The New Era of Humanitarian Aid?
Is the era of humanitarians distributing physical goods to refugees with clipboards in their hands over?
More and more Syrian aid efforts are being digitalized in order to efficiently handle the high amount of Syrian refugees. By the end of 2015, the number of Syrian refugees is predicted to be around 4.3 million according the the United Nations. Most of these refugees, as well as the countries that are acting as hosts (e.g. Lebanon or Jordan) are quite tech-savvy. This allows the integration of Information and Communication Technology, that helps to allocate aid to where it is most needed.
These technologies help with the registration process, the delivery and allocation of goods, the prevention and treatment of illnesses and diseases, as well as the access to education.
The registration process no longer consists of paper-back registration forms but is now conducted in a more time-effective manner by collecting the data digitally. This allows the exchange of data with the appropriate aid insitutions in a timely manner. It also secures the validity of the data. Often refugees used to register multiple times with different names in order to receive more help. Nowadays, the UN’s refugee agency even uses iris scans for registration. A total of 1.6 million Syrian refugees have already been registered using this method.
These iris scans are also used as tools for the delivery and allocation of goods. Humanitarian aid no longer focuses on giving refugees physical goods but they provide them with financial help in order to buy those goods themselves from designated stores, giving them higher variety and preserving their dignity. This not only reduces the allocation of unneeded goods, but also fosters the local economy of the host country. Financial aid may be distributed through different channels: while SmartCards may be used as payment method in other areas, in Jordan the iris scanner can be used to withdraw a refugee’s cash entitlement from ATMs. Soon, refugees might be able to purchase food according to their entitlement in supermarkets cash-free, simply by using iris recognition.
The application of ICT furthermore facilitates the prevention and treatment of illnesses and diseases. Through online real-time consultation of e.g. US specialists, doctors in host countries such as Jordan and Lebanon receive support while treating the vast amount of refugees. WHO Lebanon and WHO Jordan together with national governments are furthermore currently working on a program to monitor refugees’ health and to prevent diseases from breaking out.
ICT can also greatly help with the education of Syrian children. 700,000 Syrian children in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey do currently not receive any education, since the host country facilities cannot cope with the high amounts of new students. In order to find a way to educate those children, UNICEF is currently developing a distant education program that can be used virtually (Favell, 2015).
So, do these ICT-based processes really introduce a new era of humanitarian aid or is it just a one-time-thing?
I believe that, as mentioned above, there are a lot of advantages that come from the use of ICT in this context. It is fascinating, how ICT can be used in this context to facilitate the helping of all those people in need. However, it should not be ignored that Syria is quite a special case. People had widely had access to technology before they had to leave their country and they are therefore rather familiar with its usage. Those processes that need actual interaction might, however, not be transferable to refugees from other countries. If we consider humanitarian aid in African countries, people might not necessarily be familiar with technologically savvy programs. This could lead to refugees not being able to take advantage of the help they are granted. It is therefore necessary to assess the tech-affinity of future refugees before introducing these ICT processes in other contexts. More hands-on learning would be required to educate refugees on how to use these technologies and to explain their significance. For Syria, however, this application seems to be very fitting and highly valuable. Other cases of humanitarian help will need to be considered when determining whether this process can be used widely in the future and therefore whether it is the beginning of a new era.
Favell, A., 2015. How technology is helping deliver aid to Syrian refugees in the Middle East [online]. ComputerWeekly. Available at: http://www.computerweekly.com/feature/How-technology-is-helping-deliver-aid-to-Syrian-refugees-in-the-Middle-East [Accessed 7. October 2014).