahead, such as the growing focus on WiFi and use of platforms like WhatsApp and increasing demand for financial services that work across borders. One of the most striking aspects of researching this area has been the extent to which current initiatives – well thought through and effective though they are – tend to be disconnected from each other. This needs to change, if the challenges of the future are to be met.

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