As millions of refugees turn to WhatsApp for advice–and as drones start delivering medical packages—aid providers are no longer asking whether technology can help their projects. Now the question is: How quickly can we get tech solutions up and running?
At the recent Humanitarian ICT Forum, held at Google headquarters, close to 200 leaders from USAID, its implementing partners, and the UN joined forces with tech visionaries from Silicon Valley companies—including Facebook and Amazon—to discuss this rapid shift. Over two days, the Forum aimed to address challenges that are emerging as technology moves from the sidelines to center stage in development projects—and to provide guidance to the wider aid community.
On a panel with the UNHCR’s Head of Innovation, GSMA’s Head of Disaster Response, and the Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation, Souktel’s Senior Business Development Manager Ben Donahue spoke about a key piece of the broader puzzle: Closing the gender gap in access to technology. While mobile phone penetration is growing across Africa, Asia and the Americas, women are often least likely to have access to cell phones.
“The global development community understands the ‘mobile revolution’, and the role that digital tech can play in project delivery,” Donahue noted. “Now we need to move past generalizations, to focus on how individual communities–and specifically the most vulnerable populations in these communities—face barriers to access.”
He added: “In the countries we serve, most women who use cell phones share them with others, or use phones that are owned by a male family member. So privacy and safety become key considerations. We work to build technology that addresses these challenges—for example, platforms that empower women to access content securely, on a device that may not be their own.”
For close to a decade, Donahue explained, Souktel has partnered with development implementers to launch digital services designed by women, for women: In Morocco, together with MSI, Souktel rolled out a first-ever labor market information service for women. In parallel, working with Palestinian women’s associations, Souktel has developed platforms that link female community leaders with training content and support.
Looking ahead, partnerships between aid implementers and tech providers will likely play a growing role in bridging the gender divide—and in tackling broader development challenges. In her keynote remarks at the forum, UN-OCHA’s Director of Corporate Programs Gwi-Yeop Son called directly for more collaboration between the technology and development communities: “We can only achieve the change we need by harnessing your expertise and knowledge, your tools and innovation,” she said, addressing forum host Google and its peers. “We need you to work on this journey together with us.”