• What the Rise of Techno-Humanitarianism Means For Crisis-Hit Communities Across the Globe

    Jean-Martin Bauer on the Use of Technology to Resolve Global Hunger and Food Insecurity

    “Trust is almost a mystery.”
    –Jacques Roumain, Masters of the Dew
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    The Pouncer was designed to be the world’s first edible drone. The drone would fly one-way into dangerous, conflict-affected communities, where starving civilians would take it apart, and then cook and eat its components. The snub-nosed, delta-shaped aircraft with a wingspan of nine feet was designed to deliver a payload of 50 kilograms of food—enough to feed one hundred people for a day. Each would cost $300.

    Designed in 2014, the Pouncer was the brainchild of Nigel Gifford, a British entrepreneur and adventurer who resolved to use drones to fly aid to dangerous places. In a 2017 interview with the Financial Times, Gifford explained that he was considering using honeycomb, a structurally robust material, to build the Pouncer. He mused that the landing gear could be made of salami, which, after all, has excellent tensile strength (but might not be part of the diets of some of those the drone was meant to feed). The Pouncer’s plywood frame could be used for kindling. “Our food technologist guys [are] thinking of wrapping the electronics in bouillon cubes,” he added.

    While the potential of new technology in humanitarian settings is undeniable, its role in highly complex and fragile situations is never simple and is always fraught.

    I first heard about the Pouncer at a gathering of humanitarian innovation experts in Italy. A drone expert told us the Pouncer could be the solution to the challenge posed by the need for food deliveries to war-torn northern Syria. Immediately, hands shot up. We knew the area was bristling with air defenses that had already made airdrops of food all but impossible, and that would be sure to fire at the drones. How would flight authorizations be obtained? How would civilians tell the difference between a military drone that could kill, of which there were many in the skies of Syria, and its edible humanitarian counterpart? There were no obvious answers to these important questions, and the Pouncer left us all decidedly skeptical.

    As of 2023, the Pouncer hadn’t taken off (no pun intended). It seems destined for the graveyard of well-intentioned but stillborn humanitarian innovation projects. Gifford’s invention was, to say the least, controversial. In fact, many in the broader community were openly hostile to the Pouncer. Kevin Watkins, then chief executive officer for Save the Children UK, said in an interview, “This is someone who’s come up with a crackpot idea based on the assumption that technology can solve all problems.” Drones are “good at killing people and blowing things up. They are absolutely irrelevant for resolving acute hunger.”

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    While the potential of new technology in humanitarian settings is undeniable, its role in highly complex and fragile situations is never simple and is always fraught—not so much for the promoters of tech taking on financial risk, but for the people on the receiving end of the innovation, whose very lives may be put at risk. Humanitarians work with some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

    As technological innovation changes the lives of people around the world, those of us working with these communities need to ask ourselves how we can make use of new tech while upholding our foundational principle to “do no harm.” How are we to separate the wheat, the innovations that actually help, from the chaff, such as the Pouncer? And how can we design technology with the communities we aim to serve rather than pushing ready-made Silicon Valley tech that’s wildly out of touch?

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    Technology is changing how the world is fed and how the fight against global hunger is being waged. In 2016, German economist Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, wrote of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that was set to transform society. (The previous three involved steam power, electricity, and computing.) According to Schwab, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will involve advances in biology and computer hardware and software and combine them with connectivity to the internet. There will be breakthroughs in robotics (including drones), artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and many other fields. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is transforming the manufacturing and service economies, is already changing the way food is produced, processed, and sold, and the way humanitarian aid is provided.

    Technology is reconfiguring food supply chains across the world. In the past two decades, cell phone towers have popped up all over the world, connecting billions of people. When cell phone towers were built in Niger, the market for millet was transformed—wholesalers had often played on information asymmetries to sell millet for a high price. With cell phones, anyone could call a friend or relative and learn what millet prices were in the next town, instead of taking a wholesaler’s word for it.

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    Voice and text were just the beginning. Now that internet access is widespread, e-commerce platforms are allowing family farmers and food processors everywhere to sell their produce directly to consumers, bypassing layers of middlemen. This is the case with a host of new online services that allow people to order food from farmers to be delivered to their doorstep: these include Farm to Home in Pakistan, Twiga Foods in Kenya, and Waruwa in Latin America. Twiga serves 10,000 customers a day. Its Nigerian counterpart, FarmCrowdy, collects food from 25,000 individual farmers to sell in Lagos.

    By making digital payments instantaneous, mobile money—a currency that’s managed by cell phone operators, not traditional banks—has enabled the rise of agricultural e-commerce and access to financial services for billions of people without bank accounts. Mobile money is now in widespread use in East Africa, where opening a mobile money account is as straightforward as buying a SIM card, and paying for a cab or a meal is as simple as sending a text message. The mobile industry estimates that in 2020 more than 1.2 billion people worldwide had access to mobile money services. Mobile money is often available where access to traditional financial services is low, and its use is rising sharply in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

    Mobile money is a first step. Many other digitally enabled payment systems are still emerging. Blockchains are open, decentralized digital ledgers that combine the reach of the internet and the power of cryptography. They could—in theory, at least—democratize banking and trade. Blockchain technology promises to bring transparency to opaque food supply chains, whose workings tend to be obscured by backroom deals.

