The role of new technologies in preventing and mitigating humanitarian disasters: To what extent can this be achievable and efficient in the long-term?

The role of new technologies in preventing and mitigating humanitarian disasters: To what extent can this be achievable and efficient in the long-term?

In November 2017, The European Commission launched the contest “Challenge to Solve” which invites citizens and scientists to rethink the way new technologies are used in the context of humanitarian aid[1]. With this contest that ends in January 2020, the EU sheds light onto the “Agenda for Humanity” brought forward by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit[2]. In the light of increasing humanitarian crisis across the globe, this agenda emphasises the necessity to innovate and explore the role of new technologies to overcome humanitarian problems. Therefore, this paper seeks to explore the meddling of the technological and humanitarian fields and provide insight into the extent these new technologies could tackle serious humanitarian disasters.

1. Why instigate new methods to solve humanitarian crisis?

In the recent years, the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance has considerably increased, reaching up to 210 million people across 134 countries in 2017 of which 23.5 per cent spread in Yemen, Syria and Turkey[3]. These numbers do not cease to increase and resulted in no less than US$ 26.4 billion worth of humanitarian aid invested in the regions in crisis. As the report from the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) points out, armed conflicts and the consequences of climate change especially in vulnerable regions heighten the problems encountered and the lack of sufficient infrastructure and funds to ensure efficient humanitarian assistance to everyone[4].

In consideration of the rapidly progressing field of technological innovation, the idea of introducing new technologies to tackle humanitarian crisis was raised at the European Parliament in September 2017 by the Science and Technology Assessment (STOA) Panel. The latter brought attention on the infinite possibilities technological development could offer in terms of preventive and mitigative measures for the humanitarian field. The concern relative to this question led to an EPRS study of  “the evaluation of technological applications for disaster risk reduction” and an overview of ways to facilitate humanitarian assistance[5] [6].

2. Introducing new technologies

Over the years, technological innovation has been rapidly evolving and becoming part of our everyday life from digitisation of information to the development of artificial intelligence now able to replace human labour[7]. While these fields are often encountered in EU policy discussions, the role that these new technologies may play in tackling humanitarian crisis is often just skimmed through. In his speech during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, Ban Ki-Moon emphasised the necessity to pool all of our resources and technological capacities “to help reduce human suffering during crises”[8]. Indeed, while the area of new technologies is ever growing and leaves space for multiple discussions, it often fails to be considered as a potential “aid multiplier” for the humanitarian sector[9].

Multiple scholars argue that new technologies play an important role in 21st century humanitarian assistance by complementing traditional aid systems such as food shipping and monetary funds[10] [11]. In fact, new technologies can serve to adapt and mitigate measures, to better prevent and react, thus become a new important addition to the field and even a “transformative tool for both people in need and humanitarian actors”[12]. Furthermore, Patrick Meier, an internationally recognised scholar in the field of new technologies in the context of humanitarian assistance, points out how technologies enable to tackle humanitarian problems on a larger scale and reach out more people in need[13]. The EPRS supports this point further by arguing that “the delivery of humanitarian aid could help to enhance the humanitarian response, which is particularly important for those in a most vulnerable situation”.

As the EPRS points out, to introduce these new technologies into the field, some crucial elements are to be considered and respected: “these solutions should be safe, scalable, resource-sustainable, replicable and usable in other contexts”[14]. This reflects the necessity to implement technologies that are transposable on other cases and situations which would facilitate the charge of work and implement a certain pattern of prevention, action and reaction. Consequently, these technologies should be: first, inclusive meaning that it should emerge as a common work between local and international actors; and second, accessible to people even in the most remote regions.

For policy-makers, there are three dimensions to take into account for the development of this new idea[15]. First, the ambition and objectives of technological innovation in humanitarian assistance. Second, the technological innovation process and finally, the application and implementation of technological innovation. Technological innovation therefore presents a new way for humanitarian actions to take place and call for the redefinition of the relationship between different actors in the field. Additionally, it seeks to venture out of traditional financial flows by establishing new investment frameworks and hence, “facilitate new ways of addressing the humanitarian financing gap”[16].

