During the famine in northern Ethiopia in the 1980s, governments and humanitarian agencies from around the world poured food into the region at great expense. Despite their efforts, which were hampered by a civil war in Ethiopia, 400,000 people died.
Compounding the tragedy was the fact that southern Ethiopia had surplus food that never made it north. “In every major disaster, the resources needed to respond may be available locally, but because of the inability to communicate accurate needs and offers of resources, needed items such as food are often shipped halfway across the world at high costs,” says Gisli Olafsson, a humanitarian advisor to NetHope, an organization that connects nonprofit organizations with technology innovators.
Today, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and public and private sector entities have the ability not only to track aid but also to determine the best way to deliver it to conflict zones and fragile states.
For example, the World Food Programme (WFP), the largest humanitarian agency in the world, delivers over 3 million metric tons of food annually, which feeds about one-tenth of the hungry people in the world, as reported in the WFP’s 2015 annual report. As was the case in Ethiopia, however, supply isn’t always the issue. Sometimes there’s plenty of food available locally, but people can’t afford to pay for it. Aid may also become fodder for the black market rather than food for children.
To improve access to food and other nutritional needs, the WFP started using electronic vouchers and digital cash several years ago. Since then, the WFP reports, it has distributed more than US$1 billion in aid through digital means to those in need. It’s part of an effort by humanitarian organizations and governments to reinvent aid delivery in the digital economy.
The need for change is indisputable. Despite government and private humanitarian contributions that totaled $28 billion in 2015, as reported by Reuters, 25 million people still need assistance, according to a February 2016 United Nations report, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. Organizations involved in aid delivery are responding by using technology to help locate those in need faster, zero in on their specific need, speed delivery, and reduce losses from corruption and thievery.
“Technology is driving new means of delivering humanitarian aid in ways we could never before achieve. It’s amplifying what the world can do,” says Olafsson. Innovations in aid delivery are also part of achieving the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals initiative, which includes ending poverty, feeding the hungry, and fighting diseases.
Electronic Identification: Making Sure All People Count
Before people can receive even the most basic human services, they first must be identified—yet many in this world have not been. For example, Unicef reports that the births of nearly 230 million children under the age of five have not been officially recorded. Without an identity, these children are invisible, excluded from basic human rights, such as healthcare, social benefits, and education, as well as from humanitarian aid that could save their lives.
Electronic identification solutions are now being used by governments and humanitarian organizations to help change the situation. For instance, several years ago, India launched an initiative to provide each citizen with a national identity number. The government has now issued more than 1.2 billion Aadhaar cards (covering more than 80% of the country’s population), which establish a unique 12-digit number for every Indian adult, child, and infant, according to a government report. The Aadhaar, which includes demographic and biometric information, provides a universal identity infrastructure that can be used by any identity-based application, such as banking, mobile, government, and other needed services.
Identification cards are a powerful way of demonstrating to people that there are benefits to being a part of the formal economy. “The efforts for universal identification are incredibly important,” says Carmen Navarro, a former project manager for financial inclusion at the World Economic Forum. “They will help provide the underserved with social benefits and other financial services products that they have never had access to before.”
Electronic Money: Increasing Effectiveness and Accountability
When humanitarian aid must be delivered in conflict zones and fragile states, organizations sometimes struggle to get aid into the hands of those who need it. Corruption and thievery can divert resources away from their intended recipients. Digital cash has become an important tool for thwarting the bad guys, especially in times of disasters or conflict, when aid must move quickly and can become more difficult to follow.
“In some situations, digital cash is the best emergency aid because it can be tracked, so organizations know how much aid is being administered and to whom. This ensures that aid is not being diverted to someone other than the intended recipient or resold on the black market,” says Kate Van Waes, policy director, agriculture and inclusive growth, at the ONE Campaign, a global antipoverty organization.
Digital cash also helps protect those delivering aid. “A digital form of payment reduces the use of cash, making transactions more transparent and safer,” says Navarro. She sees this in Latin America, where governments are encouraging the transfer of social benefits to digital form. “This limits the amount of cash that must be transported to very remote locations, which can be costly and dangerous,” she says.
Social Media: Improving Response Time and Accuracy
Social media has become a vital part of communicating aid needs after disasters, says NetHope’s Olafsson. “Social media allows people in existing social networks—whether it’s a community, a neighborhood, or a school—to amplify their connections,” he says. “This is critical in times of disasters, because now people can help each other, whether it’s preparing for an event or helping after.”
Private sector and humanitarian organizations are now using Facebook pages to connect with people who have been affected by disasters, such as flooding and earthquakes. Government and community pages publish early warning notices of impending disasters, as well as updates on recovery efforts. For instance, within hours of a 2015 earthquake in Nepal, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, posted on his Facebook page that his company’s Safety Check service was active, helping people in the region inform family and friends that they were safe.
As technology evolves, social media promises to have an even bigger impact on disaster relief and could radically change the dynamic of humanitarian response. People will be able to communicate their needs to aid organizations in the moment. “In the future, there will be a big shift in response efforts that is fueled by mobile phones, social networks, and other real-time communication,” Olafsson says.
“There will be a 180-degree turn, a shift from a government top-down approach to responding to disasters to a community bottom-up approach.”
IoT: Wiring Up to Predict Disasters
Over 100 million people were affected by disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, storms, heat waves, and drought, in 2014. Yet according to the One Humanity: Shared Responsibility report, only 0.4% of official development assistance was spent on disaster preparedness in 2014.
Today, Internet of Things (IoT) solutions are helping communities around the world get early warnings of impending disasters. One example is Buenos Aires, where flash floods over the past several years had taken lives and left people stranded without vital services. Today, the city is using planning, design, sensor, and analytics technologies to prevent flooding and provide better response.
With IoT sensors throughout the city’s water tunnels, Buenos Aires can now better anticipate and identify where the flooding risk is and better prepare for or fix the issue. The government can also use social media to engage with citizens and provide warnings, preparation advice, and instructions on what to do in case of emergency.
Data Transparency: Ensuring the Right Delivery of Funds
Data ensures greater transparency in the relationship between citizens and governments, which increases accountability and helps provide better aid for the unserved and underserved.
For instance, the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey 2015 reports that 98 out of 102 countries lack adequate systems for ensuring that public funds intended to support communities with basic needs such as education are used efficiently and effectively. The ONE Campaign has an initiative called Follow the Money, which creates greater accountability for government funds and less diversion from intended purposes. “All too often, money from Africa’s natural oil, gas, and mining resources ends up being wasted or, worse, stolen and used to buy luxury property in London, New York, or Paris rather than benefiting the poorest people,” says David McNair, director of transparency and accountability at the ONE Campaign.
Transparency around data is making it more difficult for aid money to disappear. For example, in rural community in Nigeria, over 400 students were crammed into two classrooms when funds to build a new school ran out during construction, according to the ONE Campaign. The community requested aid from the Nigerian government to complete the work but never heard back. Unbeknownst to the citizens, the government had approved the request but hadn’t released the allocated funds—that is, until BudgIT, a network of citizen activists, got involved. Using the organization’s Tracka technology, which tracks and publicizes capital projects in Nigeria, the community gained visibility into the government’s budget, the funds were freed up, and the building project was completed in 2015.
Sharing data between the public and private sectors can also speed up success. “For the delivery of basic services to truly be accelerated, collaboration between the public and the private sector is critical,” Navarro says. “Financial institutions, consumer goods companies, and telecommunication providers are a few of the key players here, as they essentially have very strong networks within the segments of the population that humanitarian aid efforts are targeting.”
Data Analytics: Knowing Who Needs Help and When
Aid organizations are trying to move beyond responding to humanitarian needs and begin predicting those needs. Real-time, broader-based data sets are already allowing organizations to better analyze current situations, measure progress to date, and gain keener insight into future trends. “The organizations that are instrumental in relief efforts often make blind decisions because they are using out-of-date information that is not representative of what is actually happening today,” says Olafsson.
Big Data analysis lets humanitarian organizations bring aid down to the personal level, says Navarro. “Behavioral data can feed the design of the right financial services products for the underserved and help ensure they are properly used,” she says. “Information from a simple savings or deposit account could help inform micro-insurance products and offers of credit.”
The Cloud: Creating a Humanitarian Ecosystem
With so many different humanitarian organizations operating independently around the world, there is often duplication of effort when delivering aid. This could change with the creation of a humanitarian ecosystem in which aid organizations share technology solutions and data through the cloud.
Humanitarian organizations all share the same challenges. They must do more with less money, they must better understand whom they are serving, and they must implement technology solutions that are interoperable with those of their counterparts. By pooling resources in a shared cloud, more funds could go to aid rather than to infrastructure costs.
“Once you open up technology and connectivity,” Olafsson of NetHope says, “you start enabling different ways of thinking. If technology can provide even just a 1% improvement in organizational efficiency, and if the duplication of efforts was eliminated, there could be large amounts of savings.”
Restoring Dignity Faster
One of the biggest concerns for people who need humanitarian aid is that basic services that most of us take for granted are poor or don’t exist. Improved aid delivery helps change that.
Aid and government funds give people the opportunity to look beyond survival and start down the path toward prosperity. “A big part of prosperity is providing the space for people to have a voice and express an opinion over things that affect their lives,” says the ONE Campaign’s McNair. “It’s not just about access to more money. It’s about removing the constraints to living a fulfilled life, whether it’s freedom of speech, access to money, or an opportunity to learn a new trade.” D!
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