Dumb Phones, Smart People and the Art of Humanitarian Communications

An arc of instability from Afghanistan through the Middle East to West Africa is leading to unprecedented displacement and forced migration with a staggering 87.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, writes IOM’s Amy Rhoades. This global crisis of epic dimensions is straining the humanitarian system to a breaking point. Despite the huge need, OCHA’s recent appeal for 20.1 billion USD is 80% underfunded and that is unlikely to change.

One common thread that connects the communities affected by the many intractable, complex emergencies that beset the world today is mobile technology, whether ‘dumb’ feature phones or new generation smartphones. They are tapping into the social networks that enable them to stay connected to one another in every phase of the crisis. An increasingly urgent question is whether technology can do more than is currently being asked of it by enabling people to be better informed and empowered to respond to needs locally in complex emergencies rather than waiting for international aid that realistically may never come.

The rapid and increasing exposure of crisis-affected populations to communications tools has profound implications for humanitarian contexts:

  • It puts the power of the internet at the fingertips of people on the move, allowing them to problem solve even in complex emergencies with news, maps, money transfer and other tools.
  • Crisis-affected people now have access to networks – from diaspora to smugglers – that were previously unavailable to them.
  • It brings greater scrutiny to the work of humanitarian actors, accountability by the back door in effect.

This paper explores how the humanitarian community can harness these new realities brought about by the rapid spread of mobile technology to better protect and support the most vulnerable while empowering them to find the most appropriate solutions, thereby easing some of the strain on the humanitarian system.

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