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Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

ICTs are changing how marginalized communities connect with each other, including those in fragile refugee settings, where ICTs have been used to share information and organize in collective enterprise. This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, WhatsApp has taken on a critical health function. Holly Ritchie here discusses how Somali women refugees are using this platform particularly in this challenging time and discusses the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance.

Somali women Nairobi
Somali refugee women in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Holly Ritchie.

ICTs as fundamental ‘frugal’ innovations, and growing use during the pandemic

Information Communication Technology (ICTs), for example mobile devices and applications, are arguably the dominant technology of our time. From a consumer perspective, ICTs may be considered a form of ‘frugal’ innovation, as they present innovative, low-cost solutions to everyday problems that are flexible and accessible for users with limited resources. If used effectively, ICTs have been cited to be a major ‘game changer’ in human development, driving progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fostering potential gender equality and empowerment.

Beyond basic connectivity, there is increasing use of mobile technology in humanitarian assistance, for example enabling cash transfers through mobile money, and facilitating access to basic utilities including energy, water and sanitation. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, governments and agencies in Africa have started to draw on mobile phone apps for public information and support, for example the establishment of WhatsApp chatbot servicesYet there has been little discussion on the use of such technologies by vulnerable groups themselves that may present both simple and socially embedded frugal solutions which can be employed during the health crisis and beyond.

Insights into Somali women refugees and ICTs in Kenya

My research with Somali refugees (in Kenya) and Syrian women refugees (in Jordan) has explored gender and the influence of social norms in refugee livelihoods.1 More recently, I have looked at the grassroots use of ICTs by refugees, and links to cultural dynamics in refugee inclusion and integration. On the back of these studies, in 2018, I started a small self-funded project to promote the well-being and leadership skills of a group of 25 Somali refugee women2 in the turbulent but well-known economic hub of Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya.3 As a trial in digital communication, in the early stages of the project I set up a WhatsApp group to facilitate coordination, despite limited smartphone ownership amongst the refugee women.4 It emerged that it was eventually possible to reach all of the women in the group however through either children’s or neighbours’ devices. And whilst the women were largely illiterate, women used voice messages and pictures to communicate on the platform.

Initially conceived as a means of simple coordination, the WhatsApp group soon took on a new social dimension with some women sharing inspirational Islamic messages during special days. Later as the women began a small tie-dye business, progress and designs started to be shared on the platform. The experience of the online group has permitted both a renewed sense of personal confidence and connection in a hostile setting, and the development of new collective agency and economic coordination. At a deeper level, for women that have direct access to smart phones, the technology enables new forms of cultural solidarity between the women, reinforcing identities through sharing of religious messages.

Refugee ICT experience during the pandemic – from health to livelihoods

This year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the platform has taken on a critical health function, as vital health information, advice, and government directives are shared with the refugee group in English and Somali.5 This is further shared by the refugee women themselves with close family and friends, indicating the importance of refugee-own networks during a crisis. 
Beyond health information, the group has also provided a forum for situational updates and social support, as Eastleigh has faced rising levels of Covid-19 cases, and there have been increasing reports of police violence as malls have been forcibly closed and street trading prohibited. Working primarily as petty traders, the lockdown in Eastleigh has had a significant impact on the refugee women’s (safe) daily work and wages, and households are struggling to make ends meet. Whilst this remains an extraordinarily difficult time, the combined experience of digital communication and physical restrictions has accelerated refugee women’s interest in online business and marketing of their new textile products, particularly by younger group members.

Emerging lessons learnt – the evolving role of ICTs in refugee self-reliance

The refugee WhatsApp group has illuminated various ways that ICTs can boost refugee women’s self-reliance and resilience:

  • Simple ICT tools can be useful in local digital communication, including reaching poor and illiterate refugee groups (through voice messages/pictures)
  • ICT tools can permit vital social solidarity and economic coordination and online marketing
  • ICT tools can also facilitate the sharing of public health and security information, and the countering of fake/false news that is often distributed via social media or ‘on the streets’

In this fast-moving digital world, it is clear that ICTs are playing an increasingly important role in refugee socio-economic lives, although actual usage and adoption may vary at a local level, with differing levels of connectivity, support and access.6 Notably, ICTs can also be misused at a local level, with apps being employed to instigate unrest or violence. Further, there may be additional access barriers in refugee settings with clampdowns on connectivity imposed by local authorities.

Despite such challenges, in times of crisis, it is crucial for policy makers and aid agencies to recognize and draw on locally established ICT platforms and community groups to facilitate critical information dissemination, and local exchange and support. Over time, to better appreciate ICTs and gender in fragile contexts, aid groups should consider both physical access to mobile devices, but also links to social norms, cultural ideas (and ideology) and the role of local actors. This will permit a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of ICTs in refugee women’s empowerment, social protection, and broader integration.

1. Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.
2. With outreach of up to 100 refugee women.
3. Due to its high presence of Somali traders and concentration of Somali refugees, the district is also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’.
4. An estimated 40 percent of the refugee women had smartphones.
5. For example, health advice from the Ministry of Health in Somalia.
6. Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

This article was originally published by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA) and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Holly A Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

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COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

It is widely known that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect developing countries and impoverished peoples. Many of these countries are already affected by conflict and disasters including humanitarian crises, making the contexts even more fragile and complex and the threat of COVID-19 even more serious. Some approaches to fighting the coronavirus pandemic might not be feasible in these contexts where multiple crises intersect, argues Rodrigo Mena. The responses implemented in many countries are not sufficient to minimize impacts that include the potential loss of thousands of lives in vulnerable contexts; prevention and context-specific solutions that also address the root causes of humanitarian crises are needed now more than ever.

