Today, more than 65 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes and a record 141 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The causes vary from violent conflict to political upheaval to extreme weather patterns, but the human toll is often the same: families uprooted; children unable to attend school; people struggling to survive without shelter, food or clean water.

These immense challenges threaten decades of development progress – and it is ironic that we are facing them during the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a time when breakthrough technologies are developing rapidly and transforming the way we live, work and interact.

Technology plays a critical role in helping humanitarian and development organizations tackle the urgent global problems we face. But this sector has largely been excluded from the technology transformation underway. Many of the technology solutions that NGOs need already exist, but they are often inaccessible because of business models and costs.

Consider this: While technologists have developed solutions that can verify and authenticate your identity simply by reading your thumbprint, many humanitarian workers are still collecting personal information in writing and entering it into spreadsheets. This manual process takes considerable time, is prone to human error and does not take full advantage of the latest data-security technologies and protection standards.

Other challenges facing humanitarian agencies and the communities with whom they work include:

  • Lack of tools to mine data for insights that inform decision-making and ultimately help more people.
  • Protection of sensitive data and personal information.
  • Efficient and accurate identification of beneficiaries, assignment of goods and services, tracking of distributions and monitoring of the impact of aid programs.
  • Delivery of accurate and timely information about services and other resources to displaced people on the move or settling into new communities.
  • Limitations to experimenting with emerging technologies in the locations where they operate, often due to lack of funding.

As Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of WEF has written, the response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution “must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders, from the public and private sectors to academia and society.”

If we applied the technology innovations of the private sector to the humanitarian and development community, the results could be transformative for millions of the world’s most vulnerable people.

This work is already underway. For example, in late 2015, Cisco brought its advanced Meraki wi-fi networks and engineering manpower to refugee sites in Europe. These networks have connected over 600,000 unique devices, enabling refugees to reach more than 2 million friends and family members. The cloud security software associated with these networks blocks an average of 2,000 cyber threats per day, guaranteeing secure connections for users.

But we must do more. Digitization and other technological breakthroughs powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution are creating a landscape where:

  • Everything is becoming connected.
  • Everything is becoming software-based.
  • Everything generates data.
  • Everything can be automated.
  • Everything must be secured.

How can we ensure that the humanitarian and development sector not only adapts to this environment, but also capitalizes on it?


Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins has said that in today’s economy, every business must become a technology company. It is also true that every nonprofit and NGO must become a technology-based organization if they are to achieve the scalable impact needed to meet today’s vast humanitarian needs and development challenges. The private sector can help them get there.

To advance that effort, Cisco and the global organization Mercy Corps have embarked on an ambitious five-year, multi-million dollar partnership that will enable Mercy Corps to leverage a set of digital solutions to deliver assistance faster, better and to more people. Mercy Corps already infuses a technology mindset into all of its global programs and is building an in-house team devoted to maximizing the impact of technology in the humanitarian relief and development sector. Working together, we hope to capitalize on digital technologies for Mercy Corps’ programs, further transforming the way the organization works.

Through a mix of cash, products and technological expertise, we are working to fill critical gaps in delivering humanitarian aid. These include integrating data-gathering systems, facilitating better data analytics for decision-making and experimenting with promising new technologies in the environments where they would be used.

French humanitarian association 'Secours catholique' has unloaded part of 40 tons of foodstuffs at the Trocadero square November 9. Volunteers protest against international community which doesnt assist aid agencies in providing food and water to 1.2 million Hutu refugees trapped by fighting in eastern Zaire.

For example, robust data analytics could help Mercy Corps predict how many families will arrive at an aid distribution point, and what supplies they will need, so that they are better prepared to accommodate them.

A network that is more open and programmable could support a hyper-local app that connects people at the neighborhood level to share emergency warnings, take collective action, find services and vital information and access employment and education opportunities.

Field workers at a refugee intake site could test a biometric registration solution, ensuring vital identification information is captured accurately and securely stored in real time, so that humanitarian responders can better deliver services, adapt quickly as needs evolve and monitor the impact of programs.