By Murray Garrard, CDAC Network
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a sobering time for humanitarians. Since the inception of humanitarianism, organisations working in aid have prided themselves on gaining access to communities in need of assistance. Travel bans, closed borders, and the virus surging unexpectedly and unpredictably have made international travel precarious and frequently impossible.
The containment of humanitarian professionals to their houses in Melbourne and their apartments in London has, to some degree, enforced organisations well-versed in the language of localisation to finally put this notion into practice. Though whether these nascent localisation efforts will outlive the pandemic, and the economic devastation it seems certain to inflict, remains to be seen.
But regardless of who carries out humanitarian assistance, and despite some exciting initiatives using drone technology to make radically more efficient the humanitarian endeavour, the fact remains: much humanitarian work cannot be done remotely.
Humanitarian communication would, at first, appear well-positioned to rely more heavily on technology, and so be conducted at a distance. It often is. The CDAC Network counts among its membership specialist entities working in times of crisis to repurpose existing radio, TV, and mobile phone networks into channels for the dissemination of life-saving information. And such efforts are critical, and save lives.
More recently, efforts to better engage communities in operational decision making and feedback have intersected with the growing capabilities of technology. The result has been the extraction of ever-increasing amounts of data from disaster-stricken communities through a surfeit of apps, many of which have had little relevance and varied success. While data from such communities is critical to the design of humanitarian programmes, the means by which it is collected is far from neutral. Aside from issues around data privacy, breaches of which have the potential to make the vulnerable even more so, algorithms inherit the biases of those that create them: technology developed in the West (the vast majority used in the humanitarian space is) can produce unreliable datasets and unintended outcomes in non-Western cultural and economic environments.
But using digital technology to engage communities remotely is problematic in another sense: it strengthens what it aims to reduce. If the primary goal of community engagement is to redress the imbalance of power between humanitarian workers and the communities they serve, then it would seem hard if not impossible for this imbalance to be redressed when the parties are remote, accessible only through a device or application over which only one party – the humanitarian organisation – has control.
Moreover, from the vantage point of a laptop, a router, and half a dozen or so devices all hooked up to the world wide web, it is easy to assume everyone is online. But this simply isn’t true, particularly for those living in some of the world’s most economically precarious regions. Recent research from the Alliance for Affordable Internet and the Web Foundation concluded: “Nearly 2.5 billion people live in countries where the cost of the cheapest available smartphone is a quarter or more of the average monthly income.” The world’s poorest and most vulnerable are priced out of participation in the Internet and are largely excluded from digital communication in humanitarian contexts.
Face-to-face community engagement is laborious, can be inefficient, and the effect of which can be hard to quantify. But time and again, when asked, communities in humanitarian settings favour face-to-face communication and engagement above all else – often by a significant margin. While no one is suggesting digital communication and engagement should be abandoned, neither should it be wholly relied upon – even in times of a pandemic.
While organisations have been attempting to square the need for community engagement with measures to enforce physical distancing, the dilemma they’re facing is this: communicating and engaging with communities is most effective when done in real-time and face-to-face. Given the restrictions on travel and fears around sending international consultants into regions where COVID-19 is escalating, those humanitarians communicating with and engaging communities are likely to be local staff. It says something about our sector that localisation is consistent primarily in those environments perceived as dangerous.
So, this World Humanitarian Day, our #RealLifeHeroes are those humanitarian workers engaging in communication and community engagement, on the ground, in the face of multiple crises, and at no small risk to their own personal safety, but with a commitment to ensure that, in our cacophonous world, the voices of the most vulnerable are heard.