Connectivity is key in a crisis — if it gets there fast enough

A community health worker sends data via broadband. Photo by: One Million Community Health Workers Campaign / CC BY

Davos, Switzerland — It’s easy to convince attendees at the World Economic Forum that internet connectivity is a necessity. There seems to be a wi-fi connection for every person, not to mention an array of pop-up TV studios — one of which has even taken over a church — that are wired and ready to transmit the thoughts of the gathered global elite to the far corners of the world (or just the building next door).

In humanitarian crises, the situation is different — though the stakes are far higher. Families forced from homes or threatened by disaster depend on digital access to information as a lifeline connecting them to critical health services, job opportunities and relief supplies. But internet connectivity, despite being so vital, is not so easy to come by.

Part of the problem is that telecommunications providers and humanitarian agencies suffer a disconnect of their own. The current humanitarian system moves too slowly and too late for businesses to deploy connectivity in communities at risk of experiencing a disaster, according to telecommunications leaders.

Speaking in Davos, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Secretary-General Elhadj As Sy lamented that the international community knows now that Somalia is on the verge of a famine, and yet has not mobilized to deliver services that might help mitigate its impact.

“We know that it will be a famine, and shame on us, it will be a famine … The question is what can we do today to have the outcome we want tomorrow,” Sy said.

His comments prompted Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at Ericsson, to respond with a frustration of her own. The international community may know that Somalia is on the brink of a famine — and they may recognize that improving people's access to information is critical — but no one from the United Nations has asked Ericsson for help.

“At Ericsson we’re sitting, and we see things happening, and we’re ready to deploy, and then we’re sitting for weeks,” Weidman-Grunewald said.

Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at Ericsson, speaks on a panel on localization and the Sustainable Development Goals in Davos, Switzerland.

One reason the U.N.’s cluster system moves slower to direct relief services at an emerging disaster than a private company might be that it was built to support national systems, especially where those systems prove inadequate. The intent is to avoid a situation where uncoordinated organizations work at odds with or in duplication of the government or each other, said Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator.

Aid groups have struggled to align the necessary partners around expanding internet connectivity to the people and places that don’t have it. Globally, 53 percent of the population — 3.9 billion people — lacks access to the internet. Refugees are 50 percent less likely than everyone else to have an internet-enabled phone.

In Davos — which draws a rare assortment of people with the power to remove political, financial and technological barriers — momentum has continued to build around making connectivity a basic part of risk reduction and emergency response.

“Connectivity is something we experience today as humanitarian actors as a fundamental humanitarian need,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, at an event earlier in the week.

Devex is reporting live at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Follow Devex Senior Correspondent Michael Igoe @alterigoe and stayed tuned to Devex for more coverage.

About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.