A first (non) UN Humanitarian Coordinator… Uganda

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Uganda is to be, well non-UN!For the 99.99% of people working in humanitarian work I should explain. In each country the UN is headed by a Resident Coordinator (RC), this person is always a very senior UN Representative in country (more often than not the head of UNDP). Although they do not have line management responsibility for other agencies they ‘coordinate’ the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) and links with government and play a major role in ensuring joined up support to host countries.In an emergency or humanitarian scenario the RC may not be the most suited or have the time to also humanitarian response, hence a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) may be appointed by through the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to-date this person has always been a UN insider. In the case of Uganda due to the localised nature of the humanitarian crisis in the north a separate HC was appointed, however it is a first to put a non UN staff member in this post.HC UgandaThe HC until recently Representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Geneva, Ms. Elisabeth Rasmusson, has extensive field experience especially with refugees and intenally displaced persons (IDPs). Though not a complete outsider, she formerly worked for the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) , Ms. Rasmusson is certainly no insider.This is excellent news. The UN is often given unpleasant and unreasonable labels sometimes, but rarely, fairly. Humanitarian reforms have been driven hard and furiously over the last 12 to 18 months, engineered hand-in-hand between senior UN executives and key donors, noteably DfiD.The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) was beefed up by adding a $450m grant facility to an existing $50m revolving fund. To firstly, promote early action and response to save lives (release funds within 72 hours). Secondly, enhance response to time-crucial requirements based on demonstrable needs, and thirdly strengthen core elements of humanitarian response in under-funded crisis. Launched in March 2006, by and September 2006 it had raised $175m.The Humanitarian Coordinator system, designed to ensure focus and leadership during life saving response periods was initiated and many including Ms Rasmusson trained for the role.The Inter-Agency Steering Committee (IASC) structure was launched in 1992 to ensure that UN and NGO’s worked more effectively. However it has been reinvigorated with the application of technical clusters (initiated in the Pakistan earthquake with mixed success) and the spur of the humanitarian reform process.Thus it is welcome that the UN is now looking to finding the best and most suited people from across the range of humanitarian institutions to coordinate humanitarian response. At the very least it should lead to a great cross fertilisation of ideas and creativity, a greater acceptance of different institutional approaches and improved collaboration. On the downside… well I personally don’t see one! Read the rest of this entry »

Mapping connectivity & the digital divide!

The old maxim “if you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it” is as true today as ever… however increasingly as many people reach information overload one could argue it should read “if you can’t present information you can’t get others to act on it”.

A classic challenge is presented by internet connectivity. We are all aware that many of the Southern countries where we have worked have terrible connectivity how is this linked to the economy, production, trade, education levels, health services?

i-isp-ss.gifThis map from the Internet Mapping Project Map Gallery shows the major ISPs indicating volