Visiting refugee “camps” is always a life changing experience.  In September my work with NetHope took me to the Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya. Over 200,000 refugees (mostly from Somalia) have lived in Dadaab camp since the early 1990’s.  In the last year, the camp size has grown to almost 500,000 refugees as the flight of Somalis to neighboring Kenya has accelerated due to the life threatening food crisis in the Horn of Africa. It is hard to think of these as “camps” because they are the middle of the desert, with no electricity and very limited clean water supply. There is almost nothing there that we would associate with a “camp.”

My reason for visiting the Dadaab camps was to find ways to improve communications capabilities for the NGOs working in the camps. With the exponential growth of the camps, the number of organizations providing assistance has increased and the number of humanitarian workers living and working in the camps has doubled. Until the summer of 2011, the only connectivity available to those working in Dadaab was expensive satellite connectivity with limited bandwidth available. Many of the organizations had 128-256 kbps satellite connections and the use of the bandwidth was strictly rationed.

In late spring 2011 the mobile network operators provided improved terrestrial based (i.e. near broadband) connectivity in the Dadaab area. Mobile phone users started leveraging 3G and GPRS connectivity through the mobile networks. At the same time, Safaricom — the biggest mobile network provider in Kenya — started offering WiMax based connections. This allowed the organizations working in Dadaab to not only get 5-10 times more bandwidth, but often this terrestrial bandwidth was at half the prices that they paid for satellite connectivity.

NetHope in collaboration with USAID, Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Inveneo, UNHCR and WFP is working with Kenyan internet providers Safaricom and Orange to increase the available bandwidth even more while at the same time ensure redundancy and reliability of the connections. During the first quarter of 2012, a shared connectivity infrastructure will be put in place in Dadaab, increasing the reliability even more and opening up the possibility to leverage technology further in the difficult work being done there.

Why is connectivity so important?  Why is the ability to communicate so essential to every aspect of humanitarian affairs?  For those that have spent time in the field, the answers are so obvious. For those on the outside, it is often hard to imagine a world without electricity, connectivity and the very basic tools that we have come to use in our every day life: a computer, a phone, a printer.  But what do these tools do for an aid worker in a place like Dadaab?

THE KNOWLEDGE WORKER — The role of the humanitarian worker, just like the role of large portions of employees worldwide, has become one of a knowledge worker. Computers and mobile phones have become an essential tool for humanitarian workers, just like they have for knowledge workers all over the world. Humanitarian workers who manage programs need to be able to share information with other implementers, gather information from others and report information to donors. It is impossible to quantify the impact of slow or no connectivity, but it does take away an essential part of any knowledge workers tool set.

SECURITY — In a location like Dadaab, where the security situation is very fluid, good connectivity also means that more timely security information is shared. This flow of information saves lives.

NEW APPLICATIONS — When connectivity is poor and bandwidth is limited, then it is impossible to leverage solutions that enable better collaboration between humanitarian organizations. Technologies and solutions such as voice-over IP (VOIP), video conferencing, mobile banking or distance learning are not even considered as part of the toolset when connectivity is poor. These new technologies, which not only enable better collaboration, but also enhance the effectiveness of the humanitarian workers, become a possibility with improved connectivity.

FIELD PROGRAMS — Humanitarian workers are not the only winners when it comes to improved connectivity.  There is a wealth of data that shows that connected communities in the developing world have much higher rates of GDP growth than those that are not connected.  Developing world communities that have access to cheap and plentiful bandwidth have made huge gains in the areas of economic development, health services, education and even governance.

MORALE — Finally there is a benefit that is often overlooked and that is the effect that improved connectivity has on staff morale. Places like Dadaab are very isolated and the mental health of humanitarian staff is improved when they have the ability to communicate with their families and friends on evenings and weekends. The availability of increased and more reliable bandwidth can enable staff to have video calls via Skype with their families, something I myself have experienced as a boost in morale during my own disaster missions and business travel, not only for me, but also for my own family members.

Advancements in technologies are making connectivity much more affordable and accessible.  We at NetHope are inspired to help:

  • Improve access to the tools that knowledge workers all over the world have come to use in their every day life
  • Make for a more secure working environment for international development staff
  • Enable field programs that use the latest information and communications technologies in the areas of economic development, health, education, agriculture and more
  • Support international development staff and their families in their every day lives

— Gisli Olafsson, NetHope Global Program Director, Emergency Response

Published December 28th 2011 at Nethope