Five mobile technology trends in the humanitarian sector

In the 2020 M4H Annual Report, we take stock of prevailing trends related to the role of mobile technology in the humanitarian sector and how they are shaping humanitarian action.

Read our Annual Report

Trend 1: The pandemic has accelerated the need for inclusive digital humanitarian assistance

COVID-19 has been a catalyst for rapid change and innovation in humanitarian action, sparking action and debate across the entire humanitarian sector. This has included calls for reform – to more locally led action and decolonised approaches to aid. In parallel, the power of mobile technology to enable communities to express their needs and to inform their decision-making and choices was recognised by more actors, shining a light on the importance of mobile technology in the lives of people affected by crisis. 

In the face of COVID-19, humanitarian actors and mobile operators had to adapt to a grim new reality. As humanitarian needs grew, so did restrictions on movement and physical contact, making it more difficult to provide services to affected populations in person. Very quickly, demand grew for delivering humanitarian assistance digitally.

Trend 2: There is a greater focus on digital ethics, privacy and data protection

While the fast-paced digitalisation of humanitarian assistance provides many benefits, it also carries risks. The inability to access or use digital tools can mean that the benefits of digital and financial inclusion are not realised, or worse, lead to exclusion from basic services and vital information.

Ethical questions around the digitalisation of humanitarian assistance also include respect for individual privacy and personal data protection. Since both are considered an integral part of protecting life, integrity and dignity, it is of fundamental importance for humanitarian organisations. Mobile operators also have a key responsibility and incentive to keep their customers’ data protected. The M4H programme has drawn on the GSMA’s wealth of policy expertise, which include data protection and privacy guidelines, including ones specific to COVID-19, to support mobile operators coping with this complex and fast-changing situation.

Trend 3: Accountability to affected populations and inclusion are being prioritised, raising awareness of the digital divide

Digitising services can offer transformational benefits to people affected by crisis. However, it can also inadvertently exacerbate inequalities, due to digital divides (such as the digital gender and disability gaps among refugees). This is a particular risk for groups who are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises and have distinct needs, such as women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities and those who lack formal identification.

The digital divide has long been a major obstacle to digital humanitarianism, but COVID-19 has triggered a step change in the awareness of digital divides, their intersectional dimensions and the importance of addressing them.

Trend 4: A climate emergency is underway

Over the past decade, 83 per cent of disasters triggered by natural hazards were due to extreme weather, and climate-related events. Communities affected by conflict are disproportionately impacted by climate change, which intensifies humanitarian needs in the context of displacement, impacted food production and weakened healthcare systems.

These events have reinforced the need for better preparedness and response capabilities, and the role of mobile technology in addressing the climate emergency, from mitigation to response and recovery.

Trend 5: Digital cash assistance is proving to be a scalable solution

The volume of cash and voucher assistance (CVA) has doubled over the past few years, accounting for 17.9 per cent of all humanitarian assistance in 2019, up from 10.6 per cent in 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic not only increased the amount of CVA delivered, but also accelerated the shift from physical cash to mobile money-enabled cash assistance. Because measures to contain COVID-19 have limited mobility and personal interactions, physical distribution of cash and payments instruments have become riskier and more difficult.

The provision of digital cash through mobile money is considered one of the most effective digital tools in the COVID-19 response, with the ability to work at scale for humanitarian payments, as well as social safety net payments, if enabling regulation is in place. Delivering cash assistance via mobile money presents transformational benefits to recipients of aid, humanitarian organisations and mobile operators, if designed appropriately.

Read the Annual Report, to see the role that M4H has played in engaging with each of these five trends, and many more!

Time will tell whether COVID-19 will be the catalyst that shapes the humanitarian sector for years to come. In the meantime, M4H is committed to ensuring that mobile technology plays a central role in creating an inclusive digital humanitarian future.

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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