|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Economic and Social Council
2012 Substantive Session
36th & 37th Meetings (AM & PM)
Economic and Social Council Panel on Evidence-Based, Timely Humanitarian Decision-
Making Spotlights ‘Enormous Potential’ of Facebook, Twitter, Cell Phone Data
Council Also Holds Special Event on Inter-Agency Standing
Committee Initiative to Bolster Effectiveness of Humanitarian System
Reaching people most in need during complex crises — sparked by conflict, extreme weather or natural disaster — required humanitarian actors to better use, validate and share information from a range of sources throughout the programming cycle, the Economic and Social Council heard today during a dynamic panel discussion on improving the capacities of evidence-based humanitarian decision-making.
Moderated by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, the panel examined how humanitarian needs were being detected and how capacities — particularly at the national level – could be improved to better inform the snap decisions made as an emergency unfolds. To most effectively align resources and relief efforts with people’s needs, humanitarian policies were increasingly based on evidence gathered at every stage of an operation. How could Governments, the United Nations and other humanitarian actors better use that evidence to coordinate their work?
Providing context in opening remarks, Council Vice-President Fernando Arias ( Spain) said that, in preparedness efforts, Governments and humanitarian organizations alike needed data so that locations of key services, such as health and water, could be quickly identified. During a crisis, needs constantly changed and allocating resources effectively required that information about those needs be regularly recorded and validated. “Unless we understand the scope and type of humanitarian needs as rapidly and accurately as possible, how else can we muster the resources, including operational capacities, required to address them?”
Tackling those questions, panellist Patrick Meier, Director of Social Innovation of the Computing Research Institute of the Qatar Foundation, said new technologies were providing information that could be turned into evidence for decision-making. Crowdsourcing had been used during the political crisis in Libya. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had activated a Standby Volunteer Taskforce to create a live crisis map, sourced from social media (Twitter and Facebook) and other Internet sites, which was then combed for relevant information.
“Crowdseeding”, he said, was a similar technology that had been tested in the Kivu regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “What we need to do now is work together to help distribute this information across the rest of the humanitarian sector”, he said. The UN Global Pulse — an initiative devoted to the use of new data technologies — the Humanitarian Affairs Office and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) were working to put those platforms to work on the ground.
For their part, Governments must be willing to accept open governance and open data, said panellist Samuel Losuron Poghisio, Minister of Information and Communication of Kenya. Often, data was collected but hard to find, as it was stored in many different formats and locations and must be brought to a central place to be used. The Kenya Open Data Initiative, launched last year, had done just that, making it easier to track everything from malaria, to education, to poverty in order to better channel funds.
Among the users of the open public data was Eduweb, he added, which mapped education facilities around the country, and County Score Card, which rated districts according to the quality of their general services. Companies also were using it and now helping in emergency situations. “Open data is not only about creating efficiency, it’s about increasing transparency and accountability,” he said. “This is where Governments have fear.”
Agreeing, panellist Hans Rosling, Chairman of the Board of the Gapminder Foundation, said “database hugging disorder” made people cling to data as they would their toothbrush. This was understandable, but Governments, organizations and individuals must make bolder decisions, as Kenya had done. The absence of cell phone coverage was probably the best indicator of poverty around the world today. He also sounded the alarm that the United Nations did not have an official definition of a developing country. “This is important when dealing with emergency situations,” he said. “We must have an underlying understanding of the differences within countries.”
In the debate that followed, representatives from Governments and United Nations agencies alike agreed on the need to base humanitarian decisions — in both preparedness and response — on evidence, and that a shared understanding of humanitarian needs was essential. Differences surfaced, however, on what constituted evidence.
Syria’s delegate said that YouTube and other social networking sites could not be used when taking decisions about humanitarian assistance, and asked panellists whether Facebook and other such sites had the credibility to help humanitarian actors take decisions. “How can we be sure [the data] has the necessary credibility and hasn’t been manipulated?” she asked. On that point, Haiti’s delegate asked whether it would be better to strengthen the State bodies so they could shoulder their responsibilities, especially for sharing information.
In his response, Mr. Rosling agreed that social media was not verified. However, in a situation when there was no access to other data, “you need to act on it, but carefully”. It was much like “triangulating”, or using data along with other sources, and treating them as a “shade of grey” instead of as black or white. “The more data is used, the better it tends to become,” he added.
Mr. Meier added that journalists were becoming more sophisticated in triangulating data from new technologies; it was the type of verification that they had done for many years, just using new platforms. In addition, people left “digital crumbs” from their online use, which could be explored in search of extremist tendencies and other indications of data falsification.
