Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras

We stand humbled at the injustice of history that inadvertently catapulted us to a position in which we used what we knew best to help those less fortunate. It is the work of ordinary individuals in the very heart of the affected areas worst hit by the tsunami that continues to inspire us in our work towards the creation of sustainable IT architectures that fully harness the indomitable nature of the one thing the tsunami couldn’t sweep away.

The human spirit.

When I first wrote those words, I based the thoughts on what I personally and InfoShare organisationally had learnt in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. I wrote a paper titled Tsunamis, Disaster Response and Info Share that explored in great detail the technologies InfoShare used in after the tsunami and their varying levels of effectiveness in the relief efforts.

On a related note, Mitch Kapoor makes an interesting point in this post, when he says that:

In the end, people will use whatever feels most natural to them.

That very much captures the essence of our experience with technology as well, not just in the tsunami and its aftermath, but InfoShare’s experience in using ICT for peacebuilding in general, through exercises such as the design of the ICT architecture for the support of the One Text exercise in Sri Lanka. I intend on writing about the pros and cons of the One Text in Sri Lanka – from a technology perspective – in a future post, but suffice to say that though we have dabbled with some of the most sophisticated software platform commercially available, the highest levels of participation came with the use of technologies that participants felt comfortable using.

Put another way, the highest levels of security in the world didn’t automatically ensure that participants actively used the platform to communicate and share information – the complexity of the programme and the steep learning curve threw them off, making it difficult to rekindle their interest afterwards.

As I’ve said before, technology must empower people instead of dictating to users processes to ways it sees fit. Technology should be putty in the hands of those who appropriate for their tasks – from relief and aid delivery, to the creation of virtual collaborative frameworks for the long term support of affected communities.

I put forward six mantras, based from my real world experience, that I think technology for peace in general, and ICT in support of (long-term) humanitarian operations in particular need to be founded upon:

1. Stakeholders are not interested, don’t have time for, and possibly lack the capacity to utilise any programme or technology to its fullest. Solutions that are not culturally sensitive, are geared to the regional and local context, don’t have support for local language and are difficult to learn will never help relief efforts.

2. New technology needs to be eschewed in favour of culturally resonant technologies which communities are familiar with. The introduction of groupware systems to those unfamiliar with such frameworks will not create any cohesion between relief groups and may in fact impede effective aid delivery. Media such as newspapers, radio, newsletters, photocopied information sheets can sometimes be more effective at information exchange, dissemination and coordination that any PC based solution (paper does not run out of power after several hours without a charge!). Championing the use of new ICT frameworks to help disaster management should not be at the expense of funding larger, more resilient and older communications architectures like the mainstream print media and radio.

3. Stakeholders respond to technology they are familiar with. The reason why Info Share chose the programmes that are mentioned in this document as the bedrock for their tsunami response was that key stakeholders in the Sri Lankan peace process were familiar with this technology, which made it easier for us to appropriate this familiarity for new processes that were a result of the tsunami. The introduction of new technologies to traumatised communities and over-worked aid organisations is fraught with difficulty at the best of times – it is nigh impossible, as mentioned earlier in this document, to engender the use of solutions in the immediate aftermath of a large scale disaster.

4. No matter what IT frameworks are created, they have to be resonant with the needs on the ground. Technologies designed for collaboration in corporate environment or between geographically dispersed teams in the Global North, are often based on assumptions of underlying network connectivity, user experience, hardware and cultural acceptance that can render them useless in emergency situations, where all of these aspects are put under severe strain. The use of technology in aid, relief and humanitarian work, along with its use in peacebuilding, needs to be handled with adequate knowledge in conflict transformation, conflict management, conflict sensitive disaster response frameworks and knowledge of the communities and regions which have been affected.

5. Technology has to empower local communities, or at least, create the architecture for the gradual empowerment of local communities to deal with trauma and a return to normalcy. Technologies that create dependencies, on the donor agency that funds such solution, on the company that provides the technology, on the people that implement it, on those who are responsible for its deployment, training and servicing, can inadvertently lay the foundation for inequitable distribution of resources. A via media has to be drawn between the creation of IT frameworks to help in relief efforts and the sincere, committed and sustained empowerment of communities to use such frameworks best they see fit, in ways that are self-determined and not imposed, and in a manner that gives them the freedom and flexibility to use such frameworks not just for relief work, but also for the larger problems of peacebuilding in communities of conflict.

6. Culturally sensitive use of technology. It is grossly tactless to belabour the merits of a certain system and use it in the field for short term visibility, commercial capitalisation and marketing purposes in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The trauma and loss of life associated with large scale disasters cannot be the bedrock for marketing campaigns.

This all comes back to a point Paul Currion makes:

Five years ago, I believed that better information management would enable better management overall. Yet it is hard to determine whether all this activity has actually improved the provision of humanitarian assistance, since there are no clear criteria for measuring their impact.

Though Paul’s post deals with the issue of information management for humanitarian operations, I would like to submit that the answer to the question he poses lie with the community itself and their ideas and feedback on the ICT frameworks set up ostensibly to support a return to normalcy as soon as possible. Any impact measurement study conducted by the organisations themselves responsible for setting them up run the risk of bias, oversimplification and information silos – where only the technology introduced by that particular organisation is held under scrutiny, and not its role in a holistic appreciation of technology solutions in general.

I think that ICT for humanitarian operations is still at its infancy – those such as Paul and initiatives like Sahana that reflect, at least in part, the 6 mantras above are ripe for study and greater funding, if only to engender a better understanding of the highly complex relationships of communities and technology in times of trauma.

2 thoughts on “Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras

  1. Thank you for these very interesting mantras. UNOSAT (a UN programme entirely concentrating on operational satelltie based solutions for emergency esponse and development support) has gathered user requirements and needs for years in the area of technology for humanitarian relief and coordination and we have found that most of the points you make are indeed live issues within the user communities. For exampple, within GMES, in a project called RESPOND, We are doing an interesting work of federating users views and “mantras” so to create a constructive interaction bewteen these communities of users and the space community, now engaged in studying and offering solutions for human security. I look forward to reading your future papers. Kind regards.

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