Digital Humanitarianism in Africa – Hope or Hype?

Technology can help deliver aid and services more effectively – but can be harmful if users don’t know its risks.

Many humanitarian organisations, including in Africa, are revolutionising their service delivery through new technology. This has become important in the context of rising migrant numbers, food insecurity and the impact of COVID-19. In 2020, the United Nations (UN) estimated that 3.6% of the global population (around 281 million people) needed humanitarian assistance.

Organisations worldwide have adopted innovative and efficient digital tools such as biometrics, spatial mapping and social media platforms in humanitarian programming. This technology became even more relevant when the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 gave every person the right to a legal identity, including birth registration, by 2030.

Although digital tools are useful, Africa must adopt and use them pragmatically. For refugees and migrants, the priority should be improving traditional approaches to managing displaced people, with digital tools adopted only if they add value.

Digital humanitarianism, which refers to interventions conducted online, usually without in-person presence, is a product of information and technological advancement. Early evidence of the practice was the use of cell phones to send violence reports and map events during Kenya’s 2007-8 post-election violence through the Ushahidi (witness) platform. Volunteers adopted a similar model to capture images and share information during Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

Digital humanitarianism refers to interventions conducted online usually without in-person presence

After that, organisations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) incorporated technology into their work with migrants and displaced people. The use of this approach by reliable organisations added to the tools’ legitimacy.

Digital humanitarianism continues to change humanitarian practices significantly, and Africa is part of this trend. The tools are used in many countries including Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Uganda. Biometric data – such as fingerprints and face recognition – is widely used in voucher assistance programmes. One example is the WFP’s Bamba Chakula initiative in Kenya which provides food and essential services to refugees and migrants.

In South Africa, the ICRC’s RedSafe platform allows migrants to access communications facilities and save electronic copies of their documents. RedSafe incorporates the Protecting Family Links (PFL) service and the Digital Vault. PFL is a free confidential platform that links migrants with their missing relatives. The Digital Vault allows migrants to upload and store important documents such as identity cards, passports and birth certificates in a cloud-type service.

The benefits are clear in these examples, but there are dangers in using identity systems that target masses of people. If the risks are ignored, human rights violations and identity theft or digital intrusion become inevitable. A good illustration is the cyber attack on the ICRC and its affiliates in January, which exposed the personal data of nearly half a million vulnerable people globally.

Innovative tech won’t solve Africa’s refugee challenges unless accompanied by policies that safeguard migrants

After the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West and Central Africa, the World Health Organization used new technology such as mHealth and eHealth to collect and share timely data and geolocate local outbreaks. Digital tools were also extensively used in delivering medical services ranging from diagnostics to community mobilisation and case management.

The GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation program uses mobile technologies to address humanitarian problems in several African countries. GeoPoll, for example, partners with WFP to generate granular and timely food security data to improve the responsiveness of aid in the Sahel, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

The risks of digital humanitarianism extend beyond identity theft and digital intrusion. Function creep – using data and tools for tasks other than their initial intent – is dangerous in refugee settings. Biometrics collected for humanitarian purposes can be used by governments in law enforcement, border management and counter-terrorism without the affected person’s knowledge.

And the information sharing practice among governments and humanitarian organisations, which is necessary to develop durable migration solutions, allows for the exchange of individuals’ sensitive private information.

Digital tools enhance migration management but aren’t quick fixes for deeper policy shortcomings

In Gianluca Iazzolino’s study of Kakuma Camp in Kenya, Somali refugees worried that biometrics could be used to restrict their mobility. These fears were intensified because the WFP’s biometrics launch coincided with a call by Kenya’s government to repatriate Somali refugees.

Social media is helpful in displacement contexts but can also be abused if accountability measures are lacking. Misinformation and hate speech are major problems on these platforms worldwide. In South Africa, Operation Dudula, which started as an online campaign against foreigners, has been used for xenophobic attacks and racial discrimination against migrants.

This doesn’t mean Africa should abandon digital humanitarianism. Instead, a pragmatic approach is necessary. Take the case of Kenya, where asylum seekers and refugees are sometimes kept in camps indefinitely. Tools such as geospatial mapping could be useful to transform these camps into settlements that allow the country to tap into the resourcefulness and productivity of asylum seekers.

Africa’s main challenge is to embrace policies that give displaced people and migrants mobility, access to livelihoods and basic services. Innovative technology won’t solve these issues unless there are corresponding policies that safeguard migrants. Digital tools can enhance migration management but won’t be quick fixes for deeper policy shortcomings.

While tapping into the merits of new technology, African governments and other stakeholders should know the inherent risks and find ways to mitigate them. The urge to adopt any available digital tool should be tempered.

Frameworks that support an inclusive approach to the digitisation of humanitarianism are needed. Platforms such as the Humanitarian Data and Trust Initiative and DigitHarium should be explored as avenues for stakeholders to meet and discuss local and global solutions to these tools’ weaknesses.

Finally, those working on refugee management in Africa should raise awareness among migrants about the design and use of new technology to avoid misuse and exposure to risks and misunderstandings.

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