Putting humans first in humanitarianism during the digital age

Anastasia KyriacouAnastasia Kyriacou works for AidEx, the world’s leading event for international humanitarian aid and development professionals. She explores issues that instigate crucial sector dialogue among the community and beyond.

Published on November 4, 2018

As a follow-up to our eight issue on new technologies, Anastasia Kyriacou offers us a reflection on the place of the human being in humanitarian 2.0. Even if the article praises the potential of digital technology, it reveals a healthy questioning.

Information is integral to humanitarian relief, whether it be mapping, communication or logistics. From streamlining supply chains, to transferring cash securely to beneficiaries and reducing corruption, technology is making it easier to share and filter information in unprecedented ways. Particularly within a climate of increasing threats and decreasing resources to the aid and development sector, engineering new mechanisms for effective global aid delivery is important.

How digital tools are improving aid efficiency

Speaking recently at the AidEx Nairobi conference in Kenya, Michael Kilpatrick – Senior Advisor at the Good Financial Grant Practice Program – referenced findings that for every $100 that goes into the aid pipeline, less than $15 comes out the other end. The digitisation of funds, Kilpatrick believes, can prevent fraud and corruption and ensure the aid dollar is used for what it should be. New technology such as blockchain, can empower supply chains – historically susceptible to manipulation – with end-to-end tracking systems where data is at less risk of being hijacked.

Holistic digital data collection and management tools widely used by humanitarians – such as KoBoToolbox – can speed up the entire process of analysis which consequently results in faster response capabilities. Offering an alternative to pen and paper, the app is affordable and adaptable to suit the needs of users in offline environments, and the data is free and open source. No technical knowledge is required to work it, with enumerators having the ability to be trained within minutes, and it can be rolled out rapidly even in the harshest or most remote situations. With technology like this, humanitarian operations can be carried out in a more agile, timely and precise way.

Artificial intelligence can help to predict things like the weather which can assist crisis management, whilst robotics – such as drones – can help optimize search and rescue operations and overcome aid delivery challenges. The potential of AI within education includes supporting varied learning capabilities of children by enabling them to work at a pace that works for them.

The importance of human centred-design

Humanitarian agencies are increasingly turning to cash transfers programmes which allow money to be directly sent through mobile phones to affected populations. The start-up Sempo uses algorithms to identify and target vulnerable people, whilst combining cryptocurrency with local payment providers to deliver them cash. Its co-founder Nick Williams, says we are yet to feel the full benefits of this kind of technology however, due to a lack of collaboration between the techies who are enthusiastic about the digital impact on the humanitarian space, and aid workers in the field who just want to do their job efficiently.

Everything in the humanitarian space starts with the needs of people on the ground and goes upwards, which is what makes a human-centred approach so integral to innovation within this sector. For technology to be digitally inclusive, it must be designed so that users spend less time acclimatising to new technology and more time actually benefiting from it.

Keeping faith in humanity

Outlined in a new report by Concord analysing digital trends on development, ICT can empower governments by making their systems and functions more transparent and accountable. Sempo’s Williams argues the need for total transparency to be achieved with technology reflects a lack of faith not just in institutions, but our own human ability to make positive social change.

“International transfers and things that involve multi-parties and complex situations are great for blockchain, but for everyday operations we should focus on rebuilding trust in the organisational culture, as this is far more effective way of doing things”, he says.

Humanity has evolved this far with trust being built by human relationships rather than mathematical codes. Acting as though everyone cannot be trusted can remove the impetus for us to build relationships where this faith is originally created, and essentially erode what makes humans work together in the first place.

Technological innovation has the power to make it easier to execute urgent decisions on a global scale as we pertain data and communication at a speed like never before. Whether digital mechanisms are used to educate the world, harness resources or stop corruption, how tech evolves comes down to human agenda; technology should not be a goal in itself, but rather a mechanism to help catalyse the achievement of important progress, such as the seventeen sustainable development goals.

It is unethical to test new tech in the humanitarian field for the mere sake of advancing technology when lives are at risk. Treating digitisation this way risks exposing sectors like aid and development to dehumanisation. With no going back from the digital revolution, the time is now to embrace the digital-present and future, but with an attitude conscious of maintaining humanity.

To learn more about how digital innovation is impacting humanitarian aid and development, visit AidEx 2018 in Brussels between 14-15 November – the largest global event for sector professionals, where Humanitarian Alternatives will have a booth.

Register free here

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