Tag Archives: Innovation Fellow

Normalizing the data revolution

This article was written by Giulio Coppi, Innovation Fellow at the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University, and originally published by Tech’s Good, a new digital publication critically evaluating the social impact of technology.

Violations of humanitarian law and human rights, displacement, human trafficking, conflict, and the forces that drive such abuses pose some of the most critical justice issues of our time. Simultaneously, technology and data have never had a more important role to play in ending and responding to crisis.

“The data, I think, will save us on many levels,” said Ms. Atefeh Riazi, Chief Information and Technology Officer of the United Nations, to a group of humanitarian workers enrolled in Fordham University’s Data and Innovation Management in Humanitarian Action course this July in New York City.

This course brought together leading experts from humanitarian, technology and design sectors as part of a bigger effort to put data science at the center of humanitarian action. This and other initiatives — like the upcoming Summer School on Big Data at the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University or the opening of the new Centre for Humanitarian Data — are nothing short of a declaration of unified support for smarter and more ethical uses of data for social good.

The full exploitation of humanitarian data sources has the potential to improve the way crises are forecasted, monitored and addressed. Proper management of data could drastically increase the impact and timeliness of humanitarian assistance and protection activities, such as identifying the needs of affected populations or distributing life-saving resources. But the path ahead is rocky and complex.

Challenges in policycapacity and implementation are many and sometimes disheartening, considering the high stakes and potentially dangerous consequences. All this, however, should not come as a surprise.

Three years ago, while speaking in front of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination, Ban Ki-moon defined the “rapid access to reliable, comprehensive and accurate data” as a critical component to the activities of the United Nations and its partners.

Similarly, in 2014, while recognizing the important advancements made in this field, a report of the Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development published the report A World That Counts to highlight the gaps that hinder UN agencies from harnessing the full power of data.

In response to the report, Director of UNDP Human Development Report Office, Selim Jahan, urged the international community to “make sure that the coming revolution leads to the world having the right information, at the right time, to build accountability and make good decisions and so improve lives.”

Historically, however, revolutions that evolved into something lasting and stable did so in less than three years. An endless state of revolution can hardly be considered an ideal situation to aspire to, especially in the humanitarian sector.

Three years since the day the then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon drew his “ambitious and achievable mission” to leverage the Data Revolution to shape what we now call the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), humanitarians seem more worshipers of an abstract utopia, rather than victors of a revolution.

For many humanitarians, the tech world seems removed and disconnected from their own. Despite growing evidence, some still question that classic humanitarian activities like response coordination or ensuring protection of highly vulnerable populations could benefit from a more intensely data-based approach. Meanwhile, the humanitarian sector has yet to produce the policy, strategies and governance change that the data buzz has promised. Few organizations have truly embraced and incorporated data at the core of their programming or professional development activities. Even less have adopted or developed the adequate tools that would allow data (or Big Data) management to become daily routine.

The humanitarian sector, though, is hungry for projects centered on smart humanitarian data management. The frustration with the limited capacity for data-driven aid delivery is palpable. Those who are ready to evolve and take up the challenge to harness the power of data often feel their good intentions are ignored or downplayed because of institutional incapacity to adapt and internally innovate.

Moving forward, humanitarians, as community, need to tackle some core issues to truly progress in normalizing data-based humanitarianism. Potentially useful steps, though not exhaustive, include:

  1. Adopting data governance systems that can produce lasting and relevant change in internal organization management;
  2. Supporting a common language apparatus based on shared data strategies and protocols that can bridge the gap between data for humanitarian action and development (such as the HDX and HXL Standard);
  3. Ensuring that internal strategies consider Data and Innovationinterdependent;
  4. Advocating for more ethical data protection, responsibility, and management frameworks, and extending their application to public and private partners;
  5. Adopting Open Source and Open Data as mandatory approaches for all humanitarian data projects, allowing all humanitarians — but especially local actors — to access and own the most innovative tools for aid delivery and life-saving solutions;
  6. Developing shared corporate engagement strategies that can allow organic and structured innovation and cross-collaboration, beyond the current public-private partnership model.

In upcoming posts on the IIHA blog, I will further expand these points, also integrating the lessons learned on the way as we progress on new projects such as the HumanityX Summer School on Big Data for Peace and Justice hosted by the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, and the hosting of the Humanitarian Blockchain Summit on November 10, 2017.

Note: The ideas expressed in this piece are the result of personal and professional experiences as field manager, researcher and teacher, and they do not represent anything more than a proposal for discussion. Special thanks to Angela Wells and Jorn Poldermans for their valuable intellectual contribution in the development and edit process of this piece.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Innovation, Stories from the Field

Tackling the Complexity of the Yemeni Crisis

Learn more at our upcoming event at Fordham University.

New York City, April 10, 2017 – Two years after the onset of conflict in Yemen, the country is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Despite the two million Yemenis internally displaced, seven million at risk of famine and 18.8 million in need of humanitarian aid, less than 10 percent of the United Nations two billion dollar humanitarian appeal has been met by donor nations and nations party to the conflict have done little to cease hostilities.

Giulio Coppi, Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs Innovation Fellow, recently embarked on a fact-finding mission to Oman and Djibouti to study the impact of the crisis and subsequent forced migration in the region. He sat down with the IIHA Communications Officer, Angela Wells, to recount his findings.

What was the goal of your recent research trip on the Yemeni crisis?

This recent research trip led me to study the regional impact of the Yemeni crisis, with a special focus on migration and health. I traveled through Oman and Djibouti, meeting local actors and visiting refugee and migrant communities. I also tried – unsuccessfully – to enter Yemen to meet people and local organizations. I really focused on understanding what lies beneath the surface of the most banal crises in the current media landscape.

