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Technology and Emerging Humanitarian Frontiers

The American Red Cross, World Humanitarian Summit, and the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University convened a two day conference on June 1-2, 2015, Emerging Humanitarian Frontiers, to discuss the state of humanitarian response in three key areas: the protection of marginalized populations, the use of cutting-edge technology and engagement with local communities. The goal of the event was to discuss recommendations in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit, which will be held in May 2016.

The Open Technology Institute chaired the first working group on cutting-edge technologies in humanitarian response. The working group considered the major themes of the day’s plenary session led by Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, Chief of OCHA’s Policy Development and Studies Branch; Dr. Nigel Fisher, Senior Advisor for Humanitarian Policy and Complex Crises at the KonTerra Group; and, Steve Cornish, Doctors with Borders, Canada.

The discussion was framed by Hansjoerg Strohmeyer’s principles of effectiveness, as described in the plenary:

1. Connected:reinforce existing local capacity that is active and organized.

2. Context-driven: tailored-response to handle important differences between natural disasters, conflict and chronic disasters.

3. Complimentary:leave infrastructure and capacity behind, rather than building temporary parallel structures.

4.Nimble:respond to changing circumstances and recognize the areas where the international community has a comparative strength and where local responders have a comparative strength.

As the first of four working groups on cutting-edge technology, the first group focused on identifying both opportunities and challenges posed by the deployment of new technology solutions in humanitarian response, and specifically focused howlocal voicesand marginalized populationsare impacted by those various interventions.

The working group was motivated, in part, by calls to better understand and evaluate the key factors and criteria as when and how new technology implementation approaches will be meaningful and successful (IFRC 2013). It was also motivated by calls for critical inquiry into the motivations, context, externalities and beneficiaries of technology interventions in humanitarian response, particularly as it reshapes roles, priorities, resource distribution, private partnerships and privacy (Sandvik et al. 2014).

During the working group, participants divided into three groups to reflect on their experiences. Two groups identified challenges and opportunities posed by specific tech interventions on the strength of local voices and protection of marginalized populations. The third group identified specific successes and failures when technology was used in a new way during a response, and then formulated that specific example into a general principle. Participants then gathered to reflect on common lessons, observations and principles. This discussion centered around how different implementation choices, both compared to other choices and to the status quo, would impact marginalized populations, local capacities and overall effectiveness.

Kristin B. Sandvik, Maria G. Jumbert, Karlsrud, John, and Mareile Kaufmann. "Humanitarian Technology: A Critical Research Agenda." International Review of the Red Cross (2014): 1-24.

IFRC. "Innovation, Evaluation and Diffusion of Humanitarian Technology." In World Disasters Report 2013.