Q&A: Space and aid — partnerships in unexpected places

"Space has a role to play in that in some — but not all — aspects it can do things faster, better, and cheaper than traditional methods and ways of doing things," said Ray Fielding, head of the IPP at the UK Space Agency.

Since the arrival of the Sustainable Development Goals, the idea of partnerships — including previously unlikely ones — has been one the global development community is growing accustomed to. After all, the estimated additional $3 trillion needed to reach the SDG targets isn’t going to be sourced without involvement of new players in the realms of development cooperation, humanitarian aid, and climate change mitigation and preparedness.

Enter the space and satellite technology communities. Bringing with them their expertise in communications and imagery, many organizations are collaborating with in-country governments and private sector implementers in a bid to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems.

The UK Space Agencys International Partnership Programme, or IPP, is one such convening mechanism. Through this program, the U.K. satellite communications company Inmarsat is leading three projects that use satellite connectivity to benefit communities in developing and emerging economies. In Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines, it is working with local governments and regional organizations to tackle challenges in health care, sustainable fishing, and disaster response.

Ray Fielding, head of the IPP at the UK Space Agency, said such partnerships are already having an impact.

“In December, when a large typhoon storm hit the Philippines, infrastructure was wiped out and communications were especially hard hit,” he said. “The equipment we had deployed helped to make sure that aid workers and disaster recovery experts could communicate back to the base exactly what was needed, enabling a much more rapid and efficient response to emergencies than they would have been able to achieve otherwise.”

Speaking to Devex, Fielding explained why the space community should be involved in aid efforts and, as conveners of partnerships between public and private sector actors both locally and internationally, weighed in on what it takes to create a successful partnership.

Why is it so important that the space and technology communities apply their expertise to tackling problems in developing nations?

Space has a role to play in that in some — but not all — aspects it can do things faster, better, and cheaper than traditional methods and ways of doing things. One example would be communication. Space satellite communication is a great tool for enabling remote communities to be connected to the outside world for communications, and for the internet. To do that using traditional methods — such as rolling out 3G phone masts over hundreds of kilometers or laying fiber-optic cable over long distances — would cost far more than some of these communities can afford in terms of developing an infrastructure.

“[Space] helps developing nations in a way that not only saves them money by using these techniques, but by giving them information they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.”

— Ray Fielding, head of the IPP, UK Space Agency

Space is also really good for very low cost, wide area surveillance, such as monitoring forests or marine environments. It can be done much faster and cheaper than traditional methods such as aerial photography or having people stationed out in those vast areas conducting land surveys. So [space] helps developing nations in a way that not only saves them money by using these techniques, but by giving them information they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.

How does the U.K. space community successfully develop partnerships in developing and emerging economies?

There are two ways of doing that. The first is through relationships the UK Space Agency has with different governments around the world [and] we work with those countries to identify specific problems. An example of this would be in Malaysia, where we identified challenges they face in deforestation, disaster response, and flooding. We then go out to the U.K. space community with those problems to see what they can do to help us solve them and tackle the challenges.

The second route is that the U.K. space community, using its own contacts around the world, develops partnerships by themselves. For the larger companies, they're able to do this under their own steam. For the smaller companies, we normally provide limited sponsorship in terms of covering travel costs and small amounts of personnel costs for them to go overseas and develop the relationships needed to then work with the overseas governments or communities to identify what the problem is, and then send that back to us with their solution in the form of a bid to the IPP.

What is the UK Space Agency’s recipe for success when it comes to creating international and cross-sectoral partnerships?

We’re very careful about how we assess partnerships and look at the strength of partnerships. I think the difference with IPP compared to other similar programs is that everybody invests in the projects. So, for the U.K. partners this involves money and resources, but the investor partners don’t just receive benefits, they actually contribute to the project too. Some organizations, such as the Malaysian National Emergency Disaster Response Management Agency, contribute money; other organizations such as the Kenyan Red Cross are contributing people and time. This means the partnership is strong and it’s not a case of just waiting to see and walking away at the end, but partners actually keep working with us to develop a solution to their benefit.

We do many things to reinforce our partnerships in the agency as well, including making sure the local Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ambassador teams are involved. It always helps to give U.K. government sponsorship and support directly to those working on the ground. Again, that reinforces the importance of the projects to local partners. They know they’re working with the U.K. government [and] it’s not just a small industry partner that in effect is trying to sell them something — they know they're on an official government project.

As a less traditional player in the international development space, what do you feel is most important for development practitioners to know about the work you’re doing in using space technology to tackle global issues?

We're using the IPP to showcase what space can do in the developing world. We're keen to show that we're not trying to compete with other solutions or traditional solutions, but we're trying to add to them and provide things that traditional solutions providing development support can’t give, or can’t give efficiently. We’re also keen to make sure our projects have real, genuine, long-term sustainability, which is what we feel is the main criteria for success for our work.

To find out more about the UK Space Agency and Inmarsat’s work via the IPP, click here.

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