Relief, Development, and the Digital Divide

Stephen DeAngelis

September 04, 2007

There has been a lot written about the rapid growth of mobile phone users in the world’s poorest nations. The spread of mobile phones has truly been stunning. Pundits once claimed that the lack of landline telephone systems in Africa reflected a lack of interest in such technology. Those same pundits were amazed when mobile phone technology became available and sales soared (mobile-phone subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa increased sevenfold between 2000 and 2006). Mobile phone technology has penetrated into even the poorest communities, even those in the most dire circumstances. The Economist reports that technology, including mobile phones, is transforming humanitarian relief efforts and giving recipients more influence in how such relief is provided [“Flood, famine and mobile phones,” 28 July 2007]. The article begins with the story of a UN official in London in who received a text message from a man living in an African refugee camp pleading for an increase in daily food rations.

“The age-old scourge of famine in the Horn of Africa had found a 21st-century response; and a familiar flow of authority, from rich donor to grateful recipient, had been reversed. It was also a sign that technology need not create a ‘digital divide’: it can work wonders in some of the world’s remotest, most wretched places.”

What I like about this article is that is underscores a couple of points I’ve been stressing about Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach. First, connectivity is a critical foundation upon which development must build. Without it, development will be stymied. Second, standards matter. Had there not been international mobile phone standards, the gentleman in Africa could never have reached the gentleman in London with his text message. The term Development-in-a-Box has been misconstrued to mean that people in areas where it would be used would be forced to adopt specific solutions to development challenges. That definitely is not how Development-in-a-Box works. The fact that the refugee in Africa used a mobile phone with international standards didn’t mean he had someone over his shoulder dictating how he would use it or what he could say on it. The content of the refugee’s message and the purposes for which he used the phone were entirely his decision. By the way, the article indicates that he received his increased food rations. Relief agencies themselves now understand the power of connectivity, cooperation, and adhering to common standards.

‘”Technology completely alters the way humanitarian work is done,’ says Caroline Hurford of the World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations body that is the single largest distributor of food aid. Once upon a time, when disaster struck, big agencies would roll up with grain, blankets and medicine and start handing them out. Victims would struggle to the relief camps, if they could. For aid workers (let alone recipients) there was no easy way to talk to head office. Now, when an emergency occurs, the first people on the ground are often computer geeks, setting up telephone networks so other aid agencies can do their stuff. Donors keep track of supplies on spreadsheets and send each other SMS messages: this road has been attacked by bandits, that village cut off by floods. Transport agencies announce helicopter flights by e-mail. Aid providers can find out where exactly on an incoming ship their medical supplies are, saving hours hanging round the docks. Aid donors find it easier to locate the victims of disaster; and victims queue as eagerly for mobile-phone access as they do for food. As a result, the organisation of aid is changing. On the ground, all big relief operations have communications centres where aid workers go to send e-mails, read the latest security updates and study satellite maps of the affected area. The UN‘s humanitarian-affairs office runs a portal called ReliefWeb, containing every map and document that might help aid donors; it got 3m hits a day after the Asian tsunami. And aid agencies are reorganising themselves around the technology. Two UN agencies are in charge of ensuring communications work in disaster zones: UNICEF (the children’s fund) does basic data transmission; the WFP does communications in insecure areas. Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF), a French voluntary agency (total staff: a dozen), goes in with the UN team that does the first needs-assessment in the hours after disaster strikes.”

One of the areas that I stress most when I’m discussing Development-in-a-Box with business or government decision makers is logistics. The goal of Development-in-a-Box is to jump start economies and that means getting them connected to the global economy as quickly as possible. Supply chains are the sinews that help keep that economy strong. Logistics also sits at the heart of relief operations.

“Disaster relief is basically a giant logistical operation. Today’s emergency responders can no more dispense with mobile phones or electronically transmitted spreadsheets than a global courier company can. But unlike most couriers, aid donors operate amid chaos, with rapidly changing constraints (surges of people, outbreaks of disease, attacks by warlords). Mobile phones increase the flow of information, and the speed at which it can be processed, in a world where information used to be confused or absent. The chaos remains, but coping with it gets easier. Better communications also favour information-sharing and co-ordination between agencies. In recent years, the problems of co-ordination have grown with the size and complexity of operations. The Asian tsunami hit 14 countries in Asia and Africa. At one point, 400 organisations were working in Aceh alone. … Toby Porter, emergencies director of Save the Children, adds that mobile phones can facilitate relations between aid agencies and local governments; this, in turn, makes it easier for charities to gain access to remote war zones.”

