28 Mar 2011

DIHAD 2011

Lady Amos,

Your Excellencies,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning.  It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates on behalf of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

It is his fervent hope that your discussions will be fruitful and help advance international efforts to reach those in need better than we do today.  The UAE is a young country, but we are deeply proud of our work in supporting the United Nations and the NGO community and we are among the few nations worldwide to exceed the UN target for official development aid.

We hope your insights this week will help guide us in making our aid more effective and meaningful for those less fortunate.

Five years ago, a World Food Programme staff member was sitting in a meeting in central London, when his phone buzzed with a text message.  It was not his wife, a colleague or his stock broker writing.  It was an enterprising Somali refugee in the Dadaab camp of Kenya who was tired of the chronic shortfalls in food in his camp and decided to text WFP with a plea for help.   

Needless to say, this little technological twist in communications came as a bit of a surprise, but there is a point in it. 

We are accustomed to using communications to talk to each other in the donor community and we are awfully surprised when someone we serve interferes in the conversation.  Yes, technological innovations can make aid far more efficient and less costly for donors, but the most critical issue is whether it works for the beneficiaries.  Every innovation in aid must be judged first and foremost on its impact on them -- not on its savings to donors or how clever it may make us sound in the press.   

Will the growing reach of technology helps us honor the repeated promises we have made to the world's poor and hungry?  There are exciting developments that now allow aid agencies to communicate and deliver services far more effectively than in the past both in humanitarian crises and development.   Advances in communications technology, for example, made it far easier for us to coordinate on the ground in the Haitian earthquake last year and even in the Indian Ocean tsunami.  

On the donor side, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has done much to use information technology to monitor and coordinate emergency aid, while in the field WFP has taken a strong lead in logistics and emergency telecommunications.  Our growing capacities to input data on the ground in real time and share it have strengthened the quality of crisis situation reports and operational planning significantly.   

If anything, our shortcomings in emergencies are no longer in the technology but in how we apply it.

There are now so many players in large scale crises like Pakistan's massive floods last year, that despite OCHA's best efforts, it is nearly impossible to track all their interventions -- the UN agencies, a host of national and international NGOs, and increasingly the military are all on the ground.

It is not that we lack the communications technology to coordinate these efforts -- we have failed to sort out the politics among the players.  At the same time, with the ever expanding number of actors on the ground there is a growing data glut -- too much information from too many sources arriving too fast.  This makes it very difficult to present an accurate and consistent picture of an unfolding emergency that is so critical in mobilizing aid.

The impact of new technologies on aid to the developing world is, of course, far broader than interventions in crises caused by war or natural disasters.   The record is improving, but there is a long and checkered history of western technologies being introduced with mixed success in development projects in other cultures.  As one aid worker once described it. "We fly in from Washington, Brussels or London and proudly deliver a new four wheel drive vehicle to a man who owns a cart and a donkey.  We explain all the maintenance requirements to him in a language he does not understand.  Then we go home."

Not all technology is appropriate and even the technology itself can sometimes be seen as a cultural intrusion.  Further complicating the picture is who has access to technology.  If you had to assign a gender to technology it would most certainly be male and in the developing world men have far greater access to it, whether you are talking about something as simple as a cell phone or a complex mainframe computer.  But our targets in humanitarian aid are far more likely directed at women and children who remain outside the circles of technology and market capitalism. That presents another significant challenge.

Nevertheless, technological advances in areas like health and agriculture have had a dramatically positive impact on the lives of the poor and hungry.  Childhood immunizations and efforts to eradicate polio and malaria and other tropical diseases are finally transforming life for families in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia.

While it has some detractors, the Green Revolution literally saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people in South Asia.  But you would be surprised how little is being invested in new agricultural interventions to help poor food deficit countries aside from a few innovators like the Gates Foundation. Despite the alarming global rise in cereals prices, agriculture remains a funding orphan. Out of the $22 billion that G8 donors promised at L'Aquila for agriculture after the 2008 food crisis, only $1 billion in new funds have actually materialized.

One area of progress is in food technology and Médecins Sans Frontières deserve a huge amount of credit for being the driving force behind this movement. Increasingly, a range of ready-to-use therapeutic foods are being introduced, not just in food crises, but to counter chronic malnutrition among young children.  The United Nations Children's Fund has spearheaded efforts to build factories to produce these foods in developing countries and WFP and a number of NGOs have begun promoting them as well.  This is such a critical area for development as the mental and physical damage caused by early malnutrition in children almost always becomes a scar that lasts for life.

Technology also presents new ways to transfer cash or food rations to beneficiaries through the use of coupons or vouchers, bank cards and even cell phones.  The potential for savings to donors is considerable.  But how well will these work on the ground?  There are potential pitfalls.

We have struggled with corruption in aid at every level -- family, community and national -- for decades and it undermines the willingness of donors to help, sometimes severely.  For a long time, in the case of food, major efforts have been made to give women control of food rations because less was diverted or sold and more food wound up on the family table.

Can those be sustained or will new technology undermine them? Given the social realities and lack of control in many developing countries, there will be challenges, especially in rural areas which have little infrastructure and higher levels of hunger and poverty.

I have touched on only a few areas where technology is changing the landscape of humanitarian aid.   In the aid community today, there are scores of UN agencies, governments, corporations and NGOs struggling to be seen as the one setting the pace, the true innovator.  That competition is probably very healthy and the prospects are genuinely exciting -- especially if we listen to the beneficiaries we serve.  As we reshape aid with new technology let's remember those beneficiaries.  After all, it is not about us, it's about them.

Thank you.