Building and strengthening digital ecosystems in humanitarian contexts: Shaping an enabling environment

The transition to digital humanitarian assistance has exponentially increased in the last year, largely driven by COVID-19. The pandemic has interrupted conventional humanitarian assistance, and demanded a shift to more agile, adaptable and contactless humanitarian assistance.

In the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H) programme, we facilitate sustainable digital ecosystems by catalysing strategic partnerships between mobile network operators (MNOs) and humanitarian organisations. When MNOs and humanitarian practitioners work together, their unique expertise and core competencies can improve joint response and recovery efforts. Long-term strategic partnerships between MNOs, humanitarian practitioners and their partners are essential to creating value and a business case for engagement. This likewise supports the development of an operating model that enables partners to thrive and deliver critical assistance to people in crisis.

We explore these lessons in our recent report, “Building and strengthening digital ecosystems in humanitarian contexts” published last month. This report is based on a detailed, systematic review of over 150 pieces of evidence, 12 in-depth interviews and a workshop. This process enabled our team to robustly identify the building blocks necessary to create and strengthen a digital ecosystem that benefits all stakeholders involved in the preparedness, response and recovery stages of humanitarian assistance.

One of the building blocks we identified is the need to shape an enabling environment. This involves understanding the conditions that need to be in place in order for mobile-enabled interventions to be successful.

Developing a robust understanding of contextual policies and regulations is key to any digital intervention.

In some cases, partners can help to shape a more enabling policy environment to enable a long-term digital ecosystem. For example, evidence shows that enabling regulatory frameworks accelerate the development of the mobile money sector. Mobile money deployments in countries with non-enabling restrictive regulation show a smaller number of registered and active mobile money accounts, as well as lower agent activity rates, despite having a much greater proportion of the adult population than countries with enabling regulation. 

In countries with challenging regulatory environments, mobile money providers face challenges in launching and scaling the full breadth of mobile financial services. 1.1 billion unbanked people own a mobile phone, demonstrating the huge potential of mobile money in achieving universal financial access. This underscores the need to address regulatory barriers to allow the mobile financial ecosystem to reach its full potential.

One of the regulatory barriers that inhibits customers’ ability to access to mobile services such as mobile money includes Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements. Regulations that require individuals to provide a form of identification to register for a mobile money account create a barrier for marginalized or displaced peoples who do not have formal IDs. In Uganda, partners were able to work together to influence this policy. By working together, humanitarian organisations and MNOs were able to introduce flexibility in their policy framework. The adoption of proportionate regulatory and Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements has allowed for increased digital inclusion of the marginalized populations and in particular, refugees.

A crucial element of introducing successful digital humanitarian operations is ensuring that necessary infrastructure is present.

One element of this infrastructure is mobile penetration among target populations. It is crucial to both understand existing mobile penetration and help to develop it further to build sustainable digital ecosystems. The Connectivity Needs and Usage Assessment (CoNUA) Toolkit by GSMA provides the tools to help humanitarians collect this data. The tools collect information on mobile phone access, usage, preferences and digital skills amongst populations of concern in a robust and standardised manner.

Another way to build upon existing infrastructure is to strategically leverage existing MNO technology and platforms. This can facilitate mobile-enabled assistance by building on MNOs core communication competencies, strong infrastructure systems, distribution models, and networks of users.  An example is REFUNITE, an organization that aims to empower refugees to take the search for missing loved ones into their own hands, through a mobile device. REFUNITE collaborates with mobile operators in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia (and Somaliland), Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Philippines, Egypt and South Sudan, and technology vendor Ericsson, by leveraging the scale that MNOs possess through their infrastructure, brand and reach in even the most remote of place. 

Communication infrastructure to enhance access to mobile-based humanitarian interventions requires the use of the MNO services. This requires connecting and providing stable and reliable network coverage to end users in urban, rural and hard-to-reach areas. However, MNOs need to consider strategic investments in commercially non-viable areas, in consideration of their expected business value. Alternatively, they incentivise private investment or necessary negotiations or collaborations with the humanitarian actors for interdependent investment, including by competitive tendering, tax exemptions, low interest loans or lower spectrum fees.

Evidently, understanding and considering the external environmental factors that span the government policies and regulations, organisational process assets, to the market environment is fundamental when designing or scaling up digital interventions. This builds a connected and optimal functioning digital ecosystem that is sustainable and yields a lasting impact. Read more in our report on this topic, or reach out to us to discuss any of these points further.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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