Future of the Environment

How technology is changing disaster relief

Kyung-wha Kang
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It has been a challenging year for the humanitarian community. We have grappled with intensifying conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as devastating natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Sadly, the past 12 months are not an exception, but part of a clear trend.

Humanitarian emergencies are occurring with increasing frequency, intensity, duration, cost and complexity. Between 2004 and 2013, there was a 430% increase in global funding requirements for humanitarian appeals, while the number of people affected nearly doubled.

The effects of climate change, extreme poverty, fluctuations in financial markets, food and water shortages, migration, urbanization, population growth and health pandemics are likely to further exacerbate this trend. Meanwhile, traditional donors of humanitarian aid are under increasing pressure to cut spending.

The type of humanitarian action required also changes. Today, more than half of the world’s refugees live in urban areas, and assisting them is not a question of providing aid in rural camps. In the aftermath of a disaster, restoring connectivity and the cellular network has become as important as providing life-saving assistance.

Furthermore, the increasing visibility of local civil-society groups, private-sector companies and volunteer networks is expanding the reach of humanitarian work.

In this fast-evolving humanitarian landscape, the established constituents of the international humanitarian system – the UN agencies, large international NGOs and Red Cross Movement – are striving to be innovative, to find new partners and ways of mobilizing resources.

Applying innovation to humanitarian work comes with a unique set of challenges. Crises are diverse in nature, ranging from urban earthquakes to rural conflicts. They are also unpredictable, making research and development of new tools difficult. In high-pressure, rapidly changing operations, often in insecure and dangerous conditions, relief workers have little space to try out new ideas. Moreover, both donor governments and humanitarian organizations face increasing scrutiny and criticism from the public.

Market competition may drive innovation, but there is little by way of a market place for humanitarian “services”. A small group of government donors provides nearly 70% of humanitarian funding, and the bulk goes to a few large international organizations and NGOs.

These donors may be willing to fund specific innovative pilot schemes, but there is little support to bring them to scale or invest in systemic research and development. As for aid recipients, they are rarely in a position to refuse aid or to comparison shop.

Thus, humanitarians are increasingly turning to businesses and the private sector to learn how to be innovative and better manage innovation. The business world has meanwhile progressed from philanthropy and the Corporate Social Responsibility movement to more sustained partnerships with humanitarians that harness their expertise in finding new solutions to old questions.

There is no shortage of promising ideas – using social media for needs assessment, community-led risk mapping, crisis insurance, mobile money, local production of relief supplies with 3D printers, and so on. What all of these ideas have in common is they require unprecedented collaboration between humanitarian organizations, governments and businesses.

The significance of this is such that one theme of the World Humanitarian Summit, to be convened by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2016, is “Transformation through Innovation”. In the preparatory regional consultations leading up to and through the summit, we want to map out a new approach to humanitarian work, one more closely aligned with the needs and challenges of a rapidly changing world; more inclusive, diverse and effective.

In short, one that is fit for the future.

Author: Kyung-wha Kang is assistant secretary-general of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Image: A woman prepares disaster relief packages before distributing them after Typhoon Haiyan battered central Philippines, inside the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Manila November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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