3. New technologies in practice

In practice, the use of technologies in humanitarian crisis can be categorised into three phases.[17] [18] First, the preparedness which focuses on establishing preventive infrastructures and measures that would deter potential humanitarian disaster. Second, the response which is essentially the reactionary action to a humanitarian emergency. The response is malleable according to a specific situation and a specific place. Third, the recovery which takes place in the aftermath of a disaster, aiming at reconstructing and reducing the risk of new ones. It focuses on “facilitating increased resilience and opportunities for those affected” as well as prevent the escalation of the damages[19]. The table 1 below provides an overview of the innovations assessed and considered for each “phase” in the humanitarian field as analysed by the EPRS report[20]

Table 1: The three phases introduction of new technologies into humanitarian assistance

Preparedness Response Disaster risk reduction
– Data preparedness
– Citizen reporting with mobile devices
– Crisis mapping with
geospatial information
– Technological innovation for
humanitarian aid and
assistance
– Internet of things (IoT)
– Artificial intelligence (AI)
– Data visualisation
– Innovative financing
– Digital identity documents
(IDs)
– Biometrics
– 3D-printing
– Cargo delivery drones
– Cash transfer programming
(CTP)
– Monitoring and evaluation  
– Smart cities
– Educational
technologies  

The inclusion of new technological framework into existing humanitarian ones also contributes to the homogenisation of society by making means of communication such as internet and mobile phone accessible to those in precarious situation, notably for refugees on the move needing to contact their families[21]. Furthermore, the STOA Chair Eva Kaili argues that:

“If we succeed in proposing the right technological solutions to humanitarian needs, and in teaching everyone involved how to use them properly for their own benefit, we will help protect human beings and empower them in the face of crisis situations.”[22]

In fact, these new technologies would not only provide new means of communication, but it is also believed to create more incentive to download apps to learn a new language for refugees settling in a host country for instance and therefore contribute to their integration into the host society[23].

Another potential innovation that could contribute to disaster preparedness is the establishment of alert system which could provide for rapid evacuation in a situation of natural disaster or immediate violent threat. This would result in a lower fatality rate and facilitate responsive actions such as search and rescue.

4. Criticisms and limitations

Despite the positive outlook scholars and policy-makers have on the introduction of new technologies in the humanitarian field, there are still many limitations to take into account and criticisms raised by some actors.

First, as the EPRS points out “connectivity is fundamental for all actors involved in humanitarian crises”[24]. In fact, the establishment of these new technologies would require perfect cooperation and alignment between local NGOs, international actors, the local population and the affected government. While in theory this sounds achievable to some extent, it is unfortunately rarely the case due to conflict of interest especially between local and international representatives.[25] Additionally, for countries in the midst of violent conflict, communication is often difficult as it is unclear who the head of state is and how the situation is going to progress. [26] Moreover, there is a wide range of nuances in humanitarian policy, framework and legal establishment. This further highlights the necessity of government to join force by sharing their scientific and technological knowledge. However, competition among states does not always allow for such altruism for the field of Research and Development. As the EPRS declares “technological innovation in humanitarian assistance is multi-faceted, as it is approached, perceived and experienced differently by the various stakeholders”[27]. This statement not only relates to different actors’ position but also highlights the numerous policies and frameworks existing in the humanitarian field which add to the already existing difficult steps to take to implement new technologies. Additionally, new policies would need to be discussed regarding privacy and data protection[28]. Considering the uneven policies in this field, this would require an important negotiation process.

Secondly, scholars argue that despite the important role and advancement technology would bring to the field, technology cannot replace human action. Indeed, political relations are important to guide the direction new technological frameworks would take and ensure effective use of it and support to the most vulnerable people. In fact, the General Directorate for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) points out that “before proposing technologies for humanitarian aid, a better understanding of potential beneficiaries’ needs is necessary”.[29] The EPRS report further highlights that “there is often an imbalance between the available technology and human capacity to use it – education and skills training are equally important considerations”.

Consequently, synchronisation and cooperation are essential to establish a lasting new framework to the humanitarian field. Without such a coordination the new technologies would be under-effective and would just result in lost investment rather than invested returns[30].

Conclusion

Overall, this article discusses the introduction of new technologies as a means to multiply the aid force in humanitarian crisis. By pointing out the need for new frameworks due to the increase of disaster – whether they be of natural origin or man-made – across the world and the increasing people at risk, some studies highlight the role new technologies would come to play.

In theory, new technologies would complement existing aid support systems and provide for better tools to prevent, respond and reduce disaster risk. These three phases are used to advance different types of technologies according to their role. A series of innovations have been studied by the EPRS and listed for further investigation. Moreover, new technologies would enable a redirection from responsive and recovering measures towards preventive actions. This would result in a big shift of responsibility for the actors, notably for the local actors who would be required to actively work on the implementation of these frameworks.

Although the inclusion of new technologies to support humanitarian assistance sounds like a plausible alternative to funding, there are still too many limitations to operate this in the short-term. In fact, these new frameworks would require extensive communication and cooperation between the different actors. Reaching a consensus on various issues, notably on cyber-security and privacy would already represent a major challenge. Furthermore, the existence of uneven technological capacities would require the pooling of each national resources and may result in disagreement by the nations technologically advantaged.

