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Research Questions

  1. What are the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in engaging with technology in refugee settings?
  2. How is technology currently used in humanitarian settings by both refugees and aid agencies, and what are the needs, gaps and opportunities for using technology to solve problems in such settings?
  3. How do refugees perceive technology as tools for meeting their needs during displacement?
  4. How is technology developed in humanitarian contexts, and how can such development be improved?
  5. What are the ethical, security, and privacy considerations for using technology in these settings?
  6. How can technology be more strategically used and developed in humanitarian settings?

In the past two decades, the global population of forcibly displaced people has more than doubled, from 34 million in 1997 to 71 million in 2018. Amid this growing crisis, refugees and the organizations that assist them have turned to technology as an important resource, and technology can and should play an important role in solving problems in humanitarian settings. In this report, the authors analyze technology uses, needs, and gaps, as well as opportunities for better using technology to help displaced people and improving the operations of responding agencies. The authors also examine inherent ethical, security, and privacy considerations; explore barriers to the successful deployment of technology; and outline some tools for building a more systematic approach to such deployment. The study approach included a literature review, semi-structured interviews with stakeholders, and focus groups with displaced people in Colombia, Greece, Jordan, and the United States. The authors provide several recommendations for more strategically using and developing technology in humanitarian settings.

Key Findings

There are promising technology solutions for refugees and aid agencies, yet there should be better coordination of investment in, and use of, technology in refugee settings, which may provide more opportunities for private-sector engagement.

  • There are multiple actors with complex and interdependent relationships engaged in technology in humanitarian settings, and technology is changing their roles and responsibilities over time by creating new roles and simplifying or altering long-standing roles. These actors include refugees, aid agencies, host countries, donors, technology companies, consortia, and universities and research organizations.
  • Although most refugees and aid agencies rely mainly on mainstream technology applications developed for more-general audiences, there has been sizable investment in creating applications specific to refugee settings, most of which fizzle out over time.
  • In the refugee context, technology can provide internet connectivity and access, support communication with family and friends, provide education and employment opportunities, facilitate distribution of housing and other resources, enable financial access, and provide a record of information about a displaced person's identity, among other uses.
  • Investment in technology in refugee settings is often made without preparing for the full system development life cycle, from project initiation to system retirement.
  • Technology in humanitarian settings is being implemented in advance of needed ethical, security, and privacy frameworks. Ethical frameworks and safeguards to address technology risks are underdeveloped and fragmented. Data responsibility issues—including protecting data from misuse and respecting refugees' data-related rights—are growing more urgent and complex as aid operations create and collect increasing amounts of personal data.

Recommendations

  • Focus private- and humanitarian-sector technology investments more strategically, weighing risks and benefits and considering the full technology life cycle.
  • Invest in sustained and mainstream platforms, data standards, and digital infrastructure.
  • Plan for technology scale and phaseout.
  • Invest in internet connectivity, not new smartphone apps, for refugees.
  • Improve the strategic organization of the technology ecosystem through a wedding registry approach.
  • Improve technical capacity in the humanitarian community.
  • Improve effectiveness and security in data management.
  • Develop an ethical framework for technology in humanitarian settings.
  • Develop legal frameworks governing technology, digital identity, and financial access in humanitarian settings in host countries.
  • Develop an improved evidence base for technology in refugee education.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Roles and Responsibilities of Entities Involved in Using or Contributing to Technology in Refugee Settings

  • Chapter Three

    Uses of Technology in Refugee Settings

  • Chapter Four

    Refugees' Perspectives on Technology

  • Chapter Five

    Business Models for Developing and Deploying Technology in Refugee Settings

  • Chapter Six

    Ethical, Security, and Privacy Issues Related to the Use of Technology in Refugee Settings

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusions and Recommendations

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by Schmidt Futures and conducted in the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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