While the international aid community champions the Typhoon Haiyan response in 2013, most Filipinos do not. In fact, to many Filipinos, the international community categorically failed to listen to typhoon affected communities, which led to tens of thousands remaining without permanent homes or jobs. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) data shows that the recovery phase never occurred; indeed, according to UNOCHA cluster data, only 3% of all programming at the end of six months was devoted to livelihoods, and over half of those activities’ status was reported as “planned.”
When a natural disaster occurs, the aid community often relies on a standard response checklist: offering first aid, providing clean water, setting up temporary shelters, etc. More often than not, “restoring communications” is shuffled down the priority list. Yet deprioritizing communications severely cripples aid efforts. For example, an aid group might possess vital medicines but not have any idea which communities are most in need of those medicines. Simply put, the act of restoring communications and creating an open dialogue with the population is among the most critical steps in a successful aid delivery.
Sadly, our biggest hurdle in overcoming this endemic problem is the aid community itself. Many aid workers aren’t tech savvy; some even view technology as a distraction from delivering essential goods and services.
We need to switch our philosophy from a supply-driven (“we have lots of tents”) to demand-driven approach (“get us corrugated steel for roofs and we’ll rebuild ourselves”). Reliable communications create viable feedback loops for coordinating organizations like UNOCHA, UNHCR, or the World Food Programme to prioritize different areas for specific relief goods. Specifically, aid groups can create a dialogue with affected communities by utilizing whatever communications method exists and the public has access to use. This dialogue should be fundamental to every aid groups’ response efforts.
Applying the right technology is also key to improving humanitarian responses. Whether through AM/FM radio, mobile phones, satellite internet, or some combination thereof, the right tech fills the communication gaps between those delivering aid and those receiving aid. And what is the right tech? Ask the affected community, as they will tell you what they use, trust, and have the most access to use. Aid workers and communications providers have propelled a movement around this critical gap, known as Communicating with Communities, or CwC. Social media is driving CwC as communities themselves are provided with numerous venues through which to share and receive information.
Communities now turn to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to obtain current information after a disaster, to locate missing relatives, and to connect with the broader aid community. Unfortunately, the aid community often isn’t using these tech assets effectively to drive their programming, nor are funders and coordinating bodies using these tools to assess effectiveness and iterate programming over time (#missedopportunities). The international aid community, especially the large donor and coordination groups, have multiple platforms to choose from that provide vast improvements over the systems they currently use for information management, data analysis, and visualization. However, bureaucracy, institutional hurdles, and poor funding mechanisms all hinder efforts that would offer significant gains over current systems. Simple spreadsheets just don’t cut it in the digital age, not when hundreds of millions of dollars are used for programming. The only thing worse than not using best-in-class software available commercially is for the organizations to try and design and build the capabilities themselves, and wasting money on inferior products.
A critical opportunity lies in connecting the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) with other clusters (Health, Early Recovery, Shelter, et al.). By creating seamless data transfer via analytical tools and harnessing communications platforms, aid groups can see what type of aid is needed where, prioritizing the finite resources, and getting critical aid where it is most needed. We then ask those communities via their preferred methods of communications (radio, internet, community symposia) if the aid is having its intended effects, what other problems exist, and when should we progress from emergency response to sustainable recovery programming. This is the 21st century model, though we have yet to see it fully in action.
The shared open data spreadsheets, like the link to Haiyan data above and the recent expose by National Public Radio on the American Red Cross debacle in Haiti, tell us that we can do better, and communities around the world are desperately waiting for us to deliver on the hope we bring when we respond to disasters. The lynchpin of that approach is leveraging existing technologies to communicate with communities effectively, and monitoring our outcomes through dynamic, real-time feedback loops. While humanitarian crises seem to get worse every year, the technology for innovative relief response is improving at an even higher rate. Although tech is rarely designed specifically for the humanitarian work, the aid community should lean forward in tech adoption and adaptation in order to improve the lives of people disrupted by war or natural disaster.
This post originally appeared on http://www.cdacnetwork.org/i/20150731171124-watgs/, July 31, 2015.