Mobile Network Operators on the Frontier of Disaster and Crisis Relief

With their soaring ubiquity and utility, mobile phones are revolutionizing disaster and crisis relief, as recent experiences have shown. From Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to Ebola in West Africa, we’ve seen mobile networks help provide critical financial services, information, and communication – in every stage of a crisis. And all signs point to this support expanding.

A few weeks ago GSMA spotlighted a growing collective of mobile network operators (MNOs) working together to aid those hit by crisis. The Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, an initiative launched by GSMA in 2015, aims to unite the industry under a set of principles for harnessing mobile technology to support people affected by humanitarian emergencies. GSMA recognized four new member MNOs that signed onto the Charter, joining more than 60 other MNOs from around the world. By signing the Charter, MNOs commit to a common set of principles designed to enhance coordination, standardize preparedness and response activities, and strengthen partnerships between industry, government, and humanitarian organizations.

The four new member MNOs are from Asia and have already demonstrated leadership in disaster and crisis relief. KDDI of Japan has a range of measures associated with ensuring network reliability during disasters, such as back-up communication modes for the dissemination of warnings and other critical information. NTT Docomo of Japan hosts a message board service that allows friends and family to check the safety and status of one another following major events. Korean Telecom (KT) leads an integrated emergency notification network system across South Korea, merging 21 emergency hotlines from 15 government agencies. KT is also breaking ground in using LTE-based drones in rescue operations where cars and other vehicles can’t go. SK Telecom, also of South Korea, created a system that allows simultaneous voice calls and data transmission by hundreds of people in the event of a natural disaster – without overloading specific base stations.

In the mobile money space, Africell, Airtel, and iDT Labs were recently awarded the UPS International Disaster Relief Award for their payment solution implemented in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. Africell and Airtel are two of the country’s most prominent MNOs. The system helped prevent the collapse of the country’s healthcare system by enabling payments for emergency workers. During the crisis, emergency workers transported the sick, cared for patients, traced the exposed, attended to the deceased, and provided security and coordination. Funding was available to compensate these individuals, but doing so was challenging because many workers lacked national ID cards and were not enrolled in the national payroll or public sector registration systems. The disbursement of funds was disorganized and ineffective communication led workers to go months without pay.

Partnering with Splash, a mobile payment service, and UNDP, the team developed a system that used mobile wallets, cloud computing, and open source information management systems to create the hazard payment solution. To reach all relevant emergency workers, Africell sent out mass SMS alerts to spread awareness about the payment drive, iDT Labs worked with local radio stations to broadcast announcements, and Splash using its agent network helped register workers who didn’t have registered phones. Beyond the Ebola crisis, the service helped generate greater awareness and acceptance of mobile payment in the country and made the government more receptive to using open source technology.

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Mercy Corps partnered with BPI Globe BanKO to provide mobile cash transfers to those most impacted. BanKO is a mobile-based, lower-income-focused bank that was founded by Bank of the Philippines Islands, Ayla Corporation, and Globe Telecom, a leading MNO. Beneficiaries were able to receive cash transfers electronically through their BanKO savings accounts and cash them out via partner establishment locations. The digitization of the process helped ensure security, transparency, and rapid deployment of the cash transfers. The initiative was also seen as an on-ramp opportunity for recipients to gain access to and use financial services.

Microfinance organizations, harnessing their reach and client relationships, are also taking part. During the Ebola crisis, BRAC and CARE offered health awareness communication through one-on-ones, group meetings, and street theater. Some BRAC staff also remained stationed at institutions to aid in prevention efforts and donated prevention supplies to ministries of health and sanitation. A day after Typhoon Haiyan, ASA Philippines sprang into action visiting clients door-to-door, issuing the necessary insurance benefits, and offering a rehabilitation advance loan. Affected borrowers were also given a moratorium of two months on their loans – which later could be extended depending on the situation on the ground. Additionally, ASA Philippines gave institution members solar lamps, mosquito nets, fishing boots, and medical missions were carried out in collaboration with other MFIs and local institutions in the country.

Clearly, there is an opportunity for many players to leverage unique capabilities in combatting natural disasters and crises.

For more, check out a new study from Deutsche Post DHL Group and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Combining Capabilities, which showcases the growing importance of public-private-partnerships in humanitarian action.

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