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Published: December 15, 2014

New technologies and data protection: are humanitarian organisations ready to face security threats of the 21st century?

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Anis Chouchane is a conflict management and international development professional focusing on humanitarian policy, peacebuilding and governance reform in Africa and the Middle East. Anis graduated from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he received his Master of Arts degree in international relations and international economics.


The Disaster Report 2013 published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies revealed how new technologies such as mobile phones and social media are helping victims of natural disasters and conflict cope and recover from emergencies. A rising number of donors, humanitarian agencies and governments are already using electronic vouchers or mobile money systems for humanitarian purposes. In fact, new technologies allow managing some of the risks that humanitarian personnel often face while transporting or distributing humanitarian goods and food supplies. However, and although these new technologies have the potential to enable aid organisations to deliver money and food to aid recipients with record efficiency and speed, potential risks around data protection remain a concern.

The success of electronic payment technologies during humanitarian emergencies has been demonstrated through various projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Niger and Sudan. Aid recipients were able to use their e-wallets to purchase commodities directly in local shops or withdraw their credit at any branchless bank or local trader. Even in countries such as Niger–which has low mobile phone penetration and high illiteracy rates–almost all participating households interviewed during the independent evaluation praised the effectiveness of the mobile money method.

The use of mobile money systems (MMS) by humanitarian agencies was piloted during the 2008 post-election emergency in Kenya. A service called M-PESA was launched to avoid the security dangers posed by the distribution of food aid. Having successfully implemented this project in one of the most remote parts of Kenya, humanitarian partners decided to replicate similar projects in other parts of Africa.

Nevertheless and as promising as the use of electronic payment technologies for humanitarian purposes seems, a joint study by Concern Worldwide, Oxford Policy Management (OPM) and the Partnership for Research in International Affairs and Development (PRIAD) highlighted that a number of NGOs had raised concerns regarding the risks associated with the storage of electronic data and sharing of confidential information. This is particularly worrying in in contexts where data can jeopardise the personal security of many people. Such is the case of Somalia and Zimbabwe, where during the joint monitoring phase of electronic cash transfer programs participating agencies were concerned about the repercussions if data were to ‘fall into the wrong hands’. In Zimbabwe some implementing partners felt that these data management concerns were neglected, and no further dialog had been established to discuss issues such as data security.

The increasing use of electronic data by the aid industry and growing fears about data protection emphasise the lack of clear rules for data management. In the years ahead, more will need to be done to appease fears around data protection. However, if rules and adequate security measures are established, no one can deny that technology will enable aid organisations to reach an even larger number of people in need.



World Vision Cash Transfer Project in Gihembe Refugee Camp, Rwanda, European Interagency Security Forum, October 2014, http://commstech-hub.eisf.helpful.ws/uploads/4/0/2/4/40242315/maereg_tafere_stuart_katkiwirize_esther_n._kamau_and_jules_nsabimana_mobile_money_systems_for_humanitarian_delivery_world_vision_cash_transfer_project_in_gihembe_refugee_camp_rwanda_eisf_october_2014_.pdf

A Principled Approach to Data Management: Lessons Learned from Medair’s Experience in Lebanon Using Last Mile Mobile Solutions, European Interagency Security Forum, October 2014, http://commstech-hub.eisf.helpful.ws/uploads/4/0/2/4/40242315/joel_kaiser_and_rob_fielding_a_principled_approach_to_data_management_lessons_learned_from_medairs_experience_in_lebanon_using_last_mile_mobile_solutions_eisf_october_2014.pdf

World Disasters Report 2013, The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2013, http://www.ifrc.org/PageFiles/134658/WDR%202013%20complete.pdf

New technologies in cash transfer programming and humanitarian assistance, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 54, May 2012, http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine/issue-54/new-technologies-in-cash-transfer-programming-and-humanitarian-assistance

New Technologies in Cash Transfer Programming and Humanitarian Assistance, The Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP), 2011, http://www.cashlearning.org/resources/library/272-new-technologies-in-cash-transfer-programming-and-humanitarian-assistance

Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS): Technology and Partnering for Social Innovation, ALNAP Innovations, November 2009, http://www.alnap.org/pool/files/innovationcasestudyno3-lmms.pdf

Mobile phone-based cash transfers: lessons from the Kenya emergency response, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 40, October 2008, http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine/issue-40/mobile-phone-based-cash-transfers-lessons-from-the-kenya-emergency-response

Background reading

Communications Technology and Humanitarian Delivery: Challenges and Opportunities for Security Risk Management, European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), October 2014, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/communications-technology-and-security-risk-management/ 

Tracking spending on cash transfer programming in a humanitarian context, Global Humanitarian Assistance, March 2012, http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/cash-transfer-financing-final.pdf

Cheaper, faster, better? Cash assistance in emergencies, Mercy Corps, November 2014, https://www.mercycorps.org/sites/default/files/MercyCorps_DRC_CashTransfersCaseStudy_November2014.pdf


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