In the afternoon during a special event, panellists provided an update on efforts by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee — the key strategic coordination mechanism among major humanitarian actors — to make the system more effective.
Ms. Amos said the Standing Committee’s Transformative Agenda aimed to meet that goal through better leadership, accountability and coordination. Within 48 hours of a crisis, the body’s key members — the heads of United Nations humanitarian and development-related entities or their representatives, along with “standing invitees” such as representatives of Oxfam, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Care International — would meet to discuss the situation.
An emergency humanitarian coordinator would be deployed in the first 72 hours of a level 3 emergency. The agenda also set out guidelines for cluster operations and a mechanism to monitor “how we are doing against a plan we had set”. Principals had already conducted a simulation exercise, which it would repeat on an annual basis. “It’s an ambitious agenda, but it is doable,” she said.
Francis George Nazario, Acting Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the United Nations, said his Government was rolling out the Transformative Agenda. Indeed, there should be better coordination at every level of operations, as well as systematic collaboration. Other humanitarian tools, such as pooled funds, were also important, as they could empower non-governmental organizations. In a complex situation, the challenge was to indentify priorities in order to best allocate resources.
The Economic and Social Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. to continue and conclude its humanitarian affairs segment.
The Economic and Social Council today continued the humanitarian affairs segment of its 2012 substantive session, and held a panel discussion on “Improving capacities for evidence-based humanitarian decision-making”. It was to be followed by another discussion updating Council members on the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s efforts to make the humanitarian system more effective.
For their work today, delegates had before them the Secretary-General’s report on Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations (document A/67/89-E-2012/77), and a note verbale (document E/2012/85) from the Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations, addressed to the Secretary-General’s Executive Office. (For more information, see Press Release ECOSOC/6538 of 18 July.)
Also on the table was a draft resolution of the same name (document E/2012/L.11), submitted by Council Vice-President Fernando Arias ( Spain), on the basis of informal consultations. The text, among other things, would have the Council express grave concern at the increase in the number of people affected by humanitarian emergencies, including those associated with natural hazards and, at the increased impact of natural disasters.
The Council would also express its deep concern at the increasing challenges facing Member States and the United Nations humanitarian response capacity in the wake of such disasters and emergencies. The Council would, therefore, urge Member States to assess their progress in strengthening preparedness levels for humanitarian response, with a view to increasing efforts to develop, update and strengthen disaster preparedness and risk reduction measures at all levels, in accordance with the Hyogo Framework for Action. Action is expected on the draft resolution tomorrow, the last day of the humanitarian affairs segment.
Panel: Improving Capacities for Evidence-Based Humanitarian Decision-Making
Moderated by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, the panel featured presentations by Samuel Losuron Poghisio, Minister of Information and Communication of Kenya; Hans Rosling, Chairman of the Board of the Gapminder Foundation; and Patrick Meier, Director of Social Innovation of the Computing Research Institute of the Qatar Foundation.
Opening the meeting, Council Vice-President FERNANDO ARIAS ( Spain) said, “Unless we understand the scope and type of humanitarian needs as rapidly and accurately as possible, how else can we muster the resources, including operational capacities, required to address these needs?” Today’s panel would look into what could be done to strengthen capacities to generate humanitarian evidence at the national, regional and international levels. During a humanitarian crisis, needs were continuously changing and to allocate resources effectively, information about those needs must be recorded and validated regularly.
In her remarks, Ms. AMOS said evidence-based decision-making was a topic of concern, as there were big questions about who owned data, whether it would be used in a negative way. In framing those questions, she hoped today’s panel would provoke debate. The aim was to understand how to strengthen the base for such decision-making, especially about whom, what and when to assist. She challenged the panel to recommend ways to enhance information and data platforms to improve evidence-based decision-making. The growing number and diversity of humanitarian actors was a challenge not only in terms of context around the world, but also of ensuring that “we’re engaging in a more inclusive way”.
By way of example, she said that, during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, more than 250 international and national non-governmental organizations were on the ground within 14 days. In the immediate aftermath of that disaster, one e-mail per minute arrived in the central United Nations inbox. But, that wealth of information had “relatively little” impact on humanitarian decision-making and funding. Giving another example, she said that last year, the Libya Crisis Map — coordinated by the United Nations — had brought together Google and volunteers to gather information from Facebook, Twitter and mainstream media. The initiative provided a “critical glimpse” into what was ongoing in the country. But the unverified nature of information limited its use in humanitarian decision-making.
Similar things were happening in Syria, she said, explaining that once again, in the wake of crisis, there was no way to verify facts, which made consistent and timely information-sharing all the more important to ensuring appropriate decisions could be made. National and local government had a key role in building community resilience, but only if they had the information they needed.
Kicking off the panel, Mr. POGHISIO said Governments must be willing to accept open governance and open data. To do that, they must overcome fears to ensure data is useful. Discussing the issue in the context of the Kenya Open Data Initiative, he said Governments collected and published a lot of information, but often data was hard to find. Kenya had collected huge amounts of data but it was sitting in “silos”. It was stored in many different formats and locations and must be brought to a central place to be of use. Citing ways that open data could be used, he said that in Kenya, open data had made it easier to find malaria-affected areas and channel resources to them.
One of the biggest achievements was the Constituency Development Fund, which channelled resources to districts needing money. By looking at areas with the highest poverty rates, the Government could see which ones needed more social work. “Open data is not only about creating efficiency, it’s about increasing transparency and accountability”, he said. “This is where Governments have fear, especially about how information would be used”. Open data allowed Governments to identify areas where emergency response systems should be concentrated and where they were most needed.
Open data also had been used for the Constituency Development Fund predictive allocations and accountability, channelling money directly to families unable to meet their needs. In one prominent example, he said Kenyans had raised more than $7 million to help other Kenyans affected by the 2011 drought. Social media also had been used to raise money, another first. Among the users of open data was Eduweb, which mapped education facilities around the country, and County Score Card, which rated districts according to the quality of their general services. Finally, Kenya had used information and communications technology to serve the rest of the world, he said, noting that the project under way in Haiti referenced by Ms. Amos was a Kenyan-led initiative.
Asked by Ms. Amos how Kenya had overcome the fear in relation to transparency and accountability, and how data might be used, Mr. Poghisio said that with the President’s support, Ministers had to listen. “We sought support from the very top. You need political will to make this work”.
Speaking next, Mr. ROSLING said decision-making was not the “clever people” in the Swedish Government. “It’s the voters, so I have to convince the broad public.” Gapminder provided national data, gathered from the United Nations and the World Bank, to the public and used animated graphics to demonstrate how economic trends had changed over the years. The difficulty had been in actually getting data from the organizations — it had taken eight years. At the time, the World Bank was selling the data. When his organization received the data, it created animated graphics to show, for example, how family sizes had diminished over the years. That shift had not been understood. Some war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had larger family sizes.
Today, few people understood that Syria today was similar to France in the 1960s, having made the best progress on Millennium Development Goals 4 (child health) and 5 (maternal health), along with Egypt. Showing animated graphics for the relationship between income and child mortality, he said: “money is good for child health”. In 1961, for example, Sweden had among the lowest child mortality rates in the world. But today, the world was completely different. He also sounded the alarm that at the United Nations, there was no official definition of a developing country. “We should not wait for a new world war to define it,” he declared. “This is important when dealing with emergency situations. We must have an underlying understanding of the differences within countries.”
He said humanitarian actors must be allowed to use data sets in innovative ways to communicate with local groups. Citing an example from Haiti, some data had shown that, after the earthquake, people had left Port-au-Prince for four major provinces: Ouset; Sud; Artibonite; and Grand Anse. However, tracking subscriber identification module (SIM) card data from cellular phones did not correspond; it had shown that people had gone generally to where they used to celebrate Christmas. There was enormous potential to use cell phone data. In their analysis, those who had gathered that data had thanked the cell phone companies — not thank the United Nations.
“This is a serious disease”, he warned, stressing that “database hugging disorder” made people cling to data as they would their toothbrush. It was understandable, but they must make bolder decisions, as Kenya had done. The absence of cell phone coverage was probably the best indicator of poverty around the world today. He cited global ignorance as one of the biggest challenges to overcome. “The public thinks things are as they were 25 years ago.”
Mr. MEIER said that new technologies were providing information that could be turned into evidence for decision-making. One of those — crowdsourcing — had been used during the recent political crisis in Libya. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had activated a network — the Standby Volunteer Taskforce — to create a sort of live crisis map, sourced from social media (Twitter and Facebook) and other sites, which was then combed for relevant information. Other organizations had also benefitted from that map, namely the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian organizations. That type of collaboration was truly unprecedented, he said. In the case of Libya, crowdsourced information had been filtered in order to reduce the “signal-to—noise ratio”, leading to more awareness of the issues on the ground and to better decision-making.