    As the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes root in the world’s most hunger-prone and vulnerable communities, a generation of digital natives is finding increasing benefits from life online. Many of the refugees or displaced people I have met use Facebook, WhatsApp, and other digital apps to stay in touch with loved ones, make money, find the assistance they need, or express their opinions. Savvy social media users, they also value the anonymity the internet offers. A Syrian refugee in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatri camp asked me with a wry smile, “Do you want my Facebook name, or my real name?” Access to Wi-Fi is such an essential service that humanitarian agencies now provide connectivity for affected populations. In fact, Syrian refugees arriving in Greece have been known to ask for the Wi-Fi hotspot before food or water.

    These changes brought on by technology have meant that humanitarian agencies have had to adapt our operating models to keep up with the digital world. In the 2010s, the aid sector was facing what seemed to be insurmountable funding deficits, and donors pushed humanitarian organizations to unleash technology and innovate. Striving for efficiency in an era of tight budgets is common sense. But money alone is an insufficient metric when the goal is to protect and save lives. Before we jump headlong into the dream of a humanitarian techno-utopia, we must remember who it is we’re serving and what is at stake.

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    For all the enthusiasm of experts like Klaus Schwab, the means of bringing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to the humanitarian front line are anything but obvious. I saw this firsthand when WFP tried to set up a digital payment system in central Africa, where refugees rely on humanitarian assistance to survive.

    Bétou is a forlorn frontier town deep in the rainforest in Congo’s north, only thirty miles from the border of the troubled Central African Republic. The ramshackle settlement sprang up around an Italian-owned lumber mill on the Ubangi River; timber is barged on the river down to Brazzaville. The town’s main drag, a wide, dark, muddy track, leads straight to the mill. The population around Bétou is so sparse that people from all over West Africa came to work at the facility. On the riverfront, a few Mauritanian Arabs sell food out of shabby storefronts. A decrepit Catholic mission, its concrete walls stained dark green by the humidity, stands next to the river.

    When I first visited Bétou, a few thousand refugees had been living in a camp that had been around for years. Many of them were Muslims who had fled Bangui’s violence in 2013 and had built shacks on an undeveloped patch of land. Since refugees were not allowed to acquire land where they could grow their own crops, the refugees relied on food from WFP. I recall that one in ten refugee children were acutely malnourished, a rate that never seemed to drop. And it seemed that every time UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, planned to help the refugees go back home, another round of fighting would break out in Bangui, postponing yet again their longed-for return.

    For more than three years, WFP had been providing the refugee community with food rations, but we had recently started mobile money transfers instead. We moved from providing bags of food to giving “digital food”—in the form of a mobile money transfer people could use to buy food. WFP’s introduction of cash transfers in this remote area was part of a global trend in the humanitarian community to provide more assistance through cash or vouchers. The hope was that people would have more choice in the items they buy with cash, and that local economies would benefit from the cash injection. Humanitarian cash transfers were virtually nonexistent in the early 2000s, but reached $5.6 billion in 2019.

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    Bétou was one of many places going through a transition in assistance from in-kind food to cash. The refugees were given a mobile phone chip. Once a month, they would receive a mobile money payment equivalent to $20 per person, which they could use to buy food at the Mauritanian shops in town. The digital payment system also brought a level of transparency that helped keep our donors on board, because it allowed them to see the money going directly to food purchases.

    So what did the refugees think of the new system? One day, four leaders of the community came to the WFP meeting room to talk to my colleagues and me. The men, clean-shaven and in their best clothes, entered rather shyly and sat down. We exchanged prolonged greetings. When it was time to talk about substantive matters, they looked uneasy, shifting in their chairs, their eyes cast down. Abdou, a slim man of perhaps forty in a threadbare yellow shirt, took the bull by the horns and explained what was on their minds.

    “For years, you gave us bags of rice,” he began. “But a few months ago you began giving us mobile money to pay for our food.” There was an awkward pause. Abdou inhaled, and then continued: “Do you think we could go back to the old system, where we used to get the rice?”

    This is what a humanitarian never wants to hear—that a new, creative program isn’t working. I knew there had been issues with the first mobile money distributions, but I wasn’t expecting outright rejection from the people who were receiving them. After all, we had been cautious and had only introduced the technology after months of debate, studies, and consultations.