 

How would you explain the Yemeni crisis to someone unfamiliar with what lies beneath the surface of the crisis?

To an outsider with little background, Yemen could look like just another case of civil war due to bad governance and political instability, or maybe another country engulfed in sectarian and religious violence. The truth is much more complicated than that: Yemen is being intentionally strangled economically, militarily and politically by internal and international actors involved in a conflict with profound historical and geopolitical roots.

Yemen was recently listed as one of four of the most serious humanitarian crises of our time. Can you explain the situation provoking people to flee the country and the complexities humanitarian workers are dealing with within Yemen?

The inclusion of Yemen as one of four of the most serious humanitarian crises of our time comes right after its definition as a forgotten crisis. The country passed from oblivion to full spotlight in a matter of days. This is mostly due to the adoption by some organizations and UN agencies of the keyword “famine”, that immediately made it to the headlines.

Unfortunately, this leads to yet another oversimplification. It generates the false impression that all is needed is to fund agencies that deliver food. This action alone would be shortsighted and ineffective, as the situation requires a much bolder response. Humanitarians are faced with a daunting task: replacing the whole public and private sector that has been wiped away by sanctions, embargoes, violence, and corruption. Overstretched and exposed, humanitarians increase their risk of being perceived as non-neutral, or partial, and becoming a target for further violence.

We know that mixed migration flows to and from Yemen are very complex with migrants from the Horn of Africa fleeing to Yemen and Yemenis fleeing to the Horn. Can you explain this in more detail?

Due to its strategic position, Yemen has always been a crossroad of nations and people. The escalation of the conflict in 2015 resulted in a temporary suspension of the migratory movements of people from the Horn of Africa, most notably Ethiopia and Somalia, towards the Arab Gulf countries.

It is counterintuitive, but with the conflict, these figures have actually increased. Some migrants do not know about the conflict, but others actually hope the collapse of internal governance could facilitate their journey. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Saudi Arabia and Oman have sealed and militarized their borders, and militias control most areas of Yemen, who kidnap for ransom and often abuse migrants.

On the other side, Yemenis fleeing to the Horn of Africa has actually dwindled. I found that Yemenis prefer to seek asylum in countries more culturally similar and with more economic opportunities. Most of the refugees who sought safe haven in Djibouti tried to move on as quickly as possible, once they realized the hardship of living as a migrant in the country.

What is the reality for Yemenis fleeing to nearby countries like Djibouti and Oman?

 For most Yemenis arriving in Djibouti, one of the poorest countries in the world, they are really shocked at the conditions in the camps. Markazi camp, where they are hosted, is a camp in the middle of a desolate desert. The closest city, Obock, is a provincial town without markets or livelihood opportunities. Food and other goods arrive from the capital city from time to time, while many items are still being brought in from Yemen. In summer, the camp is swept by the khamsin (dust storms with wind speeds as high as forty miles an hour), and temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees endure these conditions in tents, huts or in containers with no electricity and really meager food provisions.

In Oman and Saudi Arabia, conditions are much better for those who manage to enter and stay. In contrast to Djibouti, which grants all Yemenis prima facie refugee status, Arab Gulf States are not parties to refugee treaties and only grant standard visas. While initially they made a display of generosity towards their neighbors, that attitude quickly changed as it became clear the conflict would not be a short one. Today, those under official visas – like medical or study visas – are granted the same services as local nationals. Those who are not so lucky face exclusion from any assistance, and a constant risk of deportation.

Where else are Yemenis seeking refuge and what are they experiencing in these reception countries?

Today, the majority of Yemenis are not hosted by their next door neighbors, but have rather continued on their journey to seek asylum in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, while some have been able to make their way to Europe or the United States. Yemen has a vast diaspora, and very often families have at least one member with a foreign citizenship allowing some refugees a chance of reunification with their community abroad, be it in Djibouti, Oman, Lebanon or Germany. Those who are able to join their communities abroad have a better chance for smooth integration and acceptance by local populations. However, coexistence isn’t always easy, especially when their expanded presence puts a strain on limited land and resources, which can destabilize local demographics and add further strain to existing public services.

Recently, a boat of Somali migrants was bombed 30 miles off the coast of Yemen by Saudi-backed forces. Do you see this as a worrying trend for the future or an isolated incident and why?

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident and I do not think it will be the last. The Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a vital commercial route, was already heavily militarized before the conflict and even more so today. Furthermore, this attack is representative of a worrying trend on the access of safe routes for forced migrants globally. We see around the world how increasingly innocent civilians trying to escape the perils of war are being directly and purposefully attacked in systemic and horrifying ways. This is not only in violation of international laws, but is a deeply worrying indication that humanitarian channels and national values for unfettered humanitarian access is more compromised than every before.

 Is there anything else you’d like to add?

In these times when all the attention is focused on Syria and the horrible tragedy in Syria, it is also important to remind everyone of the words of Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): “Yemen after five months looked like Syria after five years.”

The level and extent of the destruction in Yemen is unparalleled for intensity and impact. What is worse, very little efforts have been made by the UN Security Council to call for safe humanitarian access, cross-border protection, or cessation of hostilities in Yemen. It is about time the UN Security Council, and involved parties to the conflict, adopt a more proactive role to end this conflict, before Yemen and its population reach the point of no return.

Non-Fordham guests must register in advance for the upcoming event Tackling the Complexity of the Yemeni Crisis.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Fordham, Humanitarian Sector, Humanitarian Spotlight, Practitioner Profile, Stories from the Field