An estimated 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2016, and this number continues to rise. From 2000 to 2016, over 3.5 billion people worldwide were affected by natural disasters and humanitarian crises - and the scale of response required in these situations is placing increasing pressure on the humanitarian sector to find more effective and efficient ways of meeting the needs of affected populations.

For people and communities facing the reality of these humanitarian emergencies, mobile technology is a lifeline. Yet there are still a number of barriers to overcome in order to ensure that connectivity is available, accessible and impactful in humanitarian emergencies. Here are five ways mobile technology can transform humanitarian service delivery.

1. Basic connectivity: enabling communication in times of crisis

People in every corner of the world are becoming increasingly connected as the mobile industry continues to extend its coverage. Today, the industry provides services to more than 5 billion people across the globe. It is vital that when disaster hits, mobile networks are not only resilient to commercial losses, but have the critical ability to function as a lifeline for customers.

Image: UNHCR

Recent examples such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the 2016 earthquakes in Italy and the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, highlight the critical role of mobile networks and the access to communication and information they facilitate. Even a basic text message or phone call can be a lifesaver. Mobile network operators in Nepal and Sri Lanka, among others, have developed early warning systems to increase the preparedness of communities living in risk-prone areas by alerting them of potential danger and providing instructions via SMS, as well as through more traditional methods such as radio announcements and sirens.

2. Humanitarian cash transfers

Humanitarian organizations are finding new and increasingly efficient ways of delivering aid and assistance, notably through using digital cash transfers using mobile money. Data provided by GSMA shows that at least 19 markets have more mobile money accounts than bank accounts, while 37 countries have 10 times as many registered mobile money agents as they have bank branches. In humanitarian contexts, cash transfer programmes utilizing mobile money can offer greater reach and efficiency. For example, Ugandan mobile network operators MTN and Airtel are partnering with NGOs including DanChurchAid, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee to deliver digital cash aid to refugees in the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi.

3. Providing identity

One area of increasing focus for the humanitarian community is improving beneficiary registration and identification. There is an opportunity for mobile and digital technology to play a role in establishing and/or authenticating unique, digital identities for refugees and others affected by humanitarian crises. For example, without ID a refugee may be more likely to face barriers or delays when attempting to cross international borders, their freedom of movement may be restricted and it will be difficult or impossible for them to access services, including mobile services, financial services, education or healthcare.

The reach of mobile technology and other technological innovations means that new, robust digital identity solutions that provide utility, privacy and convenience are within reach for crisis-affected populations. Some of these are being tested already; for example, at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, mobile devices are used by UNHCR staff to scan the barcodes found on refugees’ identity documents and verify whether they are eligible for a range of services, such as food, clothing, or cash aid. The app does not show the individual’s name and picture, ensuring that the refugee’s privacy is protected.

4. Access to utilities

Mobile technology is being used in increasingly innovative ways to improve access to energy, water and sanitation for millions of people who live in areas where the traditional ‘grid’ does not extend, but who are covered by mobile networks. The pay-as-you-go energy sector in emerging markets has seen $360 million of investment over the last four years, providing new commercial opportunities for the private sector and improving the lives of 5 million people who were previously underserved.

Our recent research in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania highlighted how 73% of respondents identified the cost of charging as a barrier to frequent phone use, spending up to 500 TSH ($0.20) for a smartphone to be fully charged. New partnerships and business models that will incentivise pay-as-you-go energy providers to offer products in partnership with mobile operators, such as lease-to-own solar home system products that can be paid for in instalments via mobile money, scratch cards, and sometimes airtime, could have a huge impact in refugee camps. These systems can provide lighting, charging facilities, radios, TVs and even hair cutters, providing entrepreneurial opportunities for refugees. The benefits for refugees of having access to clean energy are clear.

5. Improving dignity

Basic access to a mobile phone can improve choice and dignity, particularly in precarious and protracted displacement situations. Information is power, and mobile technology is unique in its ability to connect people with information networks in real time. Mobile technology can help communities to better self-organize and respond to emergencies in their local context, and can facilitate better communication between affected populations and the humanitarian agencies seeking to serve them. Mobile money-enabled humanitarian cash transfers can provide beneficiaries with autonomy and choice in the products and services they want and need.

The potential for mobile technology to improve the wellbeing of people impacted by crises should also not be underestimated. Our recent research with refugees in Tanzania showed a broad range of ways refugees are using their phones, including communicating with friends and family, accessing education opportunities, using mobile money to send and receive funds, and pursuing their livelihood goals. The research also showed that 65% of mobile internet users searched for news and information, while 35% used the service to access entertainment.

With over 5 billion people already connected by mobile – a figure set to grow to 5.7 billion in 2020 – there is a significant opportunity to use this technology to help transform the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Meeting the needs of the growing number of people affected by humanitarian crises requires new models of partnership between the public and private sector and an ecosystem-wide approach to link different services and avoid duplication and fragmentation. Ultimately, prevention and peace should be the goals of the international community. Until this is a reality, however, it is upon all of us to maximise the technology and tools available to provide more dignified and impactful humanitarian assistance.