Another example of a similar technology was “crowdseeding”, which had been tested in the Kivu regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Representatives from a number of villages were provided with cell phones and trained to report security incidences. “This was a tremendously successful project”, he said, noting the large amounts of data that were culled from it. In addition, he mentioned a third example, namely, one that combined crowdsourcing with “data mining”, or the automatic monitoring of data for particular themes. In Syria, that combination had been successfully used to monitor such incidences as human rights abuses, deaths and attacks.
“What we need to do now is work together to help distribute this information across the rest of the humanitarian sector”, he said of those sophisticated technologies. The “UN Global Pulse” — an initiative devoted to the innovative use of new data technologies — along with colleagues at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), were working to put those platforms to work on the ground. One good model to follow, in that vein, was the American Red Cross, which was combining new technologies with work done by digital volunteers. Another group, the “Digital Humanitarian Network”, was taking the Red Cross model and moving it beyond the United States, he said, adding that its interface could help to spread the technologies more widely.
His organization, the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), was looking for ways to extract information from the social media space, adding “another dial to the humanitarian dashboard”. QCRI was also working to create semi-automated methods to verify information collected from crowdseeding, he said. Yet another use of crowdsourcing was to create platforms for local self-organization, or a sort of “Match.com” for humanitarian assistance, connecting local resources to local needs.
As the floor was opened to questions and comments, a representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) described the concrete operational challenges that hampered data collection on the ground. Decisions were made on the ground based on a number of elements, he said; most importantly, assistance was provided based on needs assessments and on what had worked best in past emergencies. Cross-sectoral analyses of available data were essential, he said, as information could not be assessed in “silos”.
He said that UNICEF was investing heavily in its “results for equity” system and was working to strengthen its results-based management. It was paying attention to bottlenecks and to ensuring that programmes were contributing to desired outcomes. In that respect, an even higher frequency monitoring on a smaller set of indicators was needed, focusing on essential services for affected people.
Many other speakers agreed on the need to base humanitarian decisions — in both preparedness and response — on evidence, and that a shared understanding of humanitarian needs was essential. The representative of Sweden stressed the need for a reduction in the “cost per beneficiary”, adding that more transparent information sharing, particularly among Governments, could improve the humanitarian response. More could also be done to harness innovative solutions, he said, in particular, to empower the recipients of humanitarian aid.
The representative of Algeria, echoing other speakers, also asked the panellists to elaborate on the issue of indicators within the context of humanitarian needs.
In addition to those questions, the panel heard from a number of comments that had been sent in from people following the session on Facebook. Those included, in particular, concerns that new technologies were “too expensive”, and that Governments and universities should work to expand coverage and access to them, especially during crises.
On the issue of indicators, Mr. POGHISIO responded that they must be standardized and used to provide early warnings in humanitarian situations. He also responded to the question on coverage and access, saying that governments should bring down the cost of data use and mobile phone calls. The Kenyan Government was already acting on that idea, he said.
Mr. ROSLING said that the main problem was that many places still did not have data coverage. Texting was extremely cheap, and cell phone companies should not use text costs to subsidize phone calls. An open data platform was needed, as were the censuses needed to build it. While countries were judged on macro-level performance for Millennium Development Goals, they really needed to be judged on the micro level. “Don’t have any illusions about coverage in the world’s poorest places — they don’t even have electricity,” he stressed.
“The cell phone isn’t going to be the silver bullet everywhere and every time,” agreed Mr. MEIER. More investments in cell phone and social media coverage were needed. However, if that information was available, its uses should be explored.
Among other questions addressed to the panellists, the representative of the European Union delegation asked what incentives were needed for Governments and organizations to share and manage information in a more collaborative way. The representative of Switzerland raised the question of data’s usability, asking, “How do we know that data is good data?” Other speakers, including several contributing via Facebook, also wondered about the verification of data — namely about ways to trace it for political independence and impartiality.
Taking the floor, the representative of Syria said that YouTube and other social networking sites could not be used when taking decisions about humanitarian assistance. She asked Ms. Amos and the other panellists whether Facebook and other such sites had the credibility to help humanitarian actors take decisions. “How can we be sure [the data] has the necessary credibility and hasn’t been manipulated?” she asked in that regard.
One panellist had used Syria as a case study, she recalled, but the project’s health-related data had been provided by Syrian activists living in the United States, and was not accurate. In addition, she wondered about information provided at the regional level, which was culled from various Governments. Did humanitarian actors work only on the basis of such information, or did they seek data elsewhere?