    Abdou explained that for his community, mobile money payments had been a headache. The chips we had provided were too easily blocked; after three failed PIN attempts, the chip needed to be reset, leaving its owner unable to buy food. Sometimes chips were lost, or there were errors in the amount of credit transferred. When these inevitable problems arose, they took too long to resolve with the cell phone company. To make matters worse, there had recently been a prolonged network outage, rendering all mobile money transactions temporarily impossible.

    Before we jump headlong into the dream of a humanitarian techno-utopia, we must remember who it is we’re serving and what is at stake.

    “Could we not go back to the old way of doing things?” he repeated.

    Abdou and the others had a point. But the old way of bringing food aid to their isolated community also had problems and could be extraordinarily slow. First, food grown in the U.S. Midwest was barged down the Mississippi River to a port on the Gulf. From there, a vessel loaded it up to cross the Atlantic, delivering the containers to Pointe Noire, Congo’s deepwater port. After clearing customs, the food was hoisted onto trucks for a three-hundred-mile road journey to Brazzaville.

    At Brazzaville, the containers were lifted onto river barges that a diesel-powered pusher boat slowly nudged up the Congo and Ubangi Rivers until they reached the camp in Bétou, a week or two later. All going well, the entire process took at least five months. If we missed the high-water season on the Ubangi, we’d have to wait until the river rose again. Of course, the food was a lifeline for the refugees, but the process was complex and time-consuming.

    And it wasn’t just in Congo: all over the world, food aid programs have traditionally relied on transcontinental shipments of bulk commodities. This is because purchasing food in a donor country is good politics: it helps support farmers, a powerful voting bloc.

    With mobile money, we could load cash onto the refugees’ phones within days of it arriving in our own account. We could instruct the mobile money operator to “push” credit to their numbers; as soon as the credit hit their phones, refugees could pick out and buy the foods they needed from local retailers. But something had gone wrong, and now we risked losing the trust of the community.

    The person managing the mobile money transfers for WFP was a man named Nasser, an aid worker from Niger in West Africa. In Congo, people like Nasser were a group set apart because of their Muslim religion and their willingness to work as traders and farmers—occupations that the local elite considered low status. This prejudice didn’t rattle Nasser, who’d seen it all before. He had studied in Tunisia, where some local Arabs treated Black African students like him as curiosities. He had spent years working with Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services in Africa’s toughest humanitarian crises, including Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic. He joined WFP soon after my discussion with the leaders of the Central African community in Bétou about the mobile money project. He was the person who could get the project back on track.

    Fueled by gallons of lukewarm drip coffee, Nasser spent many days and sleepless nights at work, figuring out how the tech could work better for the refugees. He’d be on the phone for hours with our partners to check that every detail was in order before the mobile money was credited to accounts. He routinely called me on weekends or late at night to ask me to approve payments, so that people would not wait a minute more than necessary for their food. Nasser was known to write furious emails upbraiding his colleagues for not working fast enough and holding up the distributions: You’re sitting in the comfort of your air-conditioned office while the beneficiaries are waiting in the sun! Nasser could be pushy, but always for the right reasons.

    We made important modifications to our system: if people had technical issues with SIM cards, they could call in to a hotline. WFP required the mobile company to deploy a team to Bétou so the host of problems that occurred on distribution days could be resolved on the spot. And the refugees themselves became more familiar with the technology. Though it took more time and effort than we had anticipated, the mobile money transfers began to work, and the refugees from the CAR in Bétou changed their minds about the program. We’d fallen prey to the comforting illusion that shiny new technology would solve everything. But technology does not work on its own; it needs attendants, people like Abdou, Nasser, and all those who worked to get things right for the refugees in Bétou.

    Ultimately, mobile money transfers proved to be an effective solution to a humanitarian supply-chain issue. Still, there was a larger problem left unsolved: the community was still unable to feed itself without aid. Working with UNHCR, WFP advocated with authorities to allow the Central Africans to obtain the land they needed to farm. The Congolese had given the refugees protected status, but they still refused to let them acquire farmland. Ultimately, an agreement was reached that allowed refugees to lease farmland from locals for three to five years—enough time to give them some security, and to plant food crops for themselves and sell the surplus.

    Soon enough, the Central Africans began growing cabbage and tomatoes, which they sold at Bétou’s riverside market. Technology had streamlined one aspect of food delivery, but the larger issue of access to land and a sustainable future for the refugees could only be resolved through negotiations between human beings.

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    Excerpted from The New Breadline: Hunger and Hope in the Twenty-First Century by Jean-Martin Bauer. Copyright © 2024. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Featured image: Tyron Amanpour, used under CC BY-SA 4.0

    Jean-Martin Bauer
    Jean-Martin Bauer
    Jean-Martin Bauer has served with the World Food Programme in the Sahel and central Africa and has responded to food emergencies in Afghanistan and Syria. Bauer has led WFP country offices in the Republic of the Congo and in Haiti. His work has also focused on leveraging digital tech and analytics to fight hunger. A Washington, DC, native, Bauer holds degrees from the London School of Economics and the Harvard Kennedy School.





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