Can we build a digital ecosystem to address humanitarian crises?

Humanitarian crises present a daunting challenge to the humanitarian and private sectors. These crises are more prolonged, displacement lasts an average of 10 years, and conflict continues to be the main driver of humanitarian needs. Moreover, UN OCHA estimated that in 2018 there were 135.7 million people in need of humanitarian aid, at of cost of approximately US$22.5 billion. The GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H) programme believes that a digitally connected ecosystem—accessible and sustainable mobile-enabled services—can play a central role in supporting people affected by crises. As such, M4H is pleased to release its new report, “Landscaping the digital humanitarian ecosystem”, which highlights how a digital ecosystem can lead to scalable solutions and platforms that can improve or enhance humanitarian outcomes.


Download the Report


There is an increasing interest among humanitarian actors to innovate and collaborate with the private sector to improve the efficiency and impact of their assistance, driven in part by the escalating needs. Given this interest, M4H consulted with industry experts across five key thematic areas—mobile financial services, digital identity, gender and inclusivity, food security and climate change, and mobile-enabled utilities—to identify the promises and limitations of building a digital ecosystem for humanitarian contexts, and to make recommendations for respective stakeholders for each of the thematic areas.


The findings stress the importance of effective partnerships, particularly between the humanitarian sector and mobile network operators, and that successful partnerships leverage each other’s strengths and core competencies to deliver digital humanitarian assistance in short-term response, as well as recovery efforts, in addition to long-term development impacts.  Effective collaboration also includes sharing information and coordinating efforts/interventions in humanitarian settings, as currently the relevant stakeholders do not share much information.


Energy is increasingly becoming a priority for humanitarian agencies

Each of the thematic areas are equally important and interdependent in building a digital ecosystem for humanitarian contexts, and can be approached collectively. At the same time, some humanitarian and private sector stakeholders are still in nascent stages in their thinking regarding some of M4H’s thematic areas, such as inclusivity beyond gender (i.e. persons with disability).

Nevertheless, the landscaping report found that mobile-enabled utilities have gained momentum in developing countries. As lack of energy, sanitation, and water can adversely affect forcibly displaced persons—just 11 percent of refugees have access to reliable energy sources for lighting—humanitarian agencies are prioritising the delivery of utilities to affected populations. More recently, solar lighting is distributed in some camps, like the Kakuma camp in north-western Kenya, where 24 percent of households have a solar lantern. Providers Pawame, BBOXX, Azuri and Sun King are currently supplying solar home system projects in the Kenyan camp, signalling a shift to cleaner energy sources through collaborative initiatives. For example, the Moving Energy Initiative conducts research, has an investment fund and pilots projects in order to provide access to clean, affordable and reliable energy among displaced populations.


Looking Ahead

2018 served as M4H’s foundational year, building evidence on the use case of digital solutions in humanitarian settings. Over the next quarter, M4H will be publishing insights on digital identity in Jordan, handbooks on using mobile money in humanitarian cash transfers and insights on the pay-as-you-go energy sector’s role in refugee camps, as well as user-end research on the digital needs and preferences of refugees in Jordan, Rwanda and Uganda. These insights endeavour to provide humanitarian and private sector stakeholders interested in implementing digital solutions with paths forward, as well as realistic and key considerations to keep in mind when pursuing digital solutions in complex environments.

We invite you to watch this space.




This initiative is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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