The Syrian Government had provided much information to the United Nations system throughout the current crisis, she continued. The undocumented data emerging from Facebook contradicted such documented, verifiable data. Indeed, after 16 months, Syria had seen how information was being used by media to fabricate false information, such as allegations about the death of a French journalist, who had supposedly been killed by the Syrian Government.
Mr. ROSLING agreed that social media was not verified. However, in a situation when there was no access to other data, “you need to act on it, but carefully”. It was much like “triangulating”, or using data along with other sources, and treating them as a “shade of grey” instead of as black or white. “The more data is used, the better it tends to become”, he added in that respect. Turning to indicators, he said that, in complex emergencies, it was “how you collect that data” that showed which data were the best to use. One indicator alone should never be taken as a gold standard.
Mr. MEIER added that open data was not necessarily good data, and it was not always a solution. It could have security implications in some cases. However, “information in humanitarian situations is perishable”, he said, stressing the need to make decisions quickly based on the information available. Professional journalists, however, were becoming more and more sophisticated in triangulating data from new technologies; it was the type of verification that they had done for many years, just using new platforms. In addition, people left “digital crumbs” from their online use, which could be explored in search of extremist tendencies and other indications of data falsification. Responding to the Syrian representative in particular, he said that the Syria tracker project used many sources of information and was careful to use information from multiple political points of view.
Taking the floor, PAUL KOKUBO, Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya ICT Board, said that data came in from various sources. Development experts should consider whether the world would be converging around certain standards in data, he said. One observation was that humanitarian organizations did not have the same standards of transparency as Governments, he said, urging the creation of a standard for how such data was released and shared.
Technology entrepreneurs must also be encouraged to extend their services, as they had the necessary expertise and know-how to do so. “The work to create digital literacy is greater than we think it is”, he added, stressing that media professionals sometimes did not know how to appropriately interpret digital data. Such training needed to be extended across the wider community at large. Citizen inclusion was an imperative, even in issues of humanitarian support, he said. Moreover, crowdsourced data, when transposed onto other sources, created “very interesting new dimensions” of information on any number of issues.
In the next round of questions and comments, Council members welcomed the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ efforts to ensure that information management was strengthened and that findings were fed back into the humanitarian programming cycle. In many cases, the issue was not a lack of reliable data, some said, but rather that humanitarian actors did not make use of the information. Some delegates asked for ideas on how to overcome the obstacles limiting access to data and how lessons could be better integrated into programming cycles.
Some speakers outlined national efforts that had been effective in emergency situations, with many saying that openness and transparency was the way for Governments to go. By way of example, Italy’s delegate said that, during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Italy had been the first to systematically use text messages to reach Italian nationals in Thailand for feedback. That had been a great success. She asked whether data-sharing could influence — or orient — political decisions on the basis of evidence suggesting that some decisions should not be taken.
Other speakers pressed the United Nations to do more, including Norway’s delegate, who wondered what the Organization would do to ensure that priorities were strengthened, based on reliable data. How would it ensure that data was increasingly shared with local decision makers? On a related point, Estonia’s delegate said it was surprisingly difficult to find basic information at the United Nations, noting that she had spent half a day searching for someone’s phone number.
One question, which had come in from a Twitter feed, asked whether anyone had done a “do no harm” analysis of open data, particularly for social media used in complex humanitarian emergencies.
Responding, Mr. MEIER said that the digital humanitarian network required humanitarian organizations to be transparent about who they were and prove that they would use the data provided to make an impact on the ground. The digital operations centre launched by the American Red Cross responded to studies that had shown that 80 per cent of people expected that organization to respond to a crisis. In terms of partnerships with the private sector, he said dealing with Twitter’s terms of service was a challenge, but Twitter wanted to work with the humanitarian community.
To other questions, he said that access to the live map in Syria was only for recognized humanitarian organizations. But he called attention to the risk that repressive regimes, for example, and others would eventually start cracking that humanitarian technology, which was an important issue to tackle now.
As for a “do no harm” analysis of the use of social media in crises, he said his group was partnering with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was working with Oxfam and others to update data security standards. The reality today was that volunteers were helping the United Nations and codes of conduct must be developed to ensure that “we do no harm”. Innovation usually advanced before regulation could catch up, but efforts must be made to ensure that regulation did not stifle the innovation.
Next, Mr. ROSLING urged Governments to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. Swedes, for example, were not good at handling earthquakes. Sending them to earthquake zones was not a good idea so the Government stopped doing that and started focusing on its strengths: mobile phone techniques. On data sharing, he said that one way to ensure that it worked was to make people pay for it. That installed a culture of sharing.
