International aid workers sense that the tectonic plates of relief and development are shifting under their feet. Some of them are aware of the astonishing improvements in recent decades - not least the global declines in warfare and poverty. Many more are alarmed about the persistence of complex interconnected crises that combine armed conflict, social turbulence and natural disasters in fragile states and cities. Given projected trends in everything from urbanization to climate change - they know that there are plenty more emergencies to come. And while expectations about the potential of new technologies to resolve these challenges is rising, there are still major knowledge gaps in how to make this happen.
The humanitarian community instead finds itself looking inward as it confronts twenty-first century emergencies. Some of the old guard worry that the explosive growth of relief and development organizations is diminishing their efficiency and effectiveness and in some cases politicizing aid. While still dominated by a few big western agencies, the humanitarian sector is now a crowded market of new and old donors, private and public service providers, faith-based and secular aid groups and a growing cadre of digital humanitarians. Not surprisingly, most aid agencies are determined to better coordinate themselves. Fortunately, some of them are turning to technological innovations to help.
Technological advances are already revolutionizing the way aid is delivered. Some practitioners are harnessing the power of the now ubiquitous mobile phone in situations of conflict, turbulence and disaster. In Aceh and Haiti, aid agencies are working with telecommunications operators to distribute mass messages and channel remittances to at-risk groups during times of emergency. Major philanthropic groups like the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation are also working to expand access to food assistance, health provision, and agricultural extension services by phone. In Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines online crowd-sourcing platforms are being developed to map out patterns of risk and vulnerability, thanks in part to pioneering groups like Ushahidi and Frontline SMS. All of this promises to enhance the participation of beneficiaries in shaping the direction and character of assistance.
In the process, old-fashioned hierarchies are being overtaken by tech-enabled networks. Since these networks are surprisingly nimble - humanitarian action is no longer the preserve of a select few heavyweight agencies. Instead, loosely connected volunteers are spontaneously assembling and using big (and small) data to connect victims with services. Working within and across networks, able college-age students are generating new tools for early warning and rapid response that have helped missions on the ground. There are growing examples of interactive platforms to map hotspots and point out access points for survivors whether in the Indonesia, New Zealand, South Sudan or the US. Groups like crisis mappers are proving to be indispensable resources for the humanitarian community as well as users on the ground.
Meanwhile, a new class of technologies - including unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs) - promises to dramatically restructure the logistics of aid. The issue of UAVs is of course a hot one in the humanitarian circuits given their military application in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Aid agencies fear that the use of drones is hindering their access and is generating new threats. And yet some in the relief community who are optimistic about the potential application of drones for humanitarian action - from search and rescue to the delivery of aid. There is some evidence of this already taking place, with drones used by peace-keepers in Bosnia in the early 1990s and more recently deployed in the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti. There are some who see "bots without borders" as the future.
The humanitarian sector would do well to reflect not just on the astonishing potential of these new technologies, but the ethos that gave rise to them in the first place. A signature feature of new technologies is their "openness", a characteristic acknowledged by some specialists. Many of these new tools were developed on the basis of a collaborative approach and partnerships. Those responsible for developing and applying them are more comfortable working in horizontal networks than vertical hierarchies. They also purposefully draw from a range of disciplines to improve their products, pulling in the required expertise on demand. And they prefer rapid iteration in testing out their products rather than long drawn-out pilots. Importantly, they embrace the possibility of failure and are incentivized to take risks.
The aid community has an extraordinary opportunity to become an early adopter of these new tools and techniques. As the 2013 World Disasters Report reminds us, technology is not a solution in and of itself. There is also the risk of fetishizing new technology and unintentionally expanding the distance between aid providers and recipients. Even so, its effective use can play an important enabling function and improve the speed and scale of aid. At a minimum, new technologies can improve targeting and better measure outcomes and impacts of aid interventions - something agencies are notoriously bad at doing. Technology cannot be treated as an "add-on" and relegated to peripheral departments. Obviously, some organizations will do better than others in taking up this challenge.
Aid agencies would do well to get out there and learn from real world applications of technology. They could invest in dedicated teams of digitally savvy specialists to learn from promising practices around the globe, deploying small teams of 2 to 3 people to track cases of innovation with demonstrated results. They could study how tools were designed, the training and resource requirements to mainstream them, and how, organizationally, to manage rapid change, and report back on what works and what does not. Short practical manuals could be drawn up detailing how to adapt and replicate experiences to build on and scale up success. Mentorship and sharing of information between agencies could also be fostered. And every few years the exercise could be repeated to account for new advances in technology.
There is no blueprint for how best to take advantage of these new high-tech tools. Part of the reason for this is that the pace of change is taking place at breakneck speed. But with so much innovation bubbling-up, identifying and scaling-up the most promising technologies is hugely important and potentially impactful. To do so successfully will require a change in mindset but also an upgrading of capacities. It will also demand a greater tolerance of risk and uncertainty. And the largest global players - from the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the United Nations to other large established agencies - have much to gain from preparing themselves. While they may take the longest to change, they have considerable advantages of scale. Some are already taking the right steps, and there is no reason for others to be left behind.
Robert Muggah is grateful to the IFRC and ICRC for inspiring this article. Credit is also due to the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, at the University of San Diego.