From messaging apps and project management tools, to the distribution of aid using drones and Biometric scanning, technology plays a huge part in the humanitarian work NGOs do around and the world and more specifically in areas where the larger numbers of incoming refugees and immigrants are documented. But which are the biggest tech challenges for organizations and humanitarian workers and how can they benefit from the ever upgrading software tools and various skills tech-savvy refugees already have?

Looking further into the topic, we had a brief talk with Reem Talhouk, a doctoral trainee in Digital Civics at Open Lab in Newcastle University. Ms Talhouk has a background in Public Health and her current research focuses on the use of technology to build refugee community resilience. Her work also entails bridging the divide between technology developers and engineers with stakeholders working in the humanitarian sector. As one of the founding members of the Arabs Digital Public Health Initiative she organizes workshops that aim to bring developers and people working in NGOs and public institutions together.


“What we need is the resources to further develop, scale up and integrate the technologies with ongoing efforts of NGOs” – Reem Talhouk, Doctoral Trainee in Digital Civics

How do you think NGOs and humanitarian workers can benefit from technology and perhaps make their work easier and more effective on a day-to-day basis?

Technology is already playing a big role in making the work of NGOs and humanitarian workers easier. Technology is being used to improve and streamline the initial needs assessment conducted in the beginning of a crisis or when refugees first enter a country or region. Using software such as KoBo and Open Data Kit, NGOs are creating forms that assessors can fill in using tablets while in the field and data is uploaded and aggregated once they have an internet collection. The platform Ushahidi showed how effective crowdsourcing data can be in showing areas of conflict that need more immediate response.

Delivering aid has also been facilitated through technology. The Lebanese Ministry of Public Health sends out mass SMSs notifying beneficiaries of vaccination campaigns, and the UNHCR sends out messages notifying refugees of when to go and collect their aid packages. RefugeeInfo’s approach to notifying refugees of services has changed things a bit by mapping out all the services in one place that can be accessed by refugees in multiple languages. Other than notifying refugees of aid, the World Food Program has decreased its distribution of food packages as aid and has alternated to giving out e-vouchers, which are cards similar to debit cards.

NGOs are now exploring the use of bitcoin and blockchain to transfer cash assistance to beneficiaries and even drones are being explored as a method of delivering aid packages to conflict areas. One of the most prominent cases of the use of technology in the distribution of aid is the use of Biometric scanning by the UNHCR as a form of identity verification.

In the long term, these technologies have been theorized to increase efficiency, cut down on costs of aid provision and ensure that the right people are getting the right aid.

Which are the greatest challenges NGOs that work especially with refugees face today, in terms of technology?

A huge challenge for further integration of technologies in to NGO efforts is the infrastructural barriers. The majority of refugees are residing in developing countries where the telephone network, internet network and even the power network are under-developed and intermittent. This is further compounded by accessing connectivity services such as 3G are relatively expensive. This is a major barrier to the scaling up of technologies in these contexts.

Resource constraints are the biggest limiting factors, not the lack of tech education.

The capabilities and motivation of people within the tech world, students and professionals, to develop technologies for this context is reflected by the numerous hackathons and tech communities, such as Techfugees and EmpowerHack, that have rallied around different humanitarian causes.

What we need is the resources to further develop, scale up and integrate the technologies with ongoing efforts of NGOs.

Could you say there are also some shortcomings in the use of technology within humanitarian NGOs?

There has been a lot of debate about whether these technologies will end up distancing International NGOs and NGO workers from the refugee community with technology becoming the main mediator between them and refugees. Critics have also pointed out that the UNHCR’s biometric system requires an already vulnerable population that fears prosecution to share data that they would not have been inclined to share if they did not have to in order to get aid. Furthermore, the worry is that if these systems fail, would people who should be receiving aid be denied it? It is because of such questions that we should build on the potential for technology in improving the humanitarian system, but also remain critical and encourage the monitoring and evaluation of technologies both on the short and long term. These evaluations should go beyond numbers and look at shifts in interactions between NGOs and refugee communities.

Are there any significant findings in relation to the use of the technological skills refugees and migrants have?

Our work with refugee communities has shown that refugees are resilient in their use of technologies; even when apps are not developed for low literacy refugees, they can adapt their use of the technology to suit their needs and capabilities. A prime example is Whatsapp. Although Whatsapp is mainly a text based messaging app, refugees of low literacy utilize Whatsapp extensively through the Voice Note feature.

That said, sometimes a certain level of training is needed for refugees to utilize technologies. In Europe some of the most interesting and promising technologies are being developed by refugees, such as Bureaucrazy that is being developed by two refugee students in Germany. Therefore, it is not a one size fit all, refugees have varying levels of tech savviness and low tech literacy should not be the predominant assumption.

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