Aid Services: The Age of Communication and Technology


Aid Services in the age of Communication and Technology

The development in the information and communication technology is almost affecting all aspects of our lives. Changing our habits and creating a new sort of modern lifestyle. The way we communicate at work and how we conduct our daily business. Is it easier? Maybe faster? Or even more productive as we can communicate and share information without needing to be physically in the same place!

This might be normal for most of us, mobile phones, high speed internet, good network coverage, and easy access to all kind of information. But how was it before, especially for humanitarian and aid workers? What changed in the way aid organizations deliver their services?

”When I was working for an NGO in northern Ethiopia in 1985, amazingly we had a telephone. It was a very old one with a handle that you turned very fast to be put through to the local operator. His name was Alex, and he had only one eye but good ears. His job was to connect phone calls and then listen to them and report their content to security officials. Alex did this with good humour but often he would cough and sniff while we were talking, and I had to ask him to be quiet because the line was bad enough without his mucousy interruptions” Hugo Slim, Communications Technology and Humanitarian Delivery.

For aid workers in the 1980’s, having an access to a telephone was a luxury, they had no internet, no emails, can you imagine this now? Can you see yourself working in disaster area or war zone with almost no access to any communication? Or the most important, can you think of how it will work not to have any database or no computer-supported processes? All the work is paper-based and not having any supporting technology?

This might sound like a nightmare for many organizations and aid workers! Comparing the current situation where ICT is widely used in all aspects of aid work. In this post will take the response to the Syrian crises in the MENA region as example of how ICT is highly used to deliver aid services.

“All these digital forms of aid have one underlying dependency – and that is robust networks. None of this will actually work unless people – both the aid workers and the beneficiaries – have access to communications. Where communications was a ‘nice to have’ at one point, now it is a ‘need to have’,” Patrick Gordon, chair of the WGET Forum at the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Starting from the moment of arrival to the host country, Syrians will start the registration procedures in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Registration creates a “global digital record” for every refugee, including the usual personal details, time of arrival, place of origin, occupation, education, family members, and contact information.

Before photos and fingerprints was collected to verify a refugee’s identity, while now for example UNHCR has started to use IRIS scanning  as new verification approach. According to UNHCR “IPE” report this technology increased the level of accuracy in data collection and prevented people from registering multiple times with different names. This helped not only in the registration process but also in identifying the needs and linking the services among the different actors. This digitalized and systematic data collection approach can increase the efficiency of services delivery as it enhances the coordination and partnership between the different organizations, and maximize the effort through distributing task among the working organizations to utilize the resources in the best possible way.


 How did the services delivery change?

Will take a simple example also within the Syrian crises response in Syria neighboring countries, usually people have to come and stand in lines for hours to receive  their share of  goods – blankets, food, hygiene materials –. Nowadays this is being replaced by direct financial aid, allowing beneficiaries to purchase products at designated stores, by bank cards or even withdraw cash from designated banks by only scanning the eyes using IRIS scanning.

”Providing information and two-way communication are now an integral part of humanitarian response. The network age is re-shaping humanitarian response and the communications revolution continues to have a profound impact on the way people survive and respond to emergencies.”Gwi-Yeop Son.

UNHCR in their vison to develop the services delivery and increase the connectivity among the refugees themselves and refugees and aid agencies, works to create new partnerships that aims toward increasing the access of refugees to mobile networks and internet.

As example about this in Jordan, in Zatari camp UNHCR gives SIM cards to ensure that refugees have access to communication channels and also to have means of communication with them whenever needed to call or share information.

ICT is widely used in the Syrian crises response alongside with the traditional methods that include printed papers and physical face to face contact. New communication technologies have provided new means of support and sharing information in aid work that can enhance the type of services provided and accelerate the circulation of important information through SMS, mobile application and social media platforms.



One comment

  1. Clara Axblad

    Hi Ali,

    Thank you for this very relevant and well-informed post! It is interesting indeed to reflect on how new ICTs are re-shaping aid, humanitarian and development work, especially when you compare with how things were not too long ago.

    Earlier today I was reading Pau’s post on the importance on ICTs for Nobel Peace Prize winning ICAN’s work, and came to wonder whether the collation would actually have manage to achieve the results they did in relatively short time, if it wouldn’t have been for ICTs.

    So yes, most probably processes are faster. But are they better? Are results more sustainable, promoting local ownership in a more effective way? Cash Based Transfers, which you mention, as well as remittances are indeed enabled by ICTs and seem to have the potential to drive development in a new direction where “beneficiaries” have a greater say about their own needs and increased power to decide. I believe it will be very interesting to follow which impacts these developments will have on aid and development.

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