Humanitarian Help Must Reach the Most Vulnerable Migrants - Not Just Those With Smartphones

A Syrian refugee shows his home town of Hama on his phone while enroute to Canada. © IOM/Muse Mohammed 2015
  Date: Tuesday, May 9, 2017
By Laura Walker McDonald, SIMLab

Humanitarian agencies now need to reach larger numbers of migrants, in more complex emergencies, than ever before. In much of the media coverage of these responses, social media, apps and web-enabled innovations are touted as possible solutions to these overwhelming needs. Mainstream and specialist sources both report on the use of social media in emergencies - for example, in the Philippines and Indonesia, where Twitter was reportedly used by communities to manage their responses to Typhoon Megi and the Mount Merapi volcano eruption. And the coverage includes the considerable volunteer and funding effort that has been channeled to these innovations (for example, by Techfugees, a new social enterprise set up to mobilize technologists to support refugees and migrants).


The increasing use of new communications technologies can harness the creativity of migrants and their communities, and their agency in achieving their goals and safeguarding themselves. The recently-released Guidelines to protect migrants in countries experiencing conflict or natural disaster (MICIC Guidelines) reinforce this theme. Communication plays a central role in empowering migrants to prepare for and manage crisis situations. However, the excessive focus on high-tech approaches risks excluding the most vulnerable, exacerbating disadvantage and potentially doing more harm than good.


At SIMLab, we help to identify and design inclusive systems and services for two-way communication and service provision, all over the world. Just as Guideline 6 of the MICIC Guidelines suggests, we typically use multiple, different communications channels, both high and low-tech, reflecting the diversity of the populations our partners serve.


We advocate that at least some of those channels must be deliberately inclusive, in the context in which they are deployed. For us, this means that they and the devices they require are low-cost to obtain and use; that they are easy to use, including for the elderly and those with disabilities; and ideally, already something that the target population use and trust on a daily basis. For example, we use data-light social networks and applications like WhatsApp, and simple mobile websites. But the same project might also use of older technologies like radio, community noticeboards, word of mouth through local organizations and trusted intermediaries, even loudhailers.


However, identifying these channels can be challenging, particularly when, as with migrant communities, groups are from different backgrounds, countries, incomes and literacy levels. SIMLab has authored a Context Analysis Framework to support our staff and partners to understand the communications context, providing the necessary groundwork to design an effective engagement strategy.


We identify five key lines of enquiry here:

  • People: Those targeted, directly or indirectly, by the potential intervention. Individual choices, opportunities and capacity, and often an individual’s role within their community, affect their access to information and technology.
  • Community: Characteristics shared by demographics and other groups which may impact levels of access to communications and their level of freedom.
  • Market environment: An understanding of the key actors, the mobile market, and the infrastructure are all critical to making good design decisions.
  • Political context: Who owns, controls and has access to communications channels in the context of the politics of the region. This can mean that people avoid certain communications technologies for fear of reprisals, or may associate particular channels or organizations (such as certain newspapers or broadcasters) with specific political, ideological, or religious groups or movements.
  • The implementing organization: The capacity of the organization using the technology - here, the private sector, non-profit, government or other organization - can be central to the success or failure of a service. For example, access to electricity or internet, and a culture of innovation and adaptive learning.


A granular understanding here is important. For example, the most popular messaging app for web-enabled phones varies from country to country and sometimes from one social group to another - and may change quickly. Interventions which only target WhatsApp, for example, may miss sections of their target audience who don’t use it. Projects must be watchful to respond to public responses to changes in terms of service, or rumors about surveillance - for example, many users moved away from WhatsApp when they were acquired by Facebook.


SIMLab’s principles require us to understand our operating environment, so that our work is sensitive to it, and designed for inclusion. We believe that to do otherwise, when you are providing vital information or services during an emergency, doesn’t just miss an opportunity to connect with someone - it withholds assistance and thereby, causes harm. For example, providing advice to migrants only via the web in a context where access to the internet is severely constrained would exclude those without smartphones, data plans or broadband. By contrast, in Sri Lanka, mobile telephones are being used to facilitate communication between migrants and consular authorities during emergencies, using SIM cards issued to migrants on arrival. Controlling distribution of the SIM cards means that the target audience is known to have the means to use this channel - although we may question whether every migrant has the capacity to do so, as some may lack the literacy or technical skills, physical ability or means of charging and buying airtime.


Those who set up tech-enabled communications channels must consider whether they are widening the digital divide between those with access to them and those without, and complement such channels by offering equivalent help for the most vulnerable through targeted, low-tech means. We acknowledge that low-tech engagement strategies will often be more expensive and time-consuming on a per capita basis - those most in need of support are often the most expensive to reach. But, we can’t think this way, as humanitarians. We argue that failing to include people who are hard to reach in services and systems causes them even greater hardship, and must be avoided by ethically-motivated governments, service providers and companies seeking to contribute solutions to human problems during the greatest movements of people since the Second World War.



Laura Walker McDonald


As the Chief Executive Officer of the Social Impact Lab Foundation, Laura supports organizations around the world to use mobile technology to transform their work. Drawing on her expertise in humanitarian aid, human rights law and international development, she brings a cross-disciplinary approach to communications, innovation and information management. Laura writes and speaks about SIMLab’s work, and mobile for social change more generally, contributing to technical resources and journals with understandings of good practice in applied mobile communications, with a particular focus on humanitarian aid, and quality and accountability. Before coming to SIMLab, Laura worked for the British Red Cross on international humanitarian policy and learning, focussed on quality and accountability, innovation, urbanisation, cash transfer programming and civil-military relations, as well as strategic planning. Laura holds an LL.B (Hons) in Law, French and German from the University of the West of England, Bristol, and an LL.M in International Development Law and Human Rights from Warwick University.