ICTs in emergency response – what we’ve learnt

Laura Eldon Humanitarian, ICT4D

How can and should information and communication technologies (ICTs) be employed in humanitarian contexts to improve the quality and efficiency of aid delivery? Laura Eldon reflects on the findings of the Scaling Humanitarian ICTs Network (SHINE).

Over the last three years Oxfam has sought to show how ICTs can best be used in emergency programmes through the Scaling Humanitarian ICTs Network (SHINE). This Sida funded programme across five countries has enabled us to learn a huge amount, not just about the types of ICTs that (do and don’t) add value in different types of emergencies, but also about the supporting structures and networks that best facilitate their usage.

the use of e-transfers has helped reduce security risks in what can be an incredibly volatile environment
It’s not often you have the luxury of reflection. We have had the opportunity to review the use of ICTs in a wide variety of contexts and to reflect on how Oxfam’s approach in this space has evolved. When SHINE first started, Oxfam was in the process of developing a Responsible data policy and the majority of field teams would have been largely unfamiliar with the evolving ethical considerations of data collection, usage and storage in the digital age. Three years on, not only do we have a policy, but we also now have a responsible data management training pack that is being rolled out, driven in large part by demand from field staff.

Full details of our learning from the programme can be found in the final report and five country case studies. Here is a taster: In Ethiopia, we’ve seen how the use of digital beneficiary registration and distribution systems can help build accountability and trust whilst also increasing efficiencies. In eastern DRC , the use of e-transfers has helped reduce security risks in what can be an incredibly volatile environment, while in Indonesia Oxfam has been working with local partners to use ICTs to help strengthen disaster mitigation and response. We’ve seen increased quality and efficiency in aid distribution in northern Mali and unexpected benefits relating to choice, convenience and dignity through the use of e-transfers in Iraq.

As one project participant explained:

You did not know this, but you actually saved our dignity. [With this e-transfer project] we do not have to go and form lines, waiting for our turn to receive items that have already been pre-decided for us. That would have been fine too, given our situation. We are in need and that would have been better than having nothing. But having this option is such a relief.”

Of course not all activities turned out as planned. While we have seen proven efficiencies in terms of time and accuracy when digitalising paper-based activities such as assessments, registrations and project monitoring, we didn’t see the take up in SMS-based systems that we anticipated at the start of the programme. This was largely related to connectivity challenges in locations that were otherwise a good programmatic fit with the use of SMS to support accountability mechanisms. This underlines the fundamental principle that context is key in understanding appropriate uses of ICTs.

the connections between countries to link and share learning is something that we are keen to replicate
Overall the SHINE programme, which has now come to a close, has taught us a huge amount not only about the types of ICTs that can add most value in humanitarian programmes, but also about the support structures that need to be in place to help facilitate their use. Most of all, the power of the network has shone through – the connections between countries to link and share learning is something that we are keen to replicate for activities more widely. Building on the experience of the last three years, Oxfam’s engagement with ICTs continues to grow. While our SHINE countries move forward with continued, increasingly mainstreamed use of new technologies in the field, we’re working to refine our tangible guidance on the applications of responsible data and to explore other new and exciting uses of ICTs ranging from tools to support increased accountability, to digital financial services, the use of GIS to support programme planning and monitoring, and considering up and coming areas such as digital identity standards and Internet of Things. It’s an exciting space, and one where I can’t wait to see what the next three years hold.

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