Is social media an effective humanitarian response tool?

Social media can help improve global humanitarian response, but only to a certain extent, the communications director of a top international aid group says.

Aid agencies are “slow to capitalize” on the potential of social media and other emerging information communications technologies, Medecins Sans Frontieres communication head Jason Cone admits. But this situation is not as dire as so-called “social media evangelists” would describe it, he stresses.

The usefulness of such tools to humanitarian response “should be judged on the basis of their impact in improving the quality, relevance, and effectiveness of aid — not the speed at which the tools themselves are adopted by the humanitarian community,” Cone explains in a blog post for Harvard University’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research.

Social media are very helpful in augmenting the capacity of aid groups — including MSF — to report on their work, raise funds, mobilize campaigns and pressure governments, Cone says. But on the ground, the potential of these tools remains limited, he adds.

Cone explains: “At the end of the day, humanitarian aid workers will need to be on the ground assessing needs, dealing face-to-face with armed actors and community leaders, making hard choices about how much and what kinds of aid can be delivered in life-or-death situations.”

Humanitarian action, particularly in politically charged contexts and conflict zones, must remain neutral and impartial “regardless of the evolution of social media and technology,” he says.

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About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.