When looking online for pictures which would visualize the concept of humanitarian aid, it was not surprising that I was confronted with an array of images of boxes and pallets of physical goods, either being moved or delivered by governments or NGOs to locations filled with people in need.

But the picture conveyed by these images is far from complete – a growing proportion of aid is financial rather than physical, and mobile operators are uniquely positioned to transport and deliver this aid to people in need.

Two main factors enable mobile to be enlisted in the delivery of humanitarian aid: the broad geographic reach of the world’s mobile networks and the nature of the mobile customer account, which can be used not only to purchase and store airtime, but to receive funds from any number of sources. In many places these are combined with a third factor – an authenticated digital identity connected with essential information about each individual, ensuring that the right amount of aid gets to the right person.

While mobile has yet to be enlisted into major humanitarian efforts on a routine basis, the success of some recent initiatives makes a strong case. Last year in Pakistan, VimpelCom’s operating company, Mobilink, was involved in two major relief efforts, delivering $5 million in flood aid funds to the Punjab Disaster Management Authority, and distributing travel allowances to 120,000 families displaced by military activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In the Pakistan case, the use of mobile as a distribution system for humanitarian aid on behalf of the Punjab Disaster Management Authority brought clear advantages: mobile delivered the funds directly to individual citizen accounts; it enabled reliable processing of transfers, reduced infrastructural and logistics costs, and streamlined the tracking of payments. More significantly, it reduced the opportunity for corruption or interference with the funds, and even ensured that citizens could only use them with specific vendors for specific goods or services.

There are some who may say that dependence on commercial players – such as mobile operators – might not be appropriate in a kind of activity, like humanitarian relief, that has historically been the province of government and NGOs. But in offering broad geographic reach, deep demographic reach and the ability to get the right aid to the right people, mobile operators are poised to make a substantial difference in getting aid to the people who need it most, and in keeping it out of the wrong hands.

The question is: what will it take for the world of humanitarian aid to embrace this new way of helping those in need?