During the famine in northern Ethiopia in the 1980s, governments and humanitarian agencies from around the world poured food into the region at great expense. Despite their efforts, which were hampered by a civil war in Ethiopia, 400,000 people died.
Compounding the tragedy was the fact that southern Ethiopia had surplus food that never made it north. “In every major disaster, the resources needed to respond may be available locally, but because of the inability to communicate accurate needs and offers of resources, needed items such as food are often shipped halfway across the world at high costs,” says Gisli Olafsson, a humanitarian advisor to NetHope, an organization that connects nonprofit organizations with technology innovators.
Today, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and public and private sector entities have the ability not only to track aid but also to determine the best way to deliver it to conflict zones and fragile states.
For example, the World Food Programme (WFP), the largest humanitarian agency in the world, delivers over 3 million metric tons of food annually, which feeds about one-tenth of the hungry people in the world, as reported in the WFP’s 2015 annual report. As was the case in Ethiopia, however, supply isn’t always the issue. Sometimes there’s plenty of food available locally, but people can’t afford to pay for it. Aid may also become fodder for the black market rather than food for children.
To improve access to food and other nutritional needs, the WFP started using electronic vouchers and digital cash several years ago. Since then, the WFP reports, it has distributed more than US$1 billion in aid through digital means to those in need. It’s part of an effort by humanitarian organizations and governments to reinvent aid delivery in the digital economy.
The need for change is indisputable. Despite government and private humanitarian contributions that totaled $28 billion in 2015, as reported by Reuters, 25 million people still need assistance, according to a February 2016 United Nations report, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. Organizations involved in aid delivery are responding by using technology to help locate those in need faster, zero in on their specific need, speed delivery, and reduce losses from corruption and thievery.
“Technology is driving new means of delivering humanitarian aid in ways we could never before achieve. It’s amplifying what the world can do,” says Olafsson. Innovations in aid delivery are also part of achieving the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals initiative, which includes ending poverty, feeding the hungry, and fighting diseases.
Before people can receive even the most basic human services, they first must be identified—yet many in this world have not been. For example, Unicef reports that the births of nearly 230 million children under the age of five have not been officially recorded. Without an identity, these children are invisible, excluded from basic human rights, such as healthcare, social benefits, and education, as well as from humanitarian aid that could save their lives.
Electronic identification solutions are now being used by governments and humanitarian organizations to help change the situation. For instance, several years ago, India launched an initiative to provide each citizen with a national identity number. The government has now issued more than 1.2 billion Aadhaar cards (covering more than 80% of the country’s population), which establish a unique 12-digit number for every Indian adult, child, and infant, according to a government report. The Aadhaar, which includes demographic and biometric information, provides a universal identity infrastructure that can be used by any identity-based application, such as banking, mobile, government, and other needed services.
Identification cards are a powerful way of demonstrating to people that there are benefits to being a part of the formal economy.