MWC22 – When Disaster Strikes: Mobile’s Role in Humanitarian Assistance

As part of MWC 2022, Kimberly Brown, Head of Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H), hosted a panel discussion titled: When Disaster Strikes: Mobile’s Role in Humanitarian Assistance. Appearing on the stage at the Ministerial Programme in Barcelona, Kimberly was joined by three other panellists; David Woolnough, Deputy Director, Research (Tech & Innovation) at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Kareem Elbayar, Programme Co-ordinator for the Connecting Business Initiative (a joint OCHA and UNDP Initiative) and Mahamud Abdirahman, Director of International Relations & Business Development Division at Telesom.

The focus of this session centred around the role of digital technology in providing vital services, information, and access to humanitarian assistance for those affected by natural hazard disasters and other humanitarian emergencies. Partnerships between different stakeholders was also a key theme, reflecting on shared principles to support and enhance connectivity in times of crisis.

It was recognised that the panel was taking place in a time of significant growth in humanitarian need. In addition to a recent volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga, typhoon in the Philippines, and cyclone in Madagascar – a significant number of civilians are impacted by the conflict in Ukraine – including the number of refugees now over 2 million people.

To kick off the panel, a video address from Minister Vicky Ford MP, from FCDO was delivered, confirming that the UK will commit a further £15.5 million to the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian (M4H) Innovation Programme, bringing the total amount given by the UK to the M4H programme to over £30 million since 2017. The move enables the GSMA’s vital work to deliver mobile and digital humanitarian assistance to those most in need, further emphasising the importance of partnerships and shared principles when it comes to humanitarian action.

Kimberly, was then joined on stage by the three panellists. The conversation was watched by a live audience in Barcelona, alongside online viewers globally.

The panel reflected that many humanitarian organisations now have partnerships with the private sector, often with mobile network operators (MNOs) and technology companies. While we have good evidence of what works and what doesn’t, collaboration must be finessed and adapted accordingly, in order to deliver the most effective response.

Telesom said that early in their engagement with humanitarian actors, they had to work to understand the goals and perspectives of their new partners. They reflected that alongside the GSMA, they have developed a strategy on how to work more effectively with humanitarian organisations and how to highlight, and work towards, joint priorities. The successful deployment of a Telesom Voice ID verification solution in Somaliland, utilising a user’s voice as verification for cash and voucher assistance, was a direct result of co-creation, joint solutions development, joint investment and risk sharing between humanitarian partners and mobile operators, and serves as a great example of what is possible through partnerships with common goals.

The Connecting Business Initiative spoke about the joint response to Super Typhoon Odette in the Philippines in December 2021 and how it demonstrated what can be achieved through a collaborative approach. Super Typhoon Odette was responsible for damaging 1.7 million homes and impacting nearly 8 million people. MNOs in the Philippines, alongside the government, Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) and GSMA worked together to identify areas that had lost connectivity, and consequently deployed various satellites, ground stations and mobile emergency technology vehicles to restore connectivity in these regions in under two weeks.

FCDO highlighted that the evidence gap in the field of the role of mobile technology in humanitarian assistance must be addressed. Historically, not enough has been done to show what works and what doesn’t work. The pathway to scale for innovations in the humanitarian sector is often very different to development projects. FCDO mentioned that organisations like the GSMA are now establishing themselves as a thought leader and influential voice on in the global shift towards digital humanitarian action and the positive role that technology can play by filling these evidence gaps.

FCDO noted specifically that Cash Voucher Assistance (CVA) through mobile money continues to play a crucial role in humanitarian response, and research indicates that demand for CVA is only going to grow as the demand for humanitarian assistance rises and digital ecosystems develop. The commitment to continuing to ensure that humanitarian assistance through mobile money is efficient, inclusive and safe remains was a clear priority for all organisations on the panel.

The panel closed with reflections on the important role of governments in relation to the regulatory environment, the growing opportunity of public private partnership, and how local organisations and businesses – such as Telesom on this panel – have such important reflections and contextual insights to share.

We would like to offer our sincere thanks to the panellists for joining this session and we look forward to our continued collaboration and further conversations in the 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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