Humanitarian Action

How tech can help when children are forced to flee

Two Rohingya refugee children on a bridge from no-man's land to Bangladesh, at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

Aid organizations are finding new ways to estimate how long a crisis will last – and plan accordingly Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Helle Thorning-Schmidt
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

“I fled into the jungle to hide. From there, I could see the military burning down the entire village and killing people. They killed many… luckily my family survived. We decided to flee to Bangladesh for safety. We didn’t even have time to gather our belongings and just fled with the clothes on our bodies.”

This is the story of 16-year-old Roshida*, a Rohingya girl forced from her home in Myanmar by violent conflict. She is just one of 66 million people most of whom are displaced by conflict and persecution in our world – about the same figure as the whole population of the United Kingdom.

More than half these people are children who face having their future stolen twice. First, when they are forced to flee their homes, putting them at increased risk of hunger, disease and exploitation. Second, when, stuck in difficult conditions in developing countries – which host almost 90% of refugees – they struggle to get ahead. Poor health care, no chance to go to school, and no job to go to when they are older. Some children spend their entire childhood in this situation, without hope for the future.

A Rohingya child at Unchiparang refugee camp, Bangladesh
A Rohingya child at Unchiparang refugee camp, Bangladesh Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

This is where the international community comes in, and a huge amount is already being done. Last year we saw over $12 billion raised in response to global humanitarian appeals, the highest amount ever, to assist 105 million people. Yet, dauntingly, the need only continues to grow. In 2018, we require more than $20 billion to help over 130 million people. This is an ambitious target for donors, so it is necessary to find ways of working that mean we can do more with less – starting with a close look at how we plan, fund and run humanitarian responses for displaced children and their families.

Right now, most support occurs only in the first two years of a crisis and focuses only on the essentials. This is despite the reality that 60% of all displacement crises last over five years, while a quarter last over 20 years. Funding falls off as a crisis becomes protracted, gets bogged down and drifts out of the headlines, while the level of need does not.

This imbalance puts children and families at risk, and results in chronic underfunding of development programmes that are essential to their future. The uncertainty of not knowing how long a crisis will last is usually to blame. It encourages short-term thinking in responses, until donor enthusiasm drops and the help provided at the beginning of an emergency becomes increasingly out of step with what people on the ground need.

If we could somehow stop this cycle, eliminate the uncertainty and know in advance the length of a crisis and how many people it might affect, we could respond faster, more effectively and in the most cost effective way possible. Save the Children, with help from Boston Consulting Group, think we might just have found a way to start to make this happen.

Using big data, gathered from nearly 100 conflicts over the last 40 years, we have made a prototype tool that helps us predict how a new conflict-driven crisis will unfold over time. Here’s how it works. At the beginning of a large conflict, if 25,000 people or more are forced from their homes, we take all the information we can gather about what is happening on the ground and input it into the tool. The tool compares this early information to historical trends and then predicts how long-lasting and how big the humanitarian crisis will ultimately be.

A woman and her children at a humanitarian aid distribution centre in Syria
A woman and her children at a humanitarian aid distribution centre in Syria Image: Reuters/Umit Bektas

This means we would get critical information about the kind of crisis we face, right from the start, and if the data told us with some certainty that we were in it for the long haul, we could rapidly adjust our response to match. Stop trucking water in every day for emergencies, and install water pipes instead. Fund health and education facilities from day one. Build links with host communities rather than building expensive camps. Invest immediately in self-reliance programmes for refugees. In short: plan with certainty for the long term, and change the future for refugee children.

To make this shift we need to invest in close dialogue with host countries that might not always want to create the conditions for more permanent settlement of people displaced by conflict. However, we are excited about the progress we have made on this tool so far. Right now, its predictions are around 75% accurate, which is a great start, but we hope to do even better in the future by testing, refining and filling gaps in the data the tool draws from.

To move forward, we want and need to engage more partners in this work. This year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos is all about being part of an unparalleled global effort to work together to improve the world. We hope that, in time, our tool could be a big step forward for the humanitarian responses that are so vital to improving our shared future.

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For further information about this and our global work on displacement, please contact the Director of Save the Children’s Migration and Displacement Initiative at

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