The skill and speed with which information technology skills were being developed, especially in Kenya, was amazing. In that context, he also thanked Estonia for creating Skype. On Latin America, he said some countries had the same national authority for geography and for public statistics, which was a great idea, as it made information sharing much easier.
Mr. POGHISIO said that, before Kenya had decided to create an open data platform, it had to invest in converting paper into digital data. Without that, it would not have made the bold decision to share its information with the world. The data was now being used by the private sector. “We are working as a team”, he said, adding that companies were now helping in emergency situations in Kenya. Accountability must begin with Governments. IBM would soon move to Kenya to improve technology. Kenya also was building an “Internet city” outside Nairobi. “We are opening so the world can see us better.”
In the third round of questions and comments, delegates asked about how to ensure that data was comparable, and the role of donors in that work. Other questions centred on how countries’ social and cultural contexts factored into Government decisions on dealing with crises and creating a needed cultural awareness in humanitarian decision-making. Still others focused on how innovative approaches could address the constraints of doing research in very difficult environments.
On that point, Haiti’s representative said the informal nature of social media increased the risks that its information was mistaken or false. He asked whether it would be better to strengthen the capacities of State bodies so they could shoulder their responsibilities, especially for sharing information.
Australia’s delegate wondered how Governments ensured that the right decisions had been made in cases where social media had been used. She also asked how local non-governmental organizations had used Government information to better respond to disasters.
On the other side of the coin, the representative of the Russian Federation asked how humanitarian organizations could provide Governments with reliable information so they could make responsible decisions.
The panellists then responded and made brief closing comments. Mr. POGHISIO said that, before open data was available, initiatives such as the fight against polio in Kenya took a very long time. Open data had led to even more innovation, he said, and technology was growing. “The political decision that we made as a country has paid off”, he said in that regard, urging other States to also embrace open data for development. In addition, the initiative had brought the public and private sectors much closer together, he said.
Mr. ROSLING said that the United Nations Statistics Division was working to standardize data. Rough estimated were needed in the short term in the national level, but then subnational level data was also needed. With regard to research, he agreed that research was indeed difficult. Data could be provided freely; however, “academia is very bad at accepting this research which doesn’t meet their standards”, which hampered efforts. Social media could help in places where United Nations monitors were not allowed to come and verify data, he said. “I would hesitate as a Government official to make [financial decisions] based on social media, but I would act on social media”, he added, suggesting, finally, that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs could become the “open-media activist for the worst-off countries”.
“I would rather know about a rumour right away … than be surprised three hours later that it was true”, said Mr. MEIER of data gleaned from social networking sites. In terms of the evidence base, there was little information available on what worked in the humanitarian space, in part due to lack of funding. With regards to Haiti, he clarified that Health Map did not broadcast that information; it had been part of a retroactive study, which was then used to identify Haitians who were on Twitter talking about symptoms of cholera.
Those who had a social media comparative advantage could work with State institutions, he said in that respect. The private sector was developing sophisticated ways to monitor social media, because they were concerned about their brand image; humanitarian actors could harness some of that expertise. Amazing examples existed “where the future is already here”, and it was now time to help distribute those innovations and to “keep learning”.
Ms. AMOS closed the session by summarizing some of the key issues emerging from the discussion. She ended with one comment from a Facebook user, who had commented that information and communications technology could transform livelihoods and enhance agriculture processes. New technologies were not limited to humanitarian use, but could also address the links between the humanitarian sector, development and resilience-building.
Special Event on Work of Inter-Agency Standing Committee
In the afternoon, the Council’s special event to update members on the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s efforts to make the humanitarian system more effective featured panellists: Francis George Nazario, Acting Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the United Nations; Martin Mogwanja, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund; and Joel Charny, Vice-President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice, InterAction.
It was chaired by Fernando Arias ( Spain), Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, and moderated by Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
Mr. ARIAS explained that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee was a global humanitarian forum established by a resolution of the General Assembly. It was comprised of the main operational relief agencies from the United Nations, international components of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and international non-governmental organizations.
Ms. AMOS introduced key messages from the Standing Committee’s Transformative Agenda — an agreed set of recommendations aimed at making the humanitarian response system more efficient and effective. When she assumed the current post in 2010, the humanitarian response community was responding to disasters in Haiti and Pakistan. Feedback from the field had made it clear that humanitarian actors needed to strive more to improve effectiveness, accountability and leadership. The Standing Committee’s principals embarked on an effort to consider ways of improving responses to major crises.
