March 18, 2021

Report Explores the Role of Mobile Technology in the Humanitarian Sector and How It Is Shaping Humanitarian Action

"The global economic crisis that followed widespread lockdowns has worsened this desperate situation, stretching humanitarian budgets to their limits and forcing humanitarian agencies to reimagine their operating models and do more with less," according to a report published by the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H), a program working to accelerate the delivery and impact of digital humanitarian assistance. "In this context, the role of mobile technology and opportunities for humanitarian organizations to digitize humanitarian assistance have become more prominent. For those affected by crisis, mobile technology has never played a bigger role – connecting people with loved ones and enabling access to health information, financial services, social protection interventions and humanitarian assistance."

With the support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), this report documents the progress of the M4H program and partners in 2020, highlighting the key trends impacting the humanitarian sector in this unprecedented year, and summarizing the activities and outcomes of research, the M4H Innovation Fund, strategic partnership projects and advocacy efforts. In addition to the FCDO, the M4H program is funded by the GSMA, a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide, and its members.

The report presents the following achievements during 2020:
  • "Sparked innovation: The program contracted eight new grantees under round three of the M4H Innovation Fund, bringing our portfolio to 22 grants in total (including the inaugural Disaster Response round). To date, M4H Innovation Fund projects have directly impacted the lives of 714,000 people, with four grantees scaling or replicating in new contexts (Lumkani, Refunite, Mercy Corps and Flowminder).
  • "Facilitated five new partnerships between MNOs and humanitarian organizations, reaching a total of 19 partnerships. The portfolio of projects implemented by M4H has impacted 454,000 people in humanitarian contexts who are now better able to access and use life-enhancing mobile services.
  • "Replicated two business models in new countries, training mobile money agents on Humanitarian Code of Conduct principles (MTN Rwanda and Uganda in partnership with Alight) and providing digital financial literacy training for female mobile money agents (in partnership with Grameen Foundation).
  • "Became a stronger thought leader. M4H published 10 reports, translated from English into an additional four languages. In 2020 alone, M4H reports were cited 36 times and downloaded around 15,000 times. Of note was the Digital Lives of Refugees report, which was downloaded 3,146 times and cited 21 times by stakeholders such as UNHCR, UNDP and ODI.
  • "Highlighted the messages of M4H at 30 in-person and online events globally, 12 of which were organized by the GSMA, reaching over 600 people.
  • "Influenced policy change in Kenya, unlocking access to vital mobile services for recipients of a digital ID project led by the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS). We documented the steps and events that culminated in a policy shift in Uganda that enabled approximately 600,000 refugees to legally register for mobile services in their own name.
  • "Provided capacity building training to over 150 policymakers representing over 16 governments and intergovernmental bodies, including The World Bank and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)."

The report also presents five "prevailing trends related to the role of mobile technology in the humanitarian sector and how they are shaping humanitarian action. While few of these trends are new," explains the report, "COVID-19 brought many of them into sharper focus."

Trend 1: The pandemic has accelerated the need for inclusive digital humanitarian assistance

"COVID-19 has been a catalyst for rapid change and innovation in humanitarian action, sparking action and debate across the entire humanitarian sector. This has included calls for reform – to more locally led action and decolonized approaches to aid. In parallel, the power of mobile technology to enable communities to express their needs and to inform their decision making and choices was recognized by more actors, shining a light on the importance of mobile technology in the lives of people affected by crisis. In the face of COVID-19, humanitarian actors and mobile operators had to adapt to a grim new reality. As humanitarian needs grew, so did restrictions on movement and physical contact, making it more difficult to provide services to affected populations in person. Very quickly, demand grew for delivering humanitarian assistance digitally."

Trend 2: There is a greater focus on digital ethics, privacy and data protection

"While the fast-paced digitalization of humanitarian assistance provides many benefits, it also carries risks. The inability to access or use digital tools can mean that the benefits of digital and financial inclusion are not realized, or worse, lead to exclusion from basic services and vital information (see Trend 3).

