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Humanitarian aid is undergoing a big shift, transitioning from tents and water containers (which we still use and are still relevant) to artificial intelligence, big data, drones and biometrics.
Deploying emerging technologies in humanitarian aid is pertinent, impactful and needed, but has associated risks and challenges. And oftentimes, these risks and barriers make us believe technology is not the answer to scaling humanitarian aid.
We see study after study highlighting the negative impact of digital exclusion not just on the vulnerable but also on societies, economies and peace at large.
In tech and many other sectors, the question of scalability is ubiquitous. “How do we scale?” sits with us from the design phase of a new project or programme. In humanitarian work, this concept is not yet integrated as a matter of course, as high-touch interventions dealing with specific situations at the grassroots level have been essential to help address the various climate or conflict related humanitarian crises that this sector has experience dealing with.
But how can civil society most effectively address the increasingly frequent humanitarian disasters our world seems to be facing, as well as the high levels of vulnerability experienced by many in our own societies? We see study after study highlighting the negative impact of digital exclusion not just on the vulnerable but also on societies, economies and peace at large.
If we only look at global forced displacement, we notice it reached a new record high in 2021 (89.3 million, an 8% increase from 2020) according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By May 2022, the number of displaced people globally exceeded 100 million for the first time since records began. At least 12 million people from Ukraine have been displaced since the beginning of Russia’s illegal invasion of their country.
How then can we use the same technology that scales businesses globally to scale humanitarian and development work?
When a crisis happens, we see heartfelt support from governments, civil societies, businesses and other public figures: everyone coming together towards a common goal. The resulting impact happens at scale, as most of society contributes. But when the dust settles, civil society—often overworked, underpaid and burned out, but always dedicated—stays to keep the ship afloat. And this is when, more than ever, financing is needed to sustain the hard and dimmer work of longer-term integration and support, but at this stage funds do not pour in like waterfalls anymore; they seem to be leaking through broken pipes.
How then can we use the same technology that scales businesses globally to scale humanitarian and development work? How can we use it to the benefit of refugees, partners, volunteers and supporters? How can we decrease operational burdens and costs in civil society? How can we better prepare ourselves as humanitarian and development workers as well as those we support for the new future of work?
The answers seem to lie in multi-stakeholder collaboration: finding bridges between seemingly disparate concepts and tools, and in arranging them in a way that benefits humanity.
Jobs for Ukraine started in Romania with the support of the private sector: InnovX, the Romanian Commercial Bank’s accelerator; and Jobful, a Romanian human resources tech startup. With the help of a handful of volunteers, we turned the Jobful platform into a dedicated refugee employment platform in only four days, and in the first weeks of March 2022 we had facilitated employment (in production, tech, banking and beauty to name a few) for many of the displaced people across Romania.
The Jobs for Ukraine funding team (L-R: Ana Cretu, Roxana Popa, Mihai Cepoi, Iulia Dragut, Anca Luca).
Since then, over 100,000 people from over 50 countries have visited the platform. We now support 6,000 displaced people with guidance and access to fair and ethical employment, both remotely and on-site. Over 2000 employers offered jobs in 250 cities across 50 countries. All of this is possible thanks to digital technology.
We embedded human-focused design throughout the platform’s product development cycles, which means it was designed with humans sitting at the centre of the recruitment, onboarding and growth experiences. This approach has proven to be highly relevant for vulnerable populations. From easy onboarding to anonymised profiles and gamification mechanisms, refugees feel safer and more motivated to use it in their quest for employment, even in times of crisis.
More on the Forum Network: A Two-way Process: Towards a new and better environment for labour market integration of refugees by Fatih Yilmaz, Director of Partnerships & Projects, Beyond the Horizon ISSG
However, deploying untested technologies for vulnerable populations without appropriate care and consent can be harmful, even with the best intentions—so we started a nonprofit organisation, Project Voyager (Asociatia Proiect Voiajor). We built a team and began partnerships with organisations such as UNHCR, International Organization for Migration and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to connect relevant resources and expertise in areas such as livelihoods in emergencies, technology, education and entrepreneurship. We keep adapting the technologies we use to the needs of the people we serve, with special attention to refugee protection mechanisms. Our team’s offline actions, complementing technology where digital literacy is limited, have amplified the technology’s impact to provide safe and appropriate employment. Our platform allowed us to hire four displaced Ukrainians for our team.
Project Voyager's Anna Nahorna works with refugees to help them find employment.
Project Voyager has a hybrid human-digital workforce: we deploy technology consciously in most of our operations, including Robotic Process Automation for repetitive work, to ensure limited operational burden and increased agility. Our goal is to create a framework for better economic inclusion through access to employment, education and entrepreneurship opportunities that can be easily adapted to a variety of vulnerable populations and regions.
While we learn more about how to reconcile technology with humanitarian aid every day, we need to be very careful not to “design the inequities of our past into our digital futures”. And if we already did, let us collaborate to allow our digital tools and colleagues to become our partners in building more inclusive societies and economies.