• The Economist on how mobile phones are changing humanitarian aid

    by  • July 31, 2007 • The Global Picture • 0 Comments

    Flood, famine and mobile phones

    Technology is transforming humanitarian relief—and shifting the balance of power between donors and recipients

    Those ingenious victims

    While the joys of gadgetry may seem obvious to aid workers, how much has it really done to help victims? The full answer to that question has yet to emerge, and it is aid recipients who will give it. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, a group of agencies bent on learning from past mistakes, notes that “local people themselves provided almost all immediate life-saving action and the early-emergency support, as is commonly the case in disasters.”

    As the example of Mr Sokor shows, people affected by catastrophe are not necessarily helpless or hapless. Their ingenuity is likely to change disaster response by rich-world donors in unexpected ways.

    Already, mobile telephony is transforming the landscape. The World Bank says the number of mobile-phone subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa increased sevenfold between 2000 and 2006. India nearly doubled its mobile-phone subscriptions last year to 150m and the government expects 500m (mobile and land lines) by 2010. Natural and man-made disasters do not only strike rural areas; nearly a billion city dwellers (who use mobiles more) are vulnerable to disaster.

    In several recent disaster zones, victims surprised their benefactors by asking not for food or medicine but money. Save the Children, at least, has responded: it has been handing out cash in addition to food in the Horn of Africa and South Asia, and it says UN agencies should do the same.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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