By Brendan Harvey, Executive Director, Help.NGO
What are a human being’s basic needs and how do you meet them? Humanitarians have asked themselves this question since Florence Nightingale served as a nurse during the Crimean war—considered by many to be the first instance of humanitarian action. For Nightingale, the central focus was on medical care. Yet as the scope of humanitarian operations expanded into the 20th century and the era of full-scale response began, the provision of key commodities like food, water, and shelter became the items people imagine when they think of humanitarian assistance.
Disaster relief in the digital age
As humanity has entered the digital age, a shift has occurred, with the Internet increasingly functioning as a kind of social nervous system, making it as important a commodity as any other. Today, communication not only between beneficiaries and their loved ones but also amongst responders is heavily mediated by Internet access. Without such access, communication in and out of a disaster area but also response coordination becomes incredibly difficult—if not impossible. The increasing reliance on the Internet for human interconnectedness is reflected in the demands and actions of beneficiaries themselves, to the extent that the UN has declared the Internet to be a human right in an addition made to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Humanitarians therefore must think about access to the Internet and connectivity as they do access to any other key commodity.
Wifi, then water
Help.NGO personnel have worked in disaster and emergency response internationally and domestically in the US for over a decade with this emphasis on connectivity in mind. More and more frequently our subject matter experts encounter beneficiaries prioritizing saving their mobile phones over other valuable items. Beneficiaries have even arrived at emergency assistance locations looking to charge their phone or get access to wi-fi before asking for water. For people separated from their family and familiar lives, connectivity is a lifeline. It is a way to communicate with loved ones, find information (perhaps even about the disaster itself), transfer money, and access educational and entertainment materials. This is increasingly the case as smart phones replace mobile phones globally.
No organization appreciates the importance of Internet access both for maintaining social ties in the wake of disaster and playing a central role in disaster response like the Internet Society Foundation. Through their RARE (Resiliency and Responding to Emergencies Program), they have provided generous funding not only to Help.NGO but other organizations working on projects which seek to help communities enhance preparedness and build Internet resiliency when faced with events like natural disasters or other emergencies.
Internet Society Foundation: supporting Help.NGO’s impact
Thanks to the Internet Society Foundation, Help.NGO has sought to intervene in a number of ways—whether establishing LTE points of presence in schools doubling as COVID shelters in Honduras, standing up secure Telecomms for emergency responders and coordination operations in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, or strategically prepositioning connectivity and drone mapping equipment in Barbados prior to the next storm season. All of this work would not have been possible without their ongoing support and their understanding and appreciation that the Internet plays in all of our lives and further, that everyone – no matter how precarious or desperate their situation – deserves connection.