"Ethical questions around the digitalization of humanitarian assistance also include respect for individual privacy and personal data protection. Since both are considered an integral part of protecting life, integrity and dignity, it is of fundamental importance for humanitarian organizations."

Trend 3: Accountability to affected populations and inclusion are being prioritized, raising awareness of the digital divide

"Digitizing services can offer transformational benefits to people affected by crisis. However, it can also inadvertently exacerbate inequalities, due to digital divides (such as the digital gender and disability gaps among refugees). This is a particular risk for groups who are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises and have distinct needs, such as women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities and those who lack formal identification. The digital divide has long been a major obstacle to digital humanitarianism, but COVID-19 has triggered a step change in the awareness of digital divides, their intersectional dimensions and the importance of addressing them.

"It is imperative that mobile-enabled products and services are designed with and for the most marginalized recipients, as this will allow humanitarian actors and mobile operators to better understand their perspectives, experiences and feedback. This is in line with Grand Bargain Commitment, a 'Participation Revolution,' to include people receiving assistance in making decisions that affect their lives. Human-centered design and other inclusive methods are key to being accountable to the populations that humanitarian actors have a mandate to serve. M4H has been providing guidance for the humanitarian sector and MNO partners to adopt these methods, from making mobile technology more accessible for persons with disabilities to understanding the user journeys of mobile money-enabled cash recipients."

Trend 4: A climate emergency is underway

"Over the past decade, 83 percent of disasters triggered by natural hazards were due to extreme weather, and climate-related events killing over 410,000 people. In the past year alone, catastrophic climate-related events, including bushfires, wildfires, tropical cyclones, record rainfall and locust plagues, touched every corner of the globe. Communities affected by conflict are disproportionately impacted by climate change, which intensifies humanitarian needs, increasing displacement, disrupting food production and weakening healthcare systems.

"These events have reinforced the need for better preparedness and response capabilities, and the role of mobile technology in addressing the climate emergency, from mitigation to response and recovery. Through the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, M4H has continued to work with MNO members to ensure telecoms infrastructure is resilient to extreme climate events."

Trend 5: Digital cash assistance is proving to be a scalable solution

"The volume of cash and voucher assistance (CVA) has doubled over the past few years, accounting for 17.9 percent of all humanitarian assistance in 2019, up from 10.6 percent in 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic not only increased the amount of CVA delivered, but also accelerated the shift from physical cash to mobile money-enabled cash assistance. Because measures to contain COVID-19 have limited mobility and personal interactions, physical distribution of cash and payments instruments have become riskier and more difficult. The provision of digital cash through mobile money is considered one of the most effective digital tools in the COVID-19 response, with the ability to work at scale for humanitarian payments, as well as social safety net payments, if enabling regulation is in place.

"In addition to supporting several initiatives e.g. Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19: Expert advice helpline (SPACE) and partners with digital cash assistance, in August 2020, M4H launched a global partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The three-year collaboration focuses primarily on the use of mobile money to deliver digital assistance through cash-based transfers, with the aim to save lives in global emergencies, including pandemics and natural disasters."

As for trends to watch in 2021 and beyond, the report says "There are countless other important trends that we have witnessed in 2020. An integral piece of M4H's work is identifying and understanding the potential of frontier technologies, such as AI, blockchain and big data, to improve humanitarian action." What is more, "The program is continuing to pilot and scale such technologies through the Innovation Fund and Strategic Partnerships projects, while also testing new and innovative partnership models that are critical for long-term sustainability. Trends and lessons from these frontier technologies and partnership models will be shared in the year ahead."

The report importantly notes: "As the humanitarian landscape continues to change in response to the shifting nature of crises and funding patterns, it is clear that the humanitarian sector will increasingly rely on mobile operators, the wider private sector and governments to help deliver impactful services for recipients and advance technological shifts through policy innovations."

Moreover, "In a year of uncertainties, mobile technology has remained essential and proven crucial."

What mobile services do see providing value in the humanitarian sector and shaping humanitarian action?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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