(Review) WDR 2013: Technology and the future of humanitarian action

World Disaster Report 2013. Photo: IFRC/ Benoit Matsha-Carpentier

World Disaster Report 2013. Photo: IFRC/Benoit Matsha-Carpentier

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) recently published the annual World Disasters Report (WDR). This year, the title is: “Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action”. Here is what I think about it.

Let me start of by saying, that your opinion of the report will probably depend on your background. If the use of technology in disasters interests you, then you will mainly find things that you have already read elsewhere (with some notable exception). This is not surprising since many of the authors are the same people who have written similar documents for other organisations in the past.

However, the WDR is also an advocacy document within the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement that serves to raise issues with senior management in National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worldwide. For the most part, these are older men who aren’t actively looking for information on non-profit technology so it is at least partly written with them in mind, which can be useful if you have similar managers in your own organization.

The good:

  • Community based approach

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is community based at heart and I like that the report gives a lot of space to the perspective of disaster affected communities and how they can use technology to serve their own needs. While other reports like the HINA talk about these possibilities as well, the WDR feels less academic and more grounded to me. I also really like that the WDR explicitly links this approach to the Sphere core standard for people-centered humanitarian response, which can be an interesting way to convince senior management to make resources available.

  • Focus not only on new media

There is a whole section that focuses on and gives examples how new/social media can be combined with traditional media, while acknowledging that even in technological advanced countries like Japan or cities like New York, certain members of the population don’t have access to these new information channels. These are often the most vulnerable people and we have an obligation to reach them through channels that are appropriate, rather than chasing the newest gadget.

  • Many examples – not only from Haiti

The examples and case studies are what I find most interesting about this WDR, particularly since there are many examples that are not about Haiti. At the end of 2013 I find it far more interesting to read about how the Red Cross used SMS to warn people about Cholera in Sierra Leone, or how WFP is using it in Northern Kenya, then to read for them umpteenths time about how it was done in Haiti. While I try to follow new developments in the sector as much as possible, I still found a number of examples that were completely new to me. That was fun!

  • Looking at potential risks

I really enjoyed the chapter on the potential risks of technological innovation, since this is frequently overlooked when discussing humanitarian information and communication technologies. The risks that are being discussed in this context are not only about physical and security risks (though the chapter gives examples of these as well), but also related to accountability and transparency.

The bad:

  • Repetitive

To me it feels like the IFRC couldn’t decide whether the WDR was supposed to be one report with seven chapters or seven individual reports. As a result, some parts are very repetitive. While this is obviously not an issue if you pick and choose individual chapters, it is quite annoying when you read the report cover to cover.

  • Still too much Haiti

While I mentioned above that I really enjoyed the many new examples, I was still a bit disappointed by how prominent the Haiti experiences still are. This varied a lot from chapter to chapter and I can’t shake the feeling that some authors made an effort to find new examples, while others simply rewrote articles they had published previously.

  • A really unfortunate example

It’s ironic that one of the authors warns about dual use technologies and the fact that providers of military technology try to fly a humanitarian flag – only for another author to fall for this exact ploy: in the report Palantir is simply described as “a private company that works with large (…) datasets in the business and academic arena, including health care, insurance and other commercial enterprises” (p. 173), while no mention is made of the fact that a substantial part of Palantir’s work is for the military and intelligence community. Palantir describes part of their mission themselves as: “arm the warfighter with the intelligence to make better decisions under the harshest conditions”. Ouch. I’m not saying that makes Palantir’s technology bad, but I think we as humanitarians should stay clear of them and I find it very problematic if a reference like this makes it unchecked and uncommented into a report like the WDR. I understand how these things can slip into a newspaper report, but it shouldn’t happen in one of the flagship publications of a leading humanitarian organization.

You can download the World Disasters Report in English, French, Spanish and Arabic here: http://worlddisastersreport.org/