The technology sector in the Philippines is booming and locals have found work with aid agencies after typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Photograph: Rolex Dela Pena/EPA
Before typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013, Joel* was a freelance social media content manager, designing and maintaining Facebook pages for US clients. One of a legion of digital labourers in developing countries, Joel secured his international clients by undercutting competitors and charging a paltry $5-7 per hour.
But then typhoon Haiyan came and dealt death and destruction, wiping out his livelihood. His town lost electricity for a month, and access to the internet for three months. By the time Joel logged on to the jobs portal that linked him to clients, his page was full of negative reviews. Clients were oblivious to the fact that he was at ground zero of the strongest typhoon ever recorded.
Typhoon Haiyan decimated whole communities in the Philippines and left more than 7,350 people dead or missing. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Joel struggled to rebuild his living amidst the devastation. With his online experience, he secured a temporary contract to work on communications and accountability for an international aid agency, setting up a mobile hotline and monitoring feedback coming in from disaster-affected communities.
Thankful for the income and filled with idealistic zeal, Joel set about making himself indispensable to his employers. But he was quickly confronted by the harsh realities of life as a techie in a disaster zone.
Digital sweatshops in disaster zones
Humanitarian technologies promise to give a voice to disaster-affected people in developing countries. But leading a new research project, supported by the British Council Newton Fund, I’ve found that practice often falls short of the promise.
Disaster-affected areas are becoming testing grounds for innovations such as crisis mapping and drone-assisted aid delivery, piloted by private firms that work in collaboration with humanitarian agencies.
While these new technologies are embraced by aid organisations competing for donor funding, implementation depends on people like Joel.
Local aid workers in technology and communications form part of the growing wave of digital sweatshops, a virtual assembly line of workers recruited to perform repetitive, automated tasks on short-term contracts. Some are part of the disaster-affected population, the very people humanitarian technologies promise to empower.
Interviews with many of these workers revealed that innovations exported to disaster zones for beta testing are not always tailored to the needs of beneficiary communities. Instead, they tend to be buzzword-driven projects that will impress in a competitive, donor-driven field.
“When money [goes] from donors to an organisation, it comes with a fixed set of conditions as to how the money should be spent,” Joel says. “You can’t change it, because you’re accountable to the donors. And unfortunately, the reality is, we are now more donor-centred than people-centred.”
Local workers involved in technology initiatives feel money is often wasted on vanity projects because it attracts donors in the competitive humanitarian sector. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Michael was another technology officer who was recruited to help an aid agency ride donor funding waves – in this case there were funding opportunities for projects that demonstrated “hazard mapping” and “community engagement”. So Michael was asked to set up a new digital mapping platform that plotted out affected people’s feedback on a map. While the project was given six months to spend all its funding, it was beset by bugs and only fully operational for two months. Ultimately, it was not turned over to local government or the affected community, and fell out of use.
“Addressing a community’s most pressing concerns for food or water does not require mapping software. We could have just used Excel, why did we need a new platform?” he says.
Emotionally draining short-term contracts
When testing ends, so does employment for local workers, who are discarded in the same way as the technology they have been hired to pilot.
Tech and comms at the local level often means doing emotionally demanding work in a disaster context. Managing a mobile hotline as part of his accountability work, Joel was inundated with emotional cries for food and shelter.
Day and night he fielded text messages, calls, and face-to-face appeals from locals filled with frustration and disappointment at the disaster response. “After a while they all sounded the same,” he says.
He escalated the feedback to his superiors with a list of proposed solutions, but was surprised when it was merely filed away.
“I felt impotent,” he says. “I had all this information and ideas on how to do things … unfortunately, nothing happens.”
Interviews following the relief operation brought to light clear hierarchies. Accountability and communications are seen as peripheral, low-status work, an add-on to vital priorities such as food and shelter.
Charisse, an accountability officer who piloted a feedback hotline for displaced people in the process of return and resettlement in Nigeria, supports these findings. “The issue is relevance. You always need to justify yourself,” she says, adding that she has had to coach programme personnel on how to use accountability data to their advantage in donor reports.
“You always have to be charming in accountability and comms. Otherwise you become everyone’s enemy,” she says. “If you’re always the enemy, you might be discredited or have your budget taken away.”
Technology and communications are often seen as second class to priorities such as food and shelter. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Let’s start listening to local aid workers
So, as thoughtful and critical practitioners of humanitarian work, what can we do?
First, we need to become aware of and challenge the mindset of aid agencies that see technology work as incidental. At a global level, leaders rush to find new innovations to justify their existence within the organisation. Meanwhile, local workers bear the brunt of the frustration and stress of temporary, project-based aid work.
Then we need to ask tough questions. How can we reframe our view of accountability to give voice to local aid workers and better support the populations of disaster-affected areas?
How do we integrate tech better into humanitarian work – and into the lives of the very communities it purports to uplift?
If we can approach technology with the virtue of compassion, which is at the very heart of humanitarian work, we can begin to be fair to the people who are bringing innovation to the field every day. Then we can better serve the places that need help most.
Jonathan Corpus Ong first conducted research on the Haiyan response for the Humanitarian Technologies Project and the listening project Obliged to Be Grateful. He currently convenes the Newton Fund Tech4Dev Network, co-hosted by the University of Leicester and De La Salle University Philippines. You can follow him @jonathan_c_ong
Additional reporting by Pamela Combinido and Deepa Paul.
*All names in this article have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.