How Can Technology Best Assist Refugees?
Posted By On February 8, 2018

Refugee assistance is a global concern. Here in Asia and the Pacific, challenges persist from Afghanistan to Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. Conflict relating to refugees simmers and occasionally boils over.

Encouragingly, over the past few years there has been an escalation in initiatives to explore technological solutions to improve the lives and livelihoods of refugees around the world. Here is a snapshot of some notable initiatives, including the media coverage they have received:

Supporting information and services

Last year, The Atlantic explored several apps for refugees. The cross section of apps selected represented some of the priority challenges in providing refugee assistance. These included apps to help refugees establish legal identities in new countries as well as track down families and loved ones, provide chat rooms to facilitate translated advice and information sharing, and connect refugees with essential services. The article also highlights a low-cost / high-impact initiative to provide internet access to asylum centers.

Promoting collaboration

Techfugees is a rapidly growing initiative to promote collaboration in support of technological solutions to assist refugees. In their own words, Techfugees, established in 2015, is “a non-profit coordinating the international tech community’s response to the needs of refugees. It exists to empower the displaced with technology. Techfugees organises conferences, workshops, hackathons and meetups in around the world in an effort to generate tech solutions for and with refugees. It also curates and promotes the best projects it finds for partnerships & implementation in the field.”

Their website is well worth a visit—and highlights both the volunteer and non-political bent of this community as well as different local projects. These include Chatterbox, a language tutoring platform delivered by refugees and  Women Refugee Fellowships.

Promoting more efficient and less fraud-prone aid provision

A couple of months ago, The Economist focused on fraud in development assistance. As part of this reporting, it also gave a shout out to Techfugees. The connection was that Techfugees is engaged in discussions with the World Food Program (WFP) on promoting biometric identity cards for refugees, which should, in theory, reduce fraud in assistance.

Blockchain is another application of technology aimed at reducing fraud and improving efficiency in the provision of refugee assistance. Once again, the World Food Program has been actively involved. The WFP Innovation Accelerator supported the Building Blocks project, which, as noted by the Huffington Postaims to make cash-based transactions between the WFP and the beneficiary faster, cheaper and more secure.” It does this by avoiding third party financial assistance providers. Building Blocks was first trialled in Pakistan and was then tested and implemented at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

Readers of the POPS Blog might remember our blog post on Blockchain that referenced how Aid:Tech has, in similar fashion to Building Blocks, implemented Blockchain technology in support of refugee assistance in Lebanon.

Notes of caution

As always, there are words of caution in engaging around technology in support of those most in need. One example is a blog post from an Afghan man who, at the time of writing, was seeking asylum in Belgium. His blog highlights both the need to define problem-based solutions with beneficiaries themselves and also that simple solutions can sometimes be best. He neatly sums up his argument in the blog title: “How about we stop building apps for refugees and top up their phones?” And the title of an article in The Economist, likewise, is clear in its endorsement: “Phones are now indispensable for Refugees.”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has itself has questioned the merits of many technology-focused initiatives aimed at support refugees and has asked, “Is Your App the Best Way to Help Refugees?” Their critique is of the many well-intentioned technology products that simply do not work, are not sufficiently managed and developed, or are not human-centric in design—and therefore do not ultimately address the most critical needs of the refugees themselves.

And how about Blockchain and digital identity cards for refugees? ICTworks has raised concerns about just such an initiative intended to support Rohingya refugees.

In summary, the challenges and opportunities in exploring technological solutions that assist refugees resemble those of other technological innovations. The difference is that while we like to embrace failure in the tech world, the human stakes riding on success of these particular solutions are so much higher.



Image credit: Steve Gumaer

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