User perspectives in humanitarian settings: Initial insights

In September 2021, the Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation team kicked off a large-scale piece of mixed methods research in partnership with the UNHCR and The Research People. Our goals were to better understand how people in humanitarian settings use their mobile phones, to explore the potential of mobile tech in these settings, and to explore several emerging themes in digital humanitarian action. 

We decided to focus on three humanitarian contexts to explore the diversity of experiences and use cases. Together with UNHCR we identified Papua New Guinea (working with West Papuan refugees in Iowara), South Sudan (with internally displaced peoples in Bor), and Lebanon (with Syrian refugees in Tripoli and Akkar) as our research sites. Since the start of 2022, we have been working with local researchers to conduct a range of qualitative data collection activities. These include digital day diaries, in-depth interviews and focus group discussions. Below are some initial key findings from each context that emerged from the qualitative research. We will be further exploring user perspectives, behaviours and usage in a quantitative survey set to start in May and June 2022 and will publish the full findings in a report in October 2022 


In line with initial desk research, qualitative research found mobile penetration quite high among Syrian refugees in Tripoli and Akkar. Most participants had bought a phone for the first time upon arrival in Lebanon and valued it highly for the services it allowed them to access. However, challenges like availability and affordability of electricity, network coverage and, most of all, cost, made mobile phone ownership extremely challenging. Additionally, concerns of surveillance and a high prevalence of scams mean that respondents kept a low digital profile and did not actively engage online. Rather, most people used their phones to stay connected with friends and family over private channels, like WhatsApp. 

“As soon as I arrived to Lebanon, I got a phone to be able to register with the UN – I came in early 2013”

Syrian Refugee in Lebanon on mobile phone access.

South Sudan

Displaced people in Bor also valued their phones and found sophisticated ways of avoiding charges for data use, as cost is a major barrier to phone use. Young people especially were adept at leveraging Bluetooth to share videos, music, and movies. Digital leisure was especially important to people in Bor, partially because employment opportunities were limited, and users valued the ability to entertain themselves to pass the time and unwind. Additionally, keeping in touch with family (often receiving financial support from relatives in other cities) and tracking down relatives were valued use cases. 

‘Made me feel happy and relieved, especially after communicating with my family. I also felt updated and aware about information going around and up to date’

Respondent in South Sudan on being connected through a mobile phone.

Papua New Guinea

While the digital ecosystem in Papua New Guinea faces a huge number of challenges, most West Papuans we spoke to had access to a mobile phone. It is unclear the exact rate of basic phone penetration, but research suggests that a small number of smartphone owners act as digital ambassadors for a wide segment of the population, helping their friends and neighbours to conduct more sophisticated functions, like paying for school fees using SMS banking, for example. High prevalence of financial scams led to attitudes of suspicion of both banks and MNOs and there were strong associations of mobile phones with affairs and familial breakdowns, both presenting barriers to increased phone use. 

Anything regarding their children from school, they call me. They tell me they need this, so they bring cash, I also do SMS banking. I have a small canteen, so I have enough in the account. When children need money in schools, parents come with money asking can you transfer me K100.00 or K200.00 or K1000.00? I do that too. It’s a very important part.

Community Health Worker in PNG on mobile phone usage.

Next steps

Stay tuned to learn more about this research. We will be continuing to explore the themes that emerge through qualitative research via a representative survey with displaced and host communities. We will be disseminating this research starting October 2022. For any questions or comments you may have, please contact us at  [email protected]

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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