Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding

Since the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, I’ve been interested in the design of humanitarian aid systems.

One notes with a sense of pride that a homegrown solution, Sahana, is now considered to be a global leader in the design of such systems, as demonstrated by the industry accolades it has received and the interest in deploying the system in recent disasters such as the earthquake in Pakistan or the Mount Merapi explosion in Indonesia.

In a lessons-learnt report titled After the deluge: Info Share’s response to the tsunami, I made 6 observations on the use of technology for humanitarian disaster relief / aid:

1. Stakeholders are not interested, don’t have time for, and possibly lack the capacity to utilise any programme or technology to its fullest.

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.

3. Stakeholders respond to technology they are familiar with.

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.

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.

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.

(Excerpts from points made in Pgs. 34 – 35 of the report | Also see Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras)

From early 2005, I’ve been a silent observer of the development of Sahana in particular, but also discussions in other fora dealing with development and deployment of ICT frameworks able to address the challenges of large scale humanitarian disasters.

I’ve yet to note, however, an emphasis on conflict sensitive approaches to the design and deployment of humanitarian aid systems. In cases such as Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, regions affected by the tsunami were also regions affected by years of violent ethno-political conflict. Without question, any humanitarian system designed to support aid work in such regions needs to be sensitive to the added complexity of ethno-political strife. This added layer of complexity cannot be ignored as it directly influences humanitarian aid decisions and actions. For instance, approaches to assist people in specific areas in Sri Lanka may be influenced by mine-fields and UXOs that may be lying around, and worse, displaced on account of the natural disaster. One notes with interest the features in Sahana’s Missing Person’s Registry that are no doubt tremendously useful in aid deployment, but is cognisant that the same features may also be used by less savoury individuals and organisations to track information of people affected by the disaster – say for instance children who have been orphaned as easy fodder for guerilla movements.

Even in a recent conference on disaster management (vide Lirneasia post), there wasn’t a single session on disaster management practices in conflict / post-conflict zones listed on the agenda, the unfortunate assumption being that there isn’t a qualitative difference between humanitarian disasters in socio-politically stable regions and regions scarred by communal violence.

This needs to change.

More needs to be done to examine the design of humanitarian aid systems in regions of conflict – how such systems can feed into existing systems on peace and conflict monitoring, how information can cross-fertilise systems dealing with humanitarian aid and peacebuilding, how conflict early warning systems can be transformed to serve a dual purpose of natural disaster warning systems (and vice versa), how non-state actors can be given access to sensitive information such as children or details of organisations without fear of that information used for purposes of terrorism, how ideas and concepts related to ICT4Peace can feed into the design of humanitarian aid systems (and vice versa) and finally, how the complex socio-political dimensions to disasters and conflict can be best addressed in systems designed to work in a context of tension, stress, trauma and violence.

I’m hopeful that the up-coming Strong Angel III simulations will shed more light on these areas.

More reading:
Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras
Open Source Disaster Recovery: Case Studies of networked collaboration
Thoughts on ICT, ODR and Peacebuilding

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