GSMA Disaster Response in the Philippines

Last week, I attended the UN OCHA Global Humanitarian Policy Forum (GPF) to talk about the work our team did in response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Innovation Session. Typhoon Haiyan marked the first time that the GSMA Disaster Response Programme was “deployed” in a live humanitarian crisis. For many, the notion of a global trade association having an active presence in a disaster environment and working with humanitarian agencies may seem odd, and perhaps even uncomfortable for those who default to negative caricatures about private sector actors.

So why did we deploy, what did we do and where does the innovative part lie?

Our Role after Typhoon Haiyan

If I had to write a book about my brief time in the Philippines after the typhoon hit, I would call it “My 10 Days as a Human Shield.” One of the key roles for myself and our team was to act as both bridge and buffer for the mobile operators, Smart Communications and Globe Telecom, as they dealt with not only their own network restoration and relief activities, but the influx of new actors who arrived to support the response. Unsurprisingly, there were many NGOs and INGOs who had requests and needs around network information, access, new services and partnerships. Rather than have each organisation or agency who sought information on service status, mobile money agent vitality, instant network solutions, or short codes, approach the MNOs individually with the same requests, we were able to largely coordinate and aggregate these to ensure that those in the humanitarian system needing this information got it where possible, and that the MNOs weren’t bombarded with the same questions over and over again.

To further reduce the inundation, I represented the MNOs and provided updates on their activities at cluster meetings for the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) and at the Cash Working Group and Communications With Communities Working Group. I was also able to report back to the MNOs about information requests and priorities identified within those forums. Where direct partnerships were beneficial or necessary, we were able to make introductions and facilitate new opportunities for working together. We also developed an information product capturing restoration status details and our team worked to monitor and coordinate the support that poured in from the wider mobile operator community.

Importantly, myself and other colleagues from OCHA, QCRI and beyond have been working to advocate and implement the SMS Code of Conduct we published last year to try and reduce duplication and fragmentation around one and two-way SMS services. None of these activities have worked perfectly, and it is still early days for assessing the impact of them. We will be publishing a ‘lessons learned’ and wider case study after our evaluations in January.  However the processes that we began, and will continue to build on, including the role of the interlocutor, or liaison bridging the mobile industry and the humanitarian world, is one that we believe is growing in necessity and that we will continue to play.

Innovation is about the process, not the technology or tool

During the course of the discussion at the GPF, one of the participants made a point that resonated strongly with my own reflections of my time in the Philippines and since; that innovation is not about the technology or the tool, but about the process. In order for me to work across the private and humanitarian sectors in the Philippines, new ways of collaboration, approaching partnerships and addressing preparedness had to be established.  Getting to a point – and this point is by no means perfect – where we could act as a liaison between humanitarian actors and the mobile industry required investments and commitments: in time, in capacity, in resources and in partnerships.  Creating spaces where actors like UN OCHA and WFP could work with Smart and Globe on preparedness and better understand each other’s operating principles, capacity and limitations before the disaster, as we did in our workshop in June in the Philippines, and through our joint advocacy work with OCHA, meant that when the typhoon struck, a level of familiarity, trust, expectation management and relationships that had not existed previously could form a basis for collaborating together more effective in the crisis.

There is still much work for our team to do to create more opportunities for these communities to come together ahead of time, and facilitate a better understanding of why mobile operators and their networks have such a significant role to play in disaster preparedness and response.

Increasingly, humanitarian actors are recognising that in many countries, especially those that are disaster prone, the conversation isn’t about “engaging the private sector or MNOs in humanitarian activities”- many of these private sector entities, and our MNO members, have already been doing this work directly with their customers and in-country partners long before the international responders show up and will continue to do so after they leave.

The innovation is the process by which this work can be understood and recognised, incorporated into broader response activities rather than being seen as parallel. Perhaps most importantly, it is the way in which “traditional” humanitarian actors can empower and support these “new” humanitarian responders to uphold humanitarian principles and enhance coordination in the work that they do.

Photo Credit: Smart Communications