New technologies can help humanitarian aid but can’t replace it


A new report by the Red Cross shows how mobile phones and an internet connection have changed the delivery of humanitarian aid. EURACTIV France reports.

According to the Red Cross' World Disaster Report 2013, natural disasters caused fewer deaths and illnesses in 2012 than in the previous decade.

The last ten years saw a number of large-scale disasters, such as the 2004 tsunami in Asia, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

The Red Cross report focused this year on the rapid growth of technologies that has transformed humanitarian action. Digital information, web, big data, mobile – are tools that have an impact on the efficiency of humanitarian help, especially in cases of conflict.

The example of Syria in this regard is striking. Digital tracking tools can help identify the path of raw materials, including food distribution in countries where humanitarian aid has no access .

The Red Cross gives the example of a project called 'The Voice of Kivus', organized by the University of Columbia and designed to collect data on the conflict in South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As part of this project, mobile phones have been distributed in 18 randomly selected villages. In each village, three phones were given to the village chief, the head of the association of women, and to a reporter selected by the community. Over 18 months, these new 'war correspondents' sent 4,000 messages about the evolution of the conflict, the sporadic episodes of violence or the position of armed forces.

An experimental method, which worked very well and allowed humanitarian action to be organised in accordance with the developments on the ground. An example that opens the way for new decentralised operations of humanitarian aid.

At the other end of the humanitarian system, the mobile phone has also helped provide millions of dollars to Haiti in 2010. According to the Pew Internet Project, 43 million were collected by mobile during the earthquake of 2010, and these donors often have contributed again in 2011, during the tsunami in Japan.

Humanitarian action can be slowed or led astray by all sorts of obstacles, whether it is weather, unexpected conflict or corruption. To circumvent, and especially to monitor the state of the projects, technologies can move the lines.

By following the rainfalls in sub- Saharan Africa, food crises can be anticipated. According to the same logic, a mechanism established by the Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO), which monitors the food sold on local markets in Africa helps monitor prices.

Mobile phones are certainly a key tool, but the Red Cross reminds that phones do not work everywhere.

"As important as the numbers may seem  – 6.8 billion mobile phone users, and over 2 billion Internet users – experience on the ground shows that the coverage is far from perfect," the report underlined.

Beyond the technical issues of available network, there are concrete barriers: access to Internet and phone shows high disparities between men and women, rich and poor, urban and rural.

A survey conducted by the television channel Al Jazeera in 2011 on the impact of the conflict in Somalia, show the penetration rate of mobile phone at 7 % in the country. But the survey was done on the basis of 3,000 replies by SMS, which cannot be considered a reliable survey also as only a third of the population can read and write, survey analysts said.

Therefore, new technologies are not omnipotent and cannot replace humanitarian staff on the ground. But their effectiveness is very valuable, the analysts added.

2010 saw many major disasters, including five which were assigned to the UN's top category of 'great natural catastrophes': the earthquakes in Haiti (12 January), Chile (27 February) and central China (13 April), the heatwave in Russia (July to September), and the floods in Pakistan (also July to September).

These accounted for most of the 950 disaster-related deaths in 2010 and just under half the overall losses caused by

natural catastrophes. The average number of natural disasters for the last ten years is 785.

Most catastrophes last year occurred on the American continent and in Asia but 120 natural catastrophes were recorded in Europe, including the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in April.

The available data indicates that Europe is suffering from more floods, forest fires and heatwaves than ever before, and despite the economic crisis, a recent 'Eurobarometer' found that 90% of European citizens were in favour of better coordination of disaster responses to improve their impact and keep costs low.

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