“…the effective, timely deployment of telecommunication resources and that rapid, efficient, accurate and truthful information flows are essential to reducing loss of life, human suffering and damage to property and the environment caused by disasters” – The Tampere Convention
As I write this, I’ve recently just returned from the Philippines where I and many of my colleagues were deployed to assist humanitarian relief operations by deploying various forms of communications. Our team and many others from around the world were in pretty harsh post-disaster environments, and setting up the necessary communications that are required for any effective, modern disaster relief operation. The Haitian earthquake of 2010 was the first really good example of a “data driven” (rather than “radio driven”) communications response. And the need for more internet connectivity in the aftermath of a disaster has only gotten stronger since then. After a major disaster, it’s not uncommon to see numerous VSAT satellite dishes spring up like mushrooms after a good rain.
And like I said, the work that these teams have completed is impressive. Recently, the homepage of the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster had a story about how 2500+ humanitarian workers have used the emergency Wifi. Most of the major disaster relief operations have some form of Internet connectivity – even if that’s something as simple as a BGAN.
And for all that, we have a huge problem.
In the 2013 UN OCHA report, Humanitarianism In The Network Age it is argued (correctly, I think) that information is a basic need to those affected by a crisis, not just the crisis responders themselves:
information as a basic need requires a reassessment of what information is for. Instead of seeing it primarily as a tool for agencies to decide how to help people, it must be understood as a product, or service, to help affected communities determine their own priorities.
The CDAC Network has been promoting this notion through the Twitter hashtag #commisaid.
The vision of emergency communications is succinctly summed up in that one hashtag: communications is a vital resource for the survivors of catastrophe, right along security, shelter, hygiene, medical care and food.
If you accept this notion, the international technology community has a huge problem.
If you look at the United Nations Cluster System something becomes very clear quickly: the vast majority of the clusters have the mandate to deliver goods and services ultimately to those who have been affected by the crisis. The Nutrition cluster is there to make sure people don’t starve, for example – – it delivers food at scale to thousands, perhaps millions of people depending on the nature of the event. But the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster is different. It’s mission is limited to “the humanitarian community” (which is UN-codespeak for the UN agencies such as WFP, UNICEF, etc. and certain BINGOs “big NGOs” such as the ICRC):
To provide timely, predictable and effective Information Communications Technology services to support humanitarian community in carrying out their work efficiently, effectively and safely.
Excluded from this mandate is the idea of providing communications services to countless desperate people who would love to communicate with their families, with the resources they need to restore their lives, and to the outside world more generally to tell their story. We (the collective “we”) are failing to adapt to the new reality. If we truly believe that communications is a form of aid, we are utterly failing to deliver that aid! We are totally content to deploy a handful of satellite dishes, a few Wifi access points, and provide connectivity to aid workers. But what about *everyone else* outside of the perimeter? What about the public? Who will speak for them? Who will restore to them the ability to speak for themselves?
This is a very tricky question.
Telecommunications services: Internet service, POTS telephony, mobile phone telephony are all regulated and vary greatly in quality and penetration from country to country. The regulatory hurdles are significant, and let’s not even start talking about logistics! The humanitarian actors have traditionally been reluctant to engage with the private sector (who invariably owns and controls the pre-crisis telecommunications infrastructure). The lines get very blurry when you start introducing organizations who have a profit motive and organizations who have a humanitarian objective. These are big challenges, but those challenges don’t overshadow the fundamental truth:
The best way to deliver humanitarian communications to a community at scale is to help restore the pre-crisis communications infrastructure.
During Super Typhoon Haiyan, we saw the loss of the mobile phone telecommunications infrastructure throughout our work in Eastern Samar and Leyte. Millions of people were walking around with mobile phones that had no service. They already had end user devices they were familiar with (even in the poorest or most rural parts of the world, seemingly everyone has a mobile, right?) — so in one sense, accomplishing the mission of delivering humanitarian communications is much easier: you don’t have to touch millions of individuals in order to help them. You “just” need to get their phones back online.
A Tale of Two Refugee Camps
Two years ago, our team at work participated in a project with NetHope, Inveneo, WFP and Microsoft to create DadaabNet to connect up the humanitarian aid agencies operating at the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. You can get a sense of the camp from these photos. Prior to the deployment of this network, the state of communications at this camp was extremely limited. VHF radios, a small number of satphones, and no mobile phone coverage. After this project concluded, the humanitarian aid agencies were clearly in a better state of communications, but the vast majority of the 500,000 people in that camp are still without communications.
Contrast this with a much newer camp, the Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan. When the camp was first opened in 2012, it started taking in refugees from the civil war in nearby Syria at a rapid rate. But Zaatari is actually served by at least two GSM/3G mobile phone carriers! Not only are the humanitarian staff able to communicate with traditional handsets, but many of the refugees are able to use their mobiles as well. The infrastructure could be better (one could always have more coverage and more bandwidth, natch!) but the situation there is vastly different than that which we found in Dadaab.
Service providers make all the difference.
A Call To Action
The humanitarian community, and the ETC in particular, needs to establish better working relationships between itself and the humanitarian actors it represents, and organizations representing the carriers (such as the GSMA). Service providers must become a stakeholder in humanitarian response – ISPs, traditional telephony, satellite providers, mobile phone carriers. Engagement protocols need to be developed… maybe that next UN flight might be best carrying a phone switch rather than a thousand kilos of Wifi access points! It might help more people with a better service.
In addition to the carriers, equipment vendors need to become stakeholders in humanitarian response. This might be easier than one might think since several of them (Ericsson and Cisco) are already heavily involved in humanitarian response — it’s logical to start with those who are already part of the conversation. How do we ensure that the equipment needed to create communications at scale gets released, imported and transported to the locations where it can best be put to use?
There are challenges in all of this: competitive challenges (can you help one carrier without helping another?), the division between humanitarian action and disruption to the competitive marketplace, and regulations of all sorts. But we must begin to transform how we do technology response to consider the bigger picture
If communications is truly a form of aid, we have no other choice.