From Digital Promise to Frontline Practice: New and Emerging Technologies in Humanitarian Action

Arendt-Cassetta, L.
Publication language
Date published
19 Apr 2021
Research, reports and studies
Development & humanitarian aid, COVID-19, Epidemics & pandemics, Funding and donors, Governance, Humanitarian Access, humanitarian action, Innovation

As humanitarian crises become increasingly complex and protracted, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has soared, from 78 million in 2015 to an unprecedented 235 million in 2021. Humanitarian funding requirements have grown accordingly, from US$16 billion to $35 billion over the same period according to the Global Humanitarian Overview released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In 2020, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic alone caused $9.5 billion in humanitarian funding needs.

New and emerging technologies can support this paradigm shift from reaction to anticipation by enabling earlier, faster and potentially more effective humanitarian action. Artificial intelligence can facilitate analysis and interpretation of vast and complex humanitarian datasets to improve projections and decision-making. Mobile applications, chatbots and social media can create immediate feedback loops with people affected by humanitarian crises. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remote sensing can speed up the assessment, mapping and monitoring of vulnerabilities. Digital cash can provide rapid and flexible assistance. And biometrics can help establish digital identity and reconnect families. Together these technologies can lead to better access to information, assistance and livelihoods, and facilitate stronger, more relevant needs analysis, a more prioritized and people-centred response, and more meaningful and systematic monitoring.

This study examines opportunities for solving technology-related problems across the humanitarian programme cycle, challenges posed by new and emerging technologies in humanitarian contexts, and enablers of technology in the humanitarian sector.