Davos Agenda

Tech innovators must upgrade humanitarian response for the 21st century

When your daily life is upended and what seemed immutable is shattered, digital tech becomes more important than ever.

Tech is crucial for enabling the displaced to rebuild lives and livelihoods. Image: Ahmed Akacha/pexels

Filippo Grandi
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR)
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • When your daily life is upended and what seemed immutable is shattered, digital tech becomes more important than ever.
  • Tech is crucial for enabling the displaced to rebuild lives and livelihoods, by allowing them to pursue education and access web knowledge.
  • Yet in this tech-dominated world, refugees and IDPs face significant obstacles and threats that tech innovators must work to overcome.

In January 2007, Apple boss Steve Jobs strolled onstage to introduce a new piece of technology he called the iPhone. Fifteen years on, it is estimated that there are more than 6.5 billion smartphone subscriptions globally. It’s hard to imagine life without them.

Also in January 2007, there were roughly 23.4 million people displaced by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuses. Today, there are more than 100 million people who have been forced to flee home – a record number that just keeps rising.

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There’s a reason I place these two apparently unrelated statistics side by side. For many of us, the world seems more connected than ever – always-on phones and computers, messaging apps, online meetings, social media, the non-stop email blizzard, the advent of virtual reality… For a growing number of people, however, the world has become more fragmented. Being forced to leave your home does not create ties, it severs them: to family and friends, schools, jobs and colleagues, clubs and communities, to places of recreation, business or worship.

Yet when your daily life is upended and what seemed immutable is shattered, digital technology becomes more important than ever.

Tech to rebuild lives

Refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) need technology to connect with friends and loved ones, access news and entertainment, find employment, seek information and advice, and to contact organizations such as UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which I lead. When there are few other options to make yourself heard, technology can give you a voice.

It is also crucial for enabling displaced people to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. It lets them pursue education and training by providing access to teaching materials – and teachers themselves – and to the wealth of information on the web, on every subject from marketing a business to fixing a leaky tap. Innovations in instant translation, microfinancing and banking, medical help and other forms of advice are not merely revolutionizing lives, they are saving them.

For UNHCR’s part, we’re making greater use of messaging apps and chatbots, and developing our own secure and trusted online spaces for information, data and communication. We use biometrics as part of refugee registration, to provide identity documents, distribute cash through ATMs, and improve various legal and protection functions. Looking ahead, we are exploring the use of technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence to see how they can be further integrated into our work, as we prepare for new and ever-changing humanitarian challenges.

Obstacles and threats in a tech-reliant world

Yet in this tech-reliant, tech-dominated world, refugees and IDPs face significant obstacles and threats.

First, many are simply not online – and if they’re not logged on, they risk being left behind. Three-quarters of refugees are located in developing or the least developed countries, and millions live in remote rural areas, where digital infrastructure can be poor or non-existent. Refugees and IDPs need equal and meaningful access to the digital world, with proper connectivity (and the electricity to power it), and affordable hardware or services. It’s a task that governments, businesses and global financial institutions can all plug into.

Second, UNHCR, other UN agencies and NGOs need outside expertise, including monitoring online trends to better understand what displaced people need, and in developing our own digital tools. Private companies have provided emergency connectivity in displacement crises, as well as their own services to refugees for free. As the world’s displaced population inexorably rises, scaling up this support is vital.

Third, we must address the many and varied online harms and dangers faced by the people fleeing persecution and violence. These range from stopping trafficking networks from operating freely online, to preventing and removing hate speech, misinformation and disinformation. Racism and xenophobia are spread by the outrage-fuelled algorithms of social media platforms. These are problems that have been widely documented and recognized, yet far too little has been done to tackle them.

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Fourth, the digital world of tomorrow must welcome refugees, not exclude and imperil them. The use of digital technology to control borders should facilitate access to asylum, not create new barriers to reaching safety. If it speeds up asylum procedures, family reunification and similar processes, or if artificial intelligence can help us predict and respond to population movements stemming from conflict, disasters and economic shocks, so much the better. If it ends up stopping vulnerable people from accessing safety and exercising their fundamental rights, it will have failed.

High hopes for tech

Refugees and IDPs themselves have high expectations of technology – indeed, they see it as a lifeline, not merely a convenience. In surveys, their wishlist is lengthy: registration, the swift processing of legal status and asylum claims, finding out where they can get help, updating personal data, issuing IDs, and general queries and complaints. For that to happen, however, their digital worlds need to be safe, effective and affordable.

Last but not least, refugees can play their own part in shaping tomorrow’s world. They can be (and many are) coders, programmers, web developers, gamers, data scientists, administrators… If it is true that most jobs of the 2030s haven’t been invented yet, let’s ensure that displaced people striving to rebuild their lives are equipped for the future – because that future isn’t far away. Without training, equipment, connectivity and fair access to the digital workplace, both displaced communities and those who host them will be left behind, wondering exactly what benefits globalization has brought.

Digital innovators must help us to upgrade the humanitarian response for the 21st century. In just under a year from now, the 2023 Global Refugee Forum will present the ideal opportunity for innovators to bring us their ideas, pledges and inspiration, and help us realize the ambitions of our digital strategy. Together, let's give humanitarianism a 21st century upgrade.

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