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Bridging humanitarian digital divides during Covid-19

Briefing/policy paper

Written by John Bryant, Kerrie Holloway, Oliver Lough, Barnaby Willitts-King

Briefing/policy paper

While digital technologies have been increasingly employed in humanitarian crises for more than a decade, they are needed now more than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions on travel, a switch to remote working and ‘social distancing’ have left international, national and local humanitarian staff unable to access affected communities, while logistics and humanitarian supply chains are disrupted. At the same time, needs continue to increase. There is now an urgent need for humanitarian actors to engage with affected people differently but, despite initial predictions, there has not been a significant shift in how the sector uses and considers new technologies to do so.

This briefing note analyses how humanitarian actors are deploying digital technology to address specific challenges posed by Covid-19; how relationships between technology providers, governments and humanitarian organisations are changing due to the pandemic and what this means for the future of technology in the humanitarian sector.

Key messages

  • Early predictions that Covid-19 would radically change how digital technology is used in humanitarian action have not yet materialised. The most effective tools have been those already known to work at scale, such as providing digital cash through mobile money.
  • By contrast, some proposed new uses of technologies, such as drones to check for fever, have been ineffective, and others such as contact tracing apps may expose aid users to greater risks to their privacy or inappropriate surveillance.
  • Marginalised groups are already at risk of being excluded by digital approaches, an issue that is exacerbated when such tools are used remotely as necessitated by Covid-19. Systems put in place now will outlast the pandemic, making careful assessment and mitigation measures critical.
  • Humanitarians are not using digital technology in a vacuum. They need to work more closely with a wider range of actors, including governments and the private sector, and understand both the opportunities and risks that this presents. The increased and rapid uptake of digital tools clearly increases the potential for digital harm, but we found few examples of organisations taking mitigating action.