GPS humanitarianism: Technology makes it easier to bring aid to war-torn countries—but harder to connect to people.

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Sept. 28 2011 6:11 AM

GPS Humanitarianism

Technology makes it easier to bring aid to war-torn countries—but harder to connect to people.

Somalia famine. Click image to expand.
Humanitarian programs are increasingly relying on GPS in places like Somalia

In the summer of 2007, Tim, a veteran U.N. humanitarian specialist, began a daunting new job: to help people caught in the mounting violence of Iraq.   But instead of moving to Iraq, he was dispatched to the dusty Jordanian capital, Amman, 500 miles away from Baghdad. From 2003-08, the U.N. highly restricted the Iraqi travel of any "nonessential" foreign national staff. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and these limitations prompted swift innovation in technologies that enabled remotely located U.N. employees to work in Iraq from afar.

Today in Somalia, as then in Iraq, high-intensity violence limits the ability of U.N. and international NGO workers to move around the country safely. Enter Skype and GPS, which have become critical tools for advancing humanitarian and development programs. Yet while technology ensures the safety of U.N. foreign national staff and allows aid to reach more people in need, it complicates the relationship between international workers and the locals contracted by these organizations to carry out fieldwork in war zones.

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Amman was once jokingly referred to among U.N. staffers as "Iraq west." Concerned about safety following the Canal Hotel bombing in August 2003 that killed U.N. Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others, the organization withdrew most of its staff. By October, it relocated the majority of its 600 foreign national employees to Amman, leaving behind a skeleton crew of fewer than 50 staff ensconced in International Zones in Baghdad (formerly the Green Zone), Basra, and Erbil. International NGOs followed the U.N. lead. This was not the first time the U.N. launched a campaign from a neighboring country: Various degrees of remoteness characterized operations in other high-conflict areas historically, as in the late 1990s when U.N. operations in southern Sudan were based in northern Kenya, or in Congo when U.N. staff lived in the country but worked remotely in certain zones. Today, Nairobi is the hub of humanitarian operations in Somalia.

In Jordan during the first five years of the Iraq war, U.N. administrators directed more than 4,000 Iraqi nationals—called "facilitators"—to implement projects on the ground. In Somalia now, as it was in Iraq then, it is the national "facilitators" who collect the data to populate housing-survey databases by talking with village residents and visiting schools, who use GPS to follow movements of the internally displaced as they flee erupting violence, and who dole out the blankets, water purifiers, and mattresses according to the Skype-communicated plans. Humanitarians I consulted for this story unanimously referred to Iraqi and Somali nationals as "the eyes and ears" of their operations. They alone can sit with newly homeless families to ask about their personal experience of flight, and they alone can convey to remote humanitarians the wrenching experience of life under fire. Technology facilitates remote management, but it is the human quality that national staffers bring to bear in the field that underwrites its effectiveness.

Using GPS means that humanitarians like Dana Graber Ladek, a former Iraq displacement specialist at the International Organization for Migration (a U.N.-affiliated NGO), can document specific needs, pinpoint them on a map, and disseminate this information broadly across agencies, thereby increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian operations overall.