Another thing I like to stress when I speak about Development-in-a-Box is the fact that it takes advantage of communities of practice. By that I mean that it is not a program forced on anybody. Participation is voluntary. Organizations can opt in or out as the situation changes. The article notes that relief agencies already participant in such communities of practice.

“Equipment is expensive. It creates co-ordination problems of its own (because of different technical standards); to address them, a score of big NGOs set up a consortium called NetHope, which spreads the cost of satellite communications and internet links. And as Hugo Slim of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue points out, technology increases the flow of information not just to workers in the field, but to offices in New York or London; this may tempt bosses to micro-manage from afar—which can be disastrous.”

The military is well aware of the dangers of micro-management from afar — but that’s a topic for someone else writing a personal, not a corporate, blog. The article notes that it is not just the big organizations that benefit from technology.

“On balance, of course, technology is more of a boon than a problem, though the gains are uneven. Small NGOs will benefit most, since big NGOs and UN bodies already have decent information systems. Some sorts of technology have developed more than others: one big growth area is surveillance, broadly defined to include software that tracks supplies. The benefits of easier surveillance are manifold. Take two cases: since the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s largest telephone company has started an early-warning system which would send SMS messages to every mobile phone in an area at risk of flooding. And Amnesty International, the human-rights agency, is paying satellite-imaging firms to take aerial shots of Darfur and of parts of Zimbabwe. Amnesty used pictures of burned villages in the Sudanese region to prove that massacres had occurred, despite government denials. Images of Zimbabwe provided evidence for a lawsuit against President Robert Mugabe.”

Data collection and analysis can be complicated as can distribution of actionable intelligence. The article points out that surveillance has a preventative aspect that is only beginning to be appreciated.

“The UN‘s Food and Agriculture Organisation draws vast detailed maps showing who is vulnerable to food shortages (‘poverty mapping’). This same information can be used to map the areas affected in a more acute way by drought or famine. Similarly, the software that aid agencies use to track emergency medical supplies can help public-health officials gather routine information. Télécoms sans Frontières took the data transmitter and laptops it had used to track food aid during a famine in Niger in 2005 and adapted them to store facts about disease prevalence afterwards. Vodafone (a telecoms firm) and the UN Foundation (an American charity) run programmes in Kenya and Zambia that put information about disease and medicine on data banks for use by health ministries. In short, public-health information improves disaster response, and disaster response boosts public health. Surveillance technology is especially useful for spotting early-warning signals (by tracking the paths of locusts or hurricanes); so it helps more with ‘predictable’ disasters than it does in cases (like earthquakes or tsunamis) where warning times are brief or non-existent.”

Enterra Solutions, which I started in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has always been in interested in connecting-the-dots for organizations. One of the paths the company has pursued is a relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has developed a method of integrating data from diverse sensors. ORNL calls this system SensorNet. Enterra Solutions builds on SensorNet with ResilienceNet™, creating a sense, think, and act framework. Although ResilienceNet was originally intended to bolster counter-terrorism efforts, there is no reason it could not be applied more generally to address other security issues like famine, drought, pestilence, and disease. After all, resilience involves all aspects of security. Technology is also being used in other creative ways.

“Aid agencies are … using technology to meet the victims’ other key demand: contact with relatives. People in safe places who are worried about missing cousins, and victims who are in desperate need of support from the extended family, can make use of websites whose purpose is to reunite friends and relatives. A Red Cross website (familylinks.icrc.org has details of 125,000 families. More broadly, technology increases the role of extended families, migrants and diasporas in dealing with disaster. To take a small example, members of Zimbabwe’s diaspora living in Britain can go to a website called mukuru.com, order and pay for goods such as petrol online—and have them delivered to family members back home. The operation depends not only on the internet but also on mobile phones, because when an order is made the recipient gets a code texted to his mobile, which he must show to the petrol station when he collects the goods. Other websites enable members of the diaspora to provide loved ones with a range of goods and services from food to mobile-phone credits. … [M]ukuru plans to open in half a dozen African countries this year. And the possibilities for using mobile telecoms to help relatives are enormous. Family remittances are already a bigger source of transfers to poor countries than government aid. Mobile telephony and mobile-phone banking are spreading. As these trends converge, diasporas will move even closer to centre stage in the delivery of succour to the needy.”

These kind of bottom-of-the-pyramid activities are crucial footings upon which a more vibrant economy can be built. They also help expose the population to technology that is critical for connecting their economy to the rest of the world. Development-in-a-Box helps emerging market nations take the next critical steps toward connectivity so that that sustainable progress can be achieved more quickly.