UN OCHA +5 Symposium – Where was the innovation?

I was part of the UN OCHA +5 Symposium in the capacity of Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation, but these thoughts are my own and don’t reflect, in any way, the position of the Foundation.I was part of the Working Group 4 – Innovation to Improve Humanitarian Action looking at:

…the potential of emerging technologies and approaches used in the field and globally to strengthen information sharing, coordination and decision-making. Collaborative and networking software, Geographic Information Systems and satellite imagery, and the latest analytical tools will be explored in both current practice and future prospects for field-based information exchange among humanitarian partners. Outcomes of this working group will include recording best practices, innovative tools and products that support humanitarian information sharing and coordination, identifying lessons learned on the application of new technologies and approaches, reviewing key issues surrounding such innovations, and recommendations for establishing information sharing standards among the humanitarian community.

What the group ended up presenting to plenary was this, that included points such as:

  • Best Management principles and practices apply to the humanitarian context-however models need to be adapted to stressful/crisis environments
  • Evaluators need evaluation
  • Use of satellite imagery-derived analysis in support of humanitarian action
  • Tools and services should be usable (design matters) and easily deployable to increase user confidence and reduce reliance on technical dependency
  • Embrace diversity of available technology in context

I’m sorry, but this is innovation?!

There was not a single point that came up during the discussions that I had not covered in this blog, sometimes over a year ago.

As I was the youngest participant in the room and chose to observe and listen to those who at least by their age and the number of years working in this sector I thought would have some interesting, forward-looking ideas.However, it was fascinating to see so many nit-picking over turgid and banal text instead of forging ahead with a compelling vision of the future with technologies and practices that could help address an overwhelmingly myopic, self-referential and ossified humanitarian ethos.

Fundamentally of course, it is only the UN and within it, perhaps only OCHA that can lead international agreement and awareness on best practices in humanitarian aid. This makes it vital for OCHA itself to understand its own serious limitations. Sadly, inextricably entwined in in the essential conservatism and inter-agency bickering of the UN, OCHA is severely hampered in its potential to recognise, leave aside nurture, innovation.

One telling example was when Anuradha Vittachi wowed the plenary with her demonstration of Second Life, which of course for those of us who partook in Strong Angel III last year and moreover who have used it and written about it for a number of years, was nothing new (which is no reflection on Anuradha’s presentation, that was excellent). Posts such as Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding? and Strong Angel Island videos – From the Strong Angel III sim for Second Life have already looked deeply at the potential of using virtual worlds for disaster preparedness, training and aid simulations. Sadly yet tellingly, few in the room had thought on similar lines.

Another was the story recounted to me of how some involved in the UN involved in the organisation of the Symposium recoiled in horror at the use of Google Groups to disseminate information and share documents amongst presenters attending the Symposium and how it was suggested (nay, ordered) that an archaic proprietary system that, get this, required all those who wished to be part of the group to register with the UN, was used instead.These be dinosaurs in an age of ad-hoc, needs driven information exchange who are the most serious challenge to progress.

My next post will deal with some of the innovations that from the perspective of a ICT4Peace practitioner I believe will have a significant impact on the humanitarian world, whether it likes it, or not.

Read more commentary on the UN OCHA Symposium as well as other critical issues and content on humanitarian aid here.

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