Nevertheless, if such cooperation can be achieved on a world-wide level, technological innovation could revolution humanitarian assistance and development investments. Finally, it would contribute to the new “Agenda for Humanity” that is set to guide international development and cooperation for the upcoming decade.


[1]              European Commission (2017), “Commission launches EIC Horizon Prize for Affordable High-Tech for Humanitarian Aid”, at https://ec.europa.eu/research/index.cfm?na=na-301117-1&pg=newsalert&year=2017

[2]              EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[3]              Development initiatives, Global humanitarian assistance report 2018, 19 June 2018, at http://devinit.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/GHA-Report-2018.pdf

[4]              EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[5]              Ibid.

[6]              Humanitarian Coalition, What is a humanitarian emergency?, 20 February 2018, at https://www.humanitariancoalition.ca/what-is-a-humanitarian-emergency

[7]              Frank, M. R., et al.Autor, D., Bessen, J. E., Brynjolfsson, E., Cebrian, M., Deming, D. J., … & Wang, D. (2019). “Toward understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on labor.”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201900949.

[8]              EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[9]              Meier, P. (2011). “New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector.”, International review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93(884), pp. 1239-1263.

[10]            Sandvik, K. B., Jumbert, M. G., Karlsrud, J., & Kaufmann, M. (2014). Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96(893), pp. 219-242.

[11]            Meier, P. (2011). New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector. International review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93(884), pp. 1239-1263.

[12]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdfhttps://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[13]            Meier, P. (2011). “New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector.”, International review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93(884), pp. 1239-1263.

[14]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdfhttps://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[15]            Burns, R. (2014). “Moments of closure in the knowledge politics of digital         humanitarianism.” Geoforum, Vol. 53, pp. 51-62.

[16]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[17]            Duffield, M. (2013). “Disaster-resilience in the network age access-denial and the rise of cyber-humanitarianism”, (No. 2013: 23). DIIS Working Paper (No. 2013: 23).

[18]            Mancini, F., et al. Letouze, E. F., Meier, P., Vinck, P., Musila, G. M., Muggah, R., … & O’Reilly, M. (2013). “New technology and the prevention of violence and conflict.”

[19]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[20]            Ibid.

[21]            Sandvik, K. B., Jumbert, M. G., Karlsrud, J., & Kaufmann, M. (2014). “Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda.”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96(893), pp. 219-242.

[22]            Polidori, S. (2017, September 25). Technologies for Humanitarian Aid [EPRS Blog post]. Retrieved from https://epthinktank.eu/2017/09/25/technologies-for-humanitarian-aid/

[23]            Mancini, F., et al.Letouze, E. F., Meier, P., Vinck, P., Musila, G. M., Muggah, R., … & O’Reilly, M. (2013). “New technology and the prevention of violence and conflict.”

[24]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[25]            Pankhurst, D. (1999). “Issues of justice and reconciliation in complex political emergencies: conceptualising reconciliation, justice and peace.”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20(1), pp. 239-255.

[26]            Mancini, F., et al.Letouze, E. F., Meier, P., Vinck, P., Musila, G. M., Muggah, R., … & O’Reilly, M. (2013). “New technology and the prevention of violence and conflict.”

[27]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[28]            Duffield, M. (2013). “Disaster-resilience in the network age access-denial and the rise of cyber-humanitarianism”, (No. 2013: 23). DIIS Working Paper (No. 2013: 23).

[29]            EPRS (2019), “Technological innovation for humanitarian aid and assistance”, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/634411/EPRS_STU(2019)634411_EN.pdf

[30]            Sandvik, K. B., Jumbert, M. G., Karlsrud, J., & Kaufmann, M. (2014). “Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda.”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96(893), pp. 219-242.

Nevin Birer

Après avoir effectué un bachelier en Etudes Européennes à l’Université de Maastricht, Nevin est actuellement étudiante master en ‘Global Crime, Justice and Security’ à l’Université d’Edimbourg. Etant passionnée par les affaires européennes et étrangères, elle accorde un intérêt particulier à la sécurité européenne et internationale. Avec la multiplication des mesures contre les crimes organisés tels que le terrorisme, le dilemme entre ‘privacy versus security’ est plus présent que jamais au sein des politiques européennes. C’est donc naturellement que Nevin est responsable de la section « Protection de la vie privée et des données personnelles » dans laquelle elle analyse les challenges des nouvelles technologies et le respect de la protection de la vie privée.

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