Mobile: Five Ways to Transform Humanitarian Service Delivery

The total number of forcibly displaced people was estimated to be 65.6 million by the end of 2016, and this number continues to rise. From 2000 to 2016, over 3.5 billion people were impacted by natural disasters and humanitarian crisis. The scale of response required in these situations is placing increasing pressure on the humanitarian sector to find more effective and efficient ways to meet the needs of affected populations.

For people and communities facing the risk and reality of these humanitarian emergencies, mobile technology is a lifeline. Yet there are still a number of barriers to overcome in order to ensure that connectivity is available, accessible and impactful in humanitarian emergencies. Here are five ways mobile technology can transform humanitarian service delivery

Basic Connectivity: Enabling Communication in Times of Crisis

People in every corner of the world are becoming increasingly connected as the mobile industry continues to extend its coverage, today providing services to more than 5 billion people across the globe. It is vital that when disaster hits, mobile networks are not only resilient to commercial losses, but have the critical ability to function as a lifeline for customers.

Recent examples, such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the 2016 earthquakes in Italy and the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, highlight the critical role of mobile networks and access to communication and information they facilitate. Even a basic text message or phone call can be a lifesaver. Mobile network operators in Nepal and Sri Lanka, among others, have developed early warning systems to increase the preparedness of communities living in risk-prone areas to alert them of potential danger and provide instruction via SMS, as well as through more traditional methods such as radio announcements and sirens.

Humanitarian Cash Transfers

Humanitarian organisations are finding new and increasingly efficient ways of delivering aid and assistance, notably through using digital cash transfers using mobile money. GSMA data shows that at least 19 markets have more mobile money accounts than bank accounts and 37 countries have 10 times as many registered mobile money agents as they have bank branches. In humanitarian contexts, cash transfer programmes utilising mobile money can offer greater reach and efficiency. For example, Ugandan mobile network operators MTN and Airtel are partnering with NGOs including DanChurchAid, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee to deliver digital cash aid to refugees in the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi.

Providing Identity

One area of increasing focus for the humanitarian community is improving beneficiary registration and identification. There is an opportunity for mobile and digital technology to play a role in establishing and/or authenticating unique, digital identities for refugees and others impacted by humanitarian crisis. For example, without ID, a refugee may be more likely to face barriers or delays when attempting to cross international borders; their freedom of movement may be restricted and it will be difficult or impossible for them to access services, including mobile services, financial services, education or healthcare.

The reach of mobile technology and other technological innovation means that new, robust digital identity solutions that provide utility, privacy and convenience are within reach for crisis-affected populations. Some of these are being tested already; for example, at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, mobile devices are used by UNHCR staff to scan the barcodes found on refugees’ identity documents and verify whether they are eligible for a range of services, such as food, clothing, or cash aid. The app does not show the individual’s name and picture, ensuring that the refugee’s privacy is protected.

Access to Utilities

Mobile technology is being used in increasingly innovative ways to improve access to energy, water and sanitation for millions of people who live in areas where the traditional ‘grid’ does not extend, but are covered by mobile networks. The pay-as-you-go energy sector in emerging markets has seen US $360 million of investment over the last four years, providing new commercial opportunities for the private sector and improving the lives of 5 million people who were previously underserved.

Our recent research in Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania highlighted that 73 per cent of respondents identified the cost of charging as a barrier to frequent phone use, spending up to 500 TSH (US $0.20) for a smartphone to be fully charged. New partnerships and business models that will incentivise pay-as-you-go energy providers to offer products in partnership with mobile operators, such as lease-to-own solar home system products that can be paid for in instalments via mobile money, scratch cards, and sometimes airtime, could have a huge impact in refugee camps These systems can provide lighting, charging facilities, radios, TVs and even hair cutters, providing entrepreneurial opportunities for refugees. The benefits for refugees of having access to clean energy are clear.

Improving Dignity

Basic access to a mobile phone can improve choice and dignity, particularly in precarious and protracted displacement situations. Information is power, and mobile technology is unique in its ability to connect people with information networks in real time. Mobile technology can help communities to better self-organise and respond to emergencies in their local context, and can facilitate better communication between affected populations and humanitarian agencies seeking to serve them. Mobile money-enabled humanitarian cash transfers can provide beneficiaries with autonomy and choice in the products and services they want and need.

The potential for mobile technology to improve the wellbeing of people impacted by crisis should also not be underestimated. Our recent research with refugees in Tanzania showed a broad range of ways refugees are using their phones, including communicating with friends and family, accessing education opportunities, using mobile money to send and receive funds, and engaging in livelihoods strategies. Further, the research showed that 65 per cent of mobile internet users reported they searched for news and information, and 35 per cent used the service to access entertainment.

With over 5 billion people already connected by mobile – a figure set to grow to 5.7 billion subscribers in 2020 – there is a significant opportunity to use this technology to help transform the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Meeting the needs of the growing number of people impacted by humanitarian crisis requires new models of partnership between the public and private sector and an ecosystem-wide approach to link different services and avoid duplication and fragmentation. Ultimately, prevention and peace should be the goals of the international community. However until this is a reality, it is upon all of us to maximise the technology and tools available to provide more dignified and impactful humanitarian assistance.

Mats Granryd is the Director General of the GSMA

This blog post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum website and can be found here