This post was written by guest blogger Meghann Rhynard-Geil, Technology for Development Advisor, Digital Communities, Mercy Corps. She was a speaker during last week’s Women Rock-IT webinar on the power of technology in helping crisis-affected populations.
I’ll never forget the moment I realized just how priceless access to connectivity—and the resources it provides—is. I was working in one of the camps in Greece during the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2016. Internet connectivity had recently been installed and made available to those living in the camp. A young man approached me and said:
“Thank you so much for the internet. I haven’t been able to speak to my mother for three months. She didn’t know if I was safe or not. Now she does and we Skype every day.”
His was only the first of countless stories like this I have heard. Thanks to an ever more accessible digital ecosystem, families who have been separated for years are able to find each other. Education interrupted by violence and war can be continued. Knowledge and freedom of expression can be exercised.
Reaching vulnerable populations through mobile technology
In a time when we discuss the benefits of ‘unplugging,” less screen time, and the dangers of “information overload”, it is easy to take our constantly connected world for granted. Information is more readily available than it has ever been before. By 2018, 3.6 billion people were using mobile messaging applications.
Phones and connectivity are becoming increasingly inexpensive, and are being adopted as the primary form of communication for many. GSMA estimates that by the year 2025, 71% of the population will be mobile subscribers. For us as humanitarians, this presents an incredible opportunity to reach the populations we serve with more ease than ever before.
However, this mass movement toward a digitally connected world does not come without its challenges. As more information, processes, and services move to the digital world, huge swathes of the world’s population—Last Mile communities—are becoming even more vulnerable and isolated than before, facing barriers to entry like low or nonexistent connectivity, limited access to devices, lack of digital literacy, and changing cultural norms.
Globally, 200 million more men than women own mobile phones. Reading text messages or registering for services via mobile app can be a bewildering experience for people who aren’t experienced with mobile technology—or completely exclusionary for those without mobile phones at all. When people lack confidence using digital platforms, they may rely on others for help, which can increase exploitation or limit use of these services—the exact opposite outcome that utilizing tech is supposed to produce.
Additionally, because it is so easy to create information and content, there is a plethora of mis- and disinformation, making it nearly impossible at times to tell if what you are reading is truth or lie, particularly for people just making their way into the digital world.
This is concerning, given that, increasingly, many crisis-affected people use smartphones to connect with social media and other online sources for information to help inform their most important decisions. Too often, the information needed is difficult to obtain due to access issues (lack of WiFi or phone service) and unregulated, untrustworthy, and inaccurate sources, placing vulnerable communities at higher risk of violence or exploitation.
From smugglers and traffickers creating travel agency fronts on Facebook, to rumors about border openings and policy changes, there are countless examples of people making life-altering decisions based on predatory information. In this context, there is a critical need for relevant, verified, and up-to-date information, as well as safe, secure connectivity, available through accessible, user-friendly channels.
Mercy Corps and Cisco partner to create Technology for Impact
Mercy Corps is answering this need with the Digital Connected Communities Initiative, part of our Technology for Impact program, generously supported by Cisco.
We believe that, if communities are provided trustworthy and actionable information through a safe and accessible digital ecosystem, then they are more able to engage equitably with community powerholders, plan for their futures, and adaptively respond to their environment.
Access to accurate and reliable information, connection, and community is of paramount importance for vulnerable populations. Information about basic services, safe migration routes, and legal rights can help save lives. Information on employment and educational opportunities, community-building, and integration activities can help people make informed decisions toward recovery, return, or building a new life in displacement settings.
Mercy Corps’ work in this area grew out of the Refugee.Info program, begun in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in response to the information needs of Syrian refugees as they arrived in Greece in 2015. Recognizing the valuable lessons learned about how to utilize an ecosystem of digital communication tools to reach vulnerable populations, we have continued and expanded our partnership to a global program called Signpost. Signpost has been present in 8 countries and served over 1.2 million individuals.
Also through the support of Cisco, we are able to provide Meraki networking hardware to support safe, reliable internet connectivity. We are currently operating in refugee camps and community centers, serving nearly 30,000 individuals on a monthly basis with internet access.
Creating solutions with the user in mind
In Puerto Rico, we are working with local community centers to build resilience to future natural disasters via early warning systems, disaster risk reduction and preparedness activities, and ensuring (through satellite and solar) our program participants will have access to connectivity even if local towers and power are down.
Through information and communication technologies, we, as development and humanitarian workers, are provided opportunities to reach and understand the communities we serve with an immediacy and scale we have never had before. But it’s always important to remember to lead our strategies and approach with the people we seek to serve rather than the tools.
At Mercy Corps, we emphasize applying the Principles for Digital Development —designing with the user in mind and a deep understanding of the digital landscape and context we’re entering. The basis of our approach lies in building pathways to empowerment via digital means. We strive to ensure every program we roll out incorporates Do No Harm principles and the promotion of safety and dignity for those we serve.
With that in mind, we are always pushing to find solutions for barriers to access and ensuring that we are not increasing vulnerabilities for those we work with by introducing technology tools. This includes further bridging the digital gender divide through digital safe spaces for women, digital literacy curriculum built into program design where relevant, and utilizing digital tools to increase civic engagement and connection for youth with local governments—ensuring that information shared is actionable and owned by the community.
Working on technology projects in contexts that largely still function in an analogue world, or are just on the brink of becoming digital, can be incredibly exciting. You can see the power of technology at its best—an equalizer of opportunity. But it can also be a humbling reminder that there is no silver bullet and that technology alone cannot solve the myriad problems the world faces.
That is in the hands of the people wielding the technology. And that thought is so uplifting. Every person that becomes connected has the opportunity to contribute to our global community in their own, unique way.
If you missed Meghan’s session during our latest Women Rock-IT conference, please watch the recording to learn more about Mercy Corps’ efforts to accelerate global problem solving.