While many are waiting for the crisis to pass, we need to remember that hazards such as conflicts, earthquakes, or droughts do not take holidays during pandemic times. When they set in, governments will have to decide where to allocate the limited funds they have. Whereas many countries already have to make hard choices, hovering between strategies to prevent an economic recession and the prevention of the spread of the virus, countries with several pre-existing and ongoing crises, particularly those dependent on humanitarian aid, have even harder choices to make. When a disaster occurs together with COVID-19, will efforts be directed toward rebuilding the country or stopping the spread of the virus? And how will these countries deal with ongoing issues such as underdevelopment in general?

After four years researching disaster responses and humanitarian aid in conflict-affected places, I summarise here some considerations to take into account on why the general approach to COVID-19 might not be viable in many situations. Most recommendations can make things worse in traditional humanitarian crisis scenarios or places where the poorest and most vulnerable live. The places I studied faced disasters, conflict, and were generally underdeveloped, making them particularly vulnerable to any shock, including pandemics such as the COVID-19, and rendering governments incapable of responding effectively.

Refugee Camp, Bangladesh - COVID19

Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Rod Mena

Additional issues are multiple. Here are a few:

  1. Lack of access to water. With about 780 million people in the world without access to clean water (780 million!) and in places facing conflict, ‘access to safe water is often compromised; infrastructure is damaged or goes into decline, pipelines are in disrepair, and water collection is dangerous’, as presented by UNICEF. The advice to wash your hands regularly or use disinfectant might certainly not be feasible for many. In fact, aid actors are already struggling to deliver water in many places and an extra demand for it can exacerbate or be the source of new conflicts.
  2. Lack of space. As many have indicated, COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in the world, including those depending on humanitarian aid to survive. Social distancing might be impossible for the close to 30% of the world urban population living in slums, or for the close to 7 million living in refugee camps. And with more than 6% of the world’s employed population in the informal economy, the option to stay at home or quarantine looks unfeasible for many, let alone for those whose homes have been destroyed or left behind when they had to move because of disasters and conflict.
  3. Greater humanitarian need. In addition, less-developed countries and populations not being aided at the moment might also start needing support. For example, despite multiple difficulties in many refugee camps and crisis-affected areas, there is a system in place to support people in need, but people living out of those spaces might struggle as much or more with this pandemic. The humanitarian aid sector, thus, will face a greater number of people depending on external aid. How and whether the aid sector should assist people affected directly or indirectly by the coronavirus is still an open debate, not only in terms of the real capacities to do it beyond the funding, but also in terms of capacities to do it adequately and safely[1].
  4. Challenges to apply response strategies. A number of challenges can also impede the World Health Organization’s Test, Treat, Track strategy in places under high levels of conflict or facing humanitarian crises[2]:

Testing. If there is zero or reduced access to testing kits (and laboratories or medical personnel to run the tests), accurate figures on the number of deaths or infected people are obscured, making it difficult to plan how to provide relief.

Treating. When it comes to treating the most severely affected by COVID-19, the main procedure is connecting them to ventilators. A global shortage of ventilators is already apparent, and in least-developed countries, we need to add reduced access to reliable sources of electricity. In fact, close 20% of the world populations do not have access to electricity, and in low-income countries that can reach up to 60% —and yes, this includes hospitals that only have electricity via petrol or diesel generators.

Tracking. Then, when it comes to tracking the virus, we know that in places affected by conflict and disasters, many people are displaced or constantly on the move (there are 70.8 million displaced people worldwide, ranging from internally displaced persons to refugees and asylum seekers). Also, the demographics or databases of these places are not always reliable. This makes tracking very cumbersome or even impossible.

  1. Finally, the option to close borders or declare lockdowns might be detrimental in places affected by war or conflict, where many flee to safety or do not have access to goods and services to support their lives.

Vulnerability is created

These are far from all the concerns, but they are enough to show what is well known in disaster studies: that disasters are not natural but socially constructed, including the COVID-19 crisis, as a blog post from Ilan Kelman clearly shows. The pandemic that we have is much more the consequence of social and politically wrong decisions and lack of preparedness than the spreading rate or lethality of the virus. Particularly, a lack of preparedness or decision not to act based on the knowledge that we had (because multiple official reports indicated the probabilities of a pandemic like this and how to prevent it or mitigate its impacts), has greatly contributed to the severity of the crisis[3].

If we do not start thinking about how to prepare to COVID-19 in less-developed places with context-specific solutions, we will be repeating the story; we will keep choosing not to be prepared, which will keep on resulting in catastrophic impacts. If there is something that we have learnt from disasters in the past, it is that prevention is almost always better than responding. Not doing so, or expecting that measures as these reviewed above will work in the most vulnerable places, is to turn a blind eye and hope for the best.

[1] But now with a global economic recession and an aid system already with a 40% shortfall on the funds needed to assist everyone in need, as presented in the 2019 ‘Global Humanitarian Assistance Report’.
[2] And in many cases not even feasible in western countries like France or the United States.
[3] For instance, the ‘National Risk Profile 2016’ of the Netherlands indicated that ‘due to the possible destabilising impact, the main focus of the NRP [National Risk Profile] is on the risks of a large-scale outbreak of an infectious disease, such as a flu pandemic’. Similarly, in 2006, the United States developed the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza based on the risk of this event to occur (with the following update in 2017). Also, astonishingly, a report on global preparedness for health emergencies dated September 2019, issued by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, co-convened by World Health Organization and the World Bank, that ‘explores and identifies the most urgent needs and actions required to accelerate preparedness for health emergencies, focusing in particular on biological risks manifesting as epidemics and pandemics’, concludes that a global pandemic ‘would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared’.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

R. Mena (2019)About the author:

Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia.

Image Credits: Rod Mena