Under the Transformative Agenda, an ad hoc Principals meeting would take place within 48 hours of the onset of a crisis, she explained, adding also that an emergency humanitarian coordinator would be deployed in the first 72 hours of a level 3 emergency. The Agenda also set out guidelines for cluster operations and a mechanism to monitor “how we are doing against a plan we had set”.
The Standing Committee principals had already conducted a simulation exercise and would repeat such similar training projects on an annual basis. “It’s an ambitious agenda, but it is doable,” she said. For its part, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was seeking to improve its work of inter-cluster coordination and information management, she added.
Mr. NAZARIO, speaking on behalf of the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs of South Sudan, described the situation there. The country had just marked the first anniversary of its independence and had recommitted itself to do better in every endeavour. Achieving independence and moving to statehood was not easy. The country was in an extremely low economic situation. About 80 per cent of its people still lived with less than one dollar a day. A further reality was that the country faced a food shortage and an influx of refugees from Sudan, among other challenges.
Against that backdrop, his Government was rolling out the Transformative Agenda, which outlined measures to meet immediate needs in the country. At the same time, he said there should be better coordination at every level of operations, and systematic collaboration was vital. Other humanitarian tools, such as pooled funds, were also important. Those funds could empower non-governmental organizations. The Agenda also helped the Government take ownership of humanitarian responses. “The Agenda is about the affected people receiving relief aid quickly,” he said.
He also noted that there were major challenges in peace and security in South Sudan. The country had made progress in establishing authorities but had to enhance the Government’s capacity so that it could provide the protection of civilians. This was a highest priority. In a complex situation, like in South Sudan, the challenge was to indentify priorities in order to best allocate resources. Addressing the nation’s internal challenges was linked to the coexistence of two viable peaceful States next to each other, he said.
Mr. MOGWANJA said that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee had learned much from the 2010 level 3 emergencies in Haiti and Pakistan. The humanitarian system had now reached a milestone with regard to such “mega-emergencies”, in particular, with the system working together and not as isolated actors. Clear procedures existed to bring the best response possible through a decision-making process that would be triggered in collaboration with the national Government. The Humanitarian Coordinator and the humanitarian country team would give clear direction and enhance efficiency and transparency. Among the key features of the agreement was that they should translate into more predictability, more efficiency and better resource allocation; and that the international community should become more accountable to affected communities, donors and other stakeholders.
Among next steps, there was a need to clarify how to use that approach in other contexts, including protracted emergencies and seasonal emergencies. A “shared-cycle approach” should be developed, which would form a framework to how each agency and cluster fit in to the response effort. The commitment to monitoring for results had also been clearly agreed, and would be brought to the work by the end of the year. Much work lay ahead in how to work with local governments and civil society; the role of the clusters was also being reviewed. It was clear that there was a need to look outward, engaging with key stakeholders. Member States had a crucial role to play in that next phase, he stressed. The system must undertake performance monitoring in a joint way, thereby eliminating the further proliferation of multiple monitoring systems; it should also engage in planning together and jointly identify areas for capacity development.
UNICEF, as both a development and humanitarian agency, was fully committed to the joint approach, he said. With a more coherent approach to the whole programme cycle, the system-wide emergency response mechanisms were in place to bring the best available response to large-scale emergencies.
Mr. CHARNY presented what he felt was a “broad consensus” on the part of the major international civil society organizations with regard to the Transformative Agenda. While they recognized the importance of “new actors” and the host Governments, for better or for worse, United Nations agencies and major non-governmental organizations — with support from Governments and private citizens — still constituted the core of the response to emergencies.
“Getting this right … will make a difference to millions of people”, he stressed in that respect. The first point to make was that “we can do this” if the necessary political will existed, he said. Non-governmental organizations expected a collective response, a joint effort to increase effectiveness and impact, and a commitment to collective results while reaching beyond narrow agency imperatives. Leaders were needed who could build such a collective response. “We need and expect that the best people will be present in an emergency in adequate numbers and in good time,” he said.
The world already understood which regions were most vulnerable, he added, calling for “no more surprises” and for better preparation for “inevitable” major emergencies. In addition, another important expectation was that of accountability to affected people. The way the humanitarian community operated should be in line with the needs of the beneficiaries of the response effort. It was impossible to continue to “sit outside and critique” the system, he added, calling on partners to be “fully in”. Non-governmental organizations also needed their senior staff to be available, and they needed to put their names forward for the Humanitarian Coordinator role. The participation of those agencies was also needed in the inter-agency rapid response. Non-governmental organizations had done more work than many institutions on accountability to affected people, and they could bring those positive experiences forward, he said.
The imperative now was to turn words into action. If a mega-emergency were to happen now, “that will be the true test” of whether all the present talk was just rhetoric, he said. The transition was indeed a work in progress, but he was pleased with the changes of the last 18 months.
When the floor was opened for an interactive dialogue, a question was raised about the applicability of the Standing Committee’s Transformative Agenda in disasters less severe than level 3 emergencies. Delegations also sought clarification about the integration of non-governmental organizations into the humanitarian response system, as well as about the role of humanitarian coordinators.
A delegate from the European Union said the Agenda focused the most important crises, but asked if it was applicable to level 1 and 2 emergencies. He also said one of the challenges was to have a pool of good candidates on the roster of humanitarian coordinators. They must have good personality and serve as a moral compass so that communities could figure out necessary measures.
The representative of Spain was among those who stressed the importance of accountability and of dealing with “forgotten crises” not just well-known situations, while the delegate of Germany sought panellists’ opinion about how the Agenda’s messages could be disseminated to non-governmental organizations outside the Standing Committee forum. The representative of Pakistan asked to what extent developing countries, which experienced major disasters, were consulted when formulating the Transformative Agenda. The delegate of Romania sought feedback from South Sudan, which had “field tested” the transformative agenda.
Also taking the floor was the former Humanitarian Coordinator of South Sudan, LISE GRANDE. She said that, when the Transformative Agenda was first being discussed, some had said that, if Resident Coordinators succeeded it would be in spite of the system, not because of it. The Transformative Agenda represented the opposite of that sentiment. The Agenda was smart, it was relevant, and it was simple to implement at the country level. “It’s very straight-forward”, she said in that respect. It also gave explicit authority to the Resident Coordinator without turning him or her into a “tyrant”; it guided appropriate cluster coordination; and it focused on the systems that were crucial for the response to occur.
There were some areas in South Sudan — where the Transformative Agenda had been field tested — that had already seen results. The planning process was crisper and monitoring was being done in a “field-friendly” way. Assessments, plans, monitoring and funding were all seeing concrete results. The overall impact in South Sudan had been that partners got to the areas they needed to get to faster, she said. They got their priorities right, they were better able to stop epidemics, and it cost less than if the Transformative Agenda hadn’t been implemented. In fact, the Agenda had saved about 20 per cent of the total cost of operations.
Following the screening of a short film on the Transformative Agenda, Mr. MOGWANJA responded to several questions, saying that meaningful change would start with the coordinated monitoring of performance and a transparent use of the collected data. It was only by showing results that there could be better accountability. Regarding ensuring strengthened partnerships in implementation, partners at the country level needed to be strengthened, ensuring that all actors respected and contributed to a coherent humanitarian approach. All actors receiving support should continue to monitor results, he added.
Mr. CHARNY responded to the representative of the United States that there was much diversity in the non-governmental sector, and the most important thing for now was that the international non-governmental organizations with the most operational capacity should be committed to the Transitional Agenda — namely Oxfam, Save the Children and Care, among others.
On the question of implementing partners, it was up to each non-governmental organization to ensure that their operational partners were aware of the Transformative Agenda and of the need to work together. But they also needed to empower and facilitate access to those structures for critical local organizations. On the question of other crises outside of level 3 emergencies, he stressed that the Agenda must be “more than L 3”. Commitments were being made outside of that level, he said.
Ms. AMOS also weighed in, saying that the Transformative Agenda exercise had begun because of the feedback and dialogue from affected countries, from evaluations of responses and through country teams. On the role and responsibility of national Governments, it went without saying that the starting point was always in support of Government-led efforts. Each organization had its own implementation plan. However, an overarching “one-pager” addressed the areas that had been highlighted for systemic implementation. There had been movement on most of those agreed areas, she said.
Getting partners to buy into the Agenda had to be part of a longer-term attempt to make the system more inclusive and diverse. It was not about “knocking people over the head” with the Agenda, but about getting them to work together. There had to be a recognition that performance would improve by buying into the agenda. Meanwhile, while there were some specific elements to the response to mega-emergencies, she said, the majority of the Transformative Agenda was about strengthening the system overall.
Following her statement, a representative of the ICRC took the floor briefly to say that it was difficult to speak about a “single humanitarian system”. In that respect, he reaffirmed the independence of the ICRC movement, in particular as it was an observer in the cluster system and outside of the country team system.
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