Telecoms cluster strategy emphasizes #commisaid but raises questions

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Antenna. Photo: Myxi on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo: Myxi on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In mid-2015 the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) published a strategy that outlines how it wants to support humanitarian response operations until 2020.

First and foremost, I think it’s good that the ETC has a vision at all. As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of the cluster approach (despite all its problems), but I also believe that too many of the global clusters are too reactive. Having a five-year strategy helps everyone working in this sector understand where the cluster sees itself and what it wants to achieve.

The ETC as a service provider for the telecoms industry?

Together with the Logistics Cluster, the ETCs role is slightly different from most clusters since it is a service cluster. That means it does not just facilitate the provision of services, but provides these services itself – at least that was the case so far. Now it seems like the ETC is planning to take a step back to “enable others to provide these services, with a focus on local organisations and service providers” which “will mean a significant shift from direct service provision to brokerage, enabling others to provide services and thereby increasing impact.”

To a degree that is understandable because the cluster is also planning to “expand communications solutions to governments and affected populations”, rather than just helping NGOs and UN staff to connect. Obviously, it is unrealistic for a cluster to provide connectivity for the government and affected population, but I’m concerned about this increase in scope. Call my jaded, but I’m worried that this could mean that the ETC becomes an extension of the Cisco and Ericsson sales teams and simply helps them get lucrative contracts in disaster affected countries.

I guess it remains to be seen whether, four years from now, the ETC has really been helping local organisations or service providers, or whether it just opened doors for international companies.

Communication as aid

On the positive side, the ETC strategy emphasizes repeatedly that providing information and communication to affected communities is essential.

“Within 24 hours of an official request, the ETC network will initiate the provision of communications services to the response community, to enable them to coordinate humanitarian response, digitally interact with affected communities and deploy platforms for digital aid.”

“[The ETC] will commit to facilitating the required technical infrastructure, but not the content and platforms, for communication with and among affected communities in the aftermath of emergencies, by facilitating links between service providers, governments, humanitarian actors and communities.”

This is relevant because it means that providing infrastructure for communication with communities (CwC) is no longer an afterthought – it is now a central part of the ETCs role. The ETC is even planning to add CwC “specialist expertise” at the global level. The increased priority of CwC can be important when deciding what gets done first in an emergency and CwC teams are now in a much better position to argue that their needs are addressed quickly. Of course, the ETC strategy also reiterates that they see the Cluster’s role less and less as a service provider and more and more as a facilitator, so it remains to be seen what this means in practice.

Preparedness

Another positive aspect of the strategy is that the ETC is putting a strong focus on disaster preparedness, including “a global inter-agency roster of traditional and new responders, with a focus on regional and local capacity in high-risk countries. Certified training will be created and regionalised, while materials and modules will be made accessible to the wider network through online courses.” Ideally this means capacity building at the national level so that networks would be both more resilient and could be fixed more easily in case of a disaster.

Overall I think that the strategy is a step in the right direction, particularly since it makes the needs of affected communities more central to the work of the ETC. But the change from service provider to facilitator worries me. I guess we need to see how it plays out.

What are your thoughts? Please leave them in the comments!

(h/t @densaer)

  • “but I’m worried that this could mean that the ETC becomes an extension of the Cisco and Ericsson sales teams and simply helps them get lucrative contracts in disaster affected countries.”

    That’s a very valid point right there and one that could be supported by the increased involvement of the large telecoms companies in a sometimes overbearing manner. Grabbing terrritory before another organisation becomes involved rather than cooperating and pooling assets seem to become the norm and so far it hasn’t been a shining example of public/private partnerships. But it’s early days so let’s be optimistic.

    The ETC extending their services to affected communities is an overdue move in my opinion as just providing connectivity to NGO’s leads to isolated silos of connectivity while the population still suffers from a comms blackout. In this age of SMEM and always on connectivity a lot of valuable data and intel is missed by not re-connecting the affected population. An approach whereby connectivity for NGO’s, government officials, grassroots volunteer groups *and* the local population are all given an equal importance will be much more effective.