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Digital technology can help humanitarian relief efforts. But, Dr Marian Gatzweiler and Corinna Frey argue such innovations don’t automatically translate to ethical advances.

The term “refugee camp” is often misleading. Many of the facilities housing some of the world’s 65m people fleeing war and disasters resemble small cities rather than comfortable campgrounds. Tents and caravans crammed together in urban-style grids that sometimes stretch for miles. Aid organisations and governments commonly use satellite imagery and other surveillance technologies to control movement in and out of these sprawling installations.

While new technologies are now being used more frequently in the management of humanitarian crises, data infringements of digital records to monitor refugees have also created new risks. Collecting data on marginalised groups in conflict zones could fall into the wrong hands – digital databases on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have recently been linked to further discrimination and persecution.

In humanitarian crises, technological innovations do not easily translate into ethical advances and can resemble an Orwellian tale of tight control over undesired populations. This serves as another unwelcome reminder to refugees of what they have often lost: their homes, livelihoods, families, freedom of movement – and their privacy.

While all these factors are of serious concern, aid agencies have shown technology can provide more dignity to refugees, when fused with ethical ideas.

Choice and autonomy

Given the remoteness of many camps in Uganda, Bangladesh and Kenya, technology can help to address some of the enormous issues facing the world’s refugees. It is already being used to improve access to finance, to support individual autonomy and offer these groups new choices.

While providing blankets and food inside a camp may have its uses in some situations, such in-kind handouts often create relationships of dependency while confining people to the camps themselves. In Jordan, a partnership between humanitarian organisations and financial institutions uses eye-scanning technology to allow refugees to receive cash aid outside the camps. This helps to cut overhead costs and reduce the role of financial intermediaries, which means more money can go to refugees.

Eye-scanning equipment has been placed at many local banks and supermarkets throughout Jordan, where refugees can collect cash hand-outs – which average between $US 125-150 per month – without being confined to the camps. This approach – which uses blockchain technology to manage aid payments provided by the UN’s World Food Programme – allows refugees to move more freely than before and maintain contact with relatives in other places. This helps to cement social and economic support networks important for individual well-being and long-term resilience.

Other uses of technology in humanitarian crises often revolve around mobile phones. In facilities such as Kenya’s Dadaab and Jordan’s Zaatari camps, they offer knowledge to start businesses, help communicate with customers and suppliers, and simplify payments.

In camps like Azraq in Jordan and Kakuma in Kenya, technology provides online higher education with support from universities in Geneva and Princeton.

3-D printing is also being explored to help refugees access important supplies. The Jordanian organisation Refugee Open Ware is trying to bring medical equipment, including prosthetic limbs, to survivors of the Syrian civil war. The aim is to create an open source movement around 3-D printing prosthetics for refugees, and to bring innovation into the humanitarian sector.

Humanitarian relief is not just about helping people survive in hostile settlements – it is also about re-establishing hope and self-respect in those who have suffered. Applied responsibly, technology can give humanitarian ethical ideals new life. In the process, it can disrupt the aid system by bringing new ideas, approaches, and organisations into the sector to empower refugees and rebuild their livelihoods.


A version of this article was originally published in The Conversation.

Dr. Marian Gatzweiler is an Early Career Fellow at University of Edinburgh Business School. Marian’s research mainly focuses on the intersection between management and information systems in high-performance settings.

Corinna Frey is a PhD. researcher at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, focusing on knowledge, evidence, and accountability in complex environments such as the global refugee crises.

Image source: @flickr/USGovernmentwork