Digital aid for refugees

For many years, IT and telecoms have had a very important role to play in most humanitarian responses. The main focus has been to provide reliable communications and connectivity to aid workers who are responding to a crisis. Organisations such as the Emergency Telecoms Cluster (ETC) exist to provide the telecoms and connectivity which emergency responders rely on. In a crisis, it has been recognised that not only aid workers need access to the internet, the wider affected population also needs to access the internet as well. Organisations are starting to provide services to affected populations already. This year, the ETC have fully embraced the concept into its ETC2020 strategy and have established a new working group consisting of Save the Children, Nethope and the CDAC Network. This new workgroup is exploring how we can deliver connectivity to the affected populations.

As the ETC working group is holding meetings to discuss what the “services to affected communities” will look like, Nethope (an IT membership body run by over 25 NGOs) is already on the ground making a difference. In this article, we will explore what is being done to provide connectivity and some of the challenges we face

The Syrian crisis has led to many people being displaced in Europe. More than 11 million people have been displaced which makes this situation the largest mass movement of population since world war 2. More than 4 million people have fled the country completely. Each day, refugees by the hundreds to thousands are on the move. Until a few years ago, Syrians lived in cities which had reliable infrastructure and plenty of internet connectivity. This mobilised population of refugees are educated, and some have money. It has been reported that the three questions asked when a refugee lands are:  1) Where am I? (They are wanting confirmation that they have reached the safety of the EU), 2) How can they get access to the internet and 3) where can they buy food.

GSM mastWithin the wider humanitarian community, the concept of providing connectivity to refugees is being regarded almost with the same importance as food, water and shelter. Reliable internet access is an enabler as organisations are starting to use cash voucher systems over mobile networks to deliver aid. The monitoring and evaluation specialist use mobile technologies to get feedback from affected populations about the aid they received. GSM masts are being set up in and around some of the world’s largest refugee camps where people will be living for long periods of time. At the recent humanitarian summit in Geneva, UNHCR stated that across all camos, the average length of stay is 17 years. With such vast numbers of people staying in these camps for long periods, its easy to understand why the major network operators are keen to get coverage to the camp. It has been said that the Safricom GSM mast in the Dadaab camp has the second highest amount of financial transactions each day via its MPESA system.

Connectivity is not where it ends, it’s what we do with that connectivity which is really important. Information is power and if we can get the correct sort of information to the people who needs it, then there is an opportunity to disrupt established practices for the betterment of all. One example of this disruption is where farmers in remote villages have been linked to market prices in the cities far away. This information has enabled the farmers to negotiate better prices from the middlemen who moves the produce to market. This has had a very positive impact on some remote communities.

 So whilst there are plenty of examples of technology making a difference in places where things are more settled, there is also a need to provide connectivity to people in the time of crisis. This needs to be done from the get-go. For example following an earthquake in an urban setting, alongside medical and rescue people, the telecoms engineer is also an emergency responder. Bringing mobile networks back online is essential as it means that people who are entrapped will be able to call for help using a mobile phone. There is some solid data from Haiti to support this.

Returning to the Syrian Crisis, connectivity is needed for a mobile population. Organisations like the Nethope are responding and have plans to establish a line of internet hotspots along the migration routes in Europe. The main networks have gaps, or where there is coverage, the network is not robust enough to deal with the vast number of users trying to connect. Nethope and its members are working towards a solution which will make a difference.

nethope

The programme Nethope is running is very thoughtful as they are not just creating hotspots, they have thought through how the connectivity will be used.

Cyber security is the top priority. Alongside the physical war, a cyber war is also being waged. The population is running away from danger and may still have families inside of Syria. On this basis, networks need to be secure so that no information can leak out which could place relatives who remain in Syria in danger. There has already been reports of murders following information gained through a Skype spoofing act. Nethope are co-opting some of the best brains from Cisco to make its network secure.

  • Mobile smartphones need power, so Nethope will set up charging stations at every site where a hotspot is set up.
  • Information is needed so that refugees can find out where they can access services such as health care, shelter and so on.
  • Children are not being educated, so there is a plan to develop and roll out an education app which can be accessed at all points along the migration route.

 

All of this costs money and Nethope has launched an appeal. More information about this project can be found online at www.nethope.org.

Conclusion
It is clear that telecoms and IT have a major role to play now in humanitarian response. It is now important that during any emergency response that senior telecoms/IT people are brought into the response senior leadership teams as IT and communications is starting to touch everything we do. The techies have a lot to offer any emergency response and should not be regarded as “the geek who just fixes computers”.

 

 

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