For UN, tech's help is no 'magic bullet' in humanitarian crises (Q&A)

Stephen O'Brien, the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, says tech can help fill the "massive humanitarian" need facing the world. But that's only a start.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
6 min read
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This story is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

When earthquakes crumble cities and tsunamis wreak havoc, Stephen O'Brien gets a call.

As chief of emergency relief for the United Nations for the past year, O'Brien's job is to scramble aid -- fast -- whenever a crisis hits.

That's why he knows that governments and aid groups can use all the help they can get when disaster strikes. The need for services, support and resources in all the humanitarian crises taking place around the world today is "eye-wateringly huge."

It's one of these crises that inspired this year's CNET Road Trip project. Called "Life, Disrupted," the series looks at conflicts in the Middle East that have led 1.1 million people to flee Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and seek shelter in Europe and other parts of the world. The goal: To find out how tech is helping with the refugee crisis, if at all.


Stephen O'Brien is the man in charge when the UN needs to send aid during a humanitarian crisis.

Mark Licea/CNET

CNET's reporters and photographers visited the anarchist Athens neighborhood of Exarchia in Greece and a refugee camp known as the "Jungle" in Calais, France. We spoke with aid groups in Australia about life in the secretive offshore detention practices for migrants and refugees. In the US, we spoke with refugees in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about how they're adjusting to their new lives.

O'Brien, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said there's no "magic bullet" to fix the "worst crisis of our time." But he believes tech is playing an increasingly important role in the UN's efforts to help people.

O'Brien described how an innovation hub played a central role in the last World Humanitarian Summit, which was held in Istanbul in May. He touted a demonstration of GPS and mapping software that would better help aid workers as an example of the tech the UN is fostering.

"People could communicate whether they had food needs or water needs, or need the ability to get somebody who's wounded evacuated to a necessary place of medical treatment," O'Brien said during a 30-minute interview at the UN in New York on August 9. "All that could be plugged in so you could be cutting down the time toward getting somebody who needs life-saving assistance."


UN delegates will convene here Monday to discuss the refugee crisis.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The UN will hold a summit devoted to refugees and migrants starting later Monday in New York, with President Barack Obama set to address the group on Tuesday. Last week, the UN High Commission for Refugees released a report that said internet access was just as important as food, water and shelter.

O'Brien, a former member of the UK parliament who was appointed by UN General Secretary Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in March 2015, spoke to CNET News Executive Editor Roger Cheng about the tech being used by aid workers, how phones are a lifeline for the displaced and how social media can spread word about the world's problems. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: What has been the impact of tech on those affected by ongoing war in Syria? Are people better off or worse off as a result of tech?

O'Brien: There's no question people are better off having access to speedy and live-time communications. It isn't just limited to communication.

It's actually the quality of the supplies for their life-saving needs. You need to have the ability to have food packs that are done in a way that can remain fresh and sealed for as long as possible in very hot temperatures, so that you preserve the food for as long as it takes you to get it to people in need.

What specific areas of tech and innovation is the UN looking at to possibly help with crises around the world?

The technology of being able to make sure that as people get in they can, despite the violence, make an assessment very quickly. They can get to the few remaining hospitals or clinics, and they can make an assessment about where there is very serious malnourishment.

They're immediately downloading all this information. This has been transmitted often through satellite technology, but also through communications technology, back to the base. Then we can start loading the trucks and get the appropriate amount of feedstock into the airplane, which airdrop [supplies.]

This is making sure that, instead of it taking weeks, you can do it in hours. This is a massive life-saving added value.

Watch this: A digital lifeline for refugees in Greece

Speak to the Syrian crisis in particular. I know you tweet about it. What role has tech played there?

There's a real advocacy job to be done in transmitting what those of us who can get into these countries and [are] able to see with our own eyes -- the terrible suffering that conflict and protracted crisis is occasioning. Then we can make sure that we can get that out to the wider world.

Should outfitting phones to people affected by the crisis be a priority for agencies looking to deliver aid?

It already is. We talk about supplying food, medicine, shelter, schooling, hygiene and all the other things that you are familiar with.

But the existing technologies are particularly important to make sure all that can happen. You have to go back a few years before some of this very easy mobile technology was so available.

What do you think of distributing funds through mobile phones? Is it a substitute or a complement to the normal distribution of aid like food and actual physical goods?

Sadly, the amount of humanitarian aid needed around the world today is just so eye-wateringly huge that it's big enough for every modality to be used. So yes, it is of course complementary.

It's part, if you like, of our armory of all the things that we need to use to make sure that we're trying to meet the needs wherever they arise, however they arise, and whenever. That is why, yes, absolutely we should be using all the technological tools at our disposal, and every modality.

But none is ever going to be the only single answer. There's no magic bullet to this.

Women are underrepresented in terms of access to technology. What is the UN doing in terms of ensuring there's more parity?

Part of that is you have to design that into your programming from day one.

There is 24 percent less ownership or usage of mobile by women than men. That is clearly a gender gap when we have a crisis that affects everybody equally.

Actually in a crisis, you make sure women demand help because they know the need. They're the experts in their own family's condition. They will take the prime burden and responsibility for their children's condition.

If you have the capacity of mobile telephony to get through then we will be bringing the right materials the first time.

How is the UN spurring innovation when it comes to humanitarian crisis aid?

At the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul recently, we featured new technology and an innovation hub.

The UN, (non-government organizations), private sector philanthropists, academia and above all the private sector were showing what they could do to complement so much of the efforts of the humanitarians in the public sector.


A UN report found that internet connectivity is just as important as basic needs like food and water.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One of things that was particularly interesting was a combination of data and GPS to give the ability for people to have maps, which are not only mapping the route, but also mapping the needs.

People could communicate whether they had food needs or water needs, or need the ability to get somebody who's wounded evacuated to a necessary place of medical treatment. All that could be plugged in so you could be cutting down the time toward getting somebody who needs life-saving assistance.

Or you could make a demand of a fighting faction that we need a safe route here.

How else can tech help with humanitarian aid efforts?

The supporting use of technology in humanitarian response and relief is now the new normal.

The one thing that I don't think that we really thought about associating with using technology is how it can help raise resources to support humanitarian need. When you look at the private sector and the investment world with crowdfunding, this is something where I think we have a long way to go.

A lot of us need to put a lot more speedy effort into trying to understand how technology can help complement the already strong and generous donations made by states through their donor agencies.

But clearly, given the exponential rise in the amount of humanitarian need around the world, it's not enough. And we're not looking as though it's going to be enough in the future.

Watch this: Wi-Fi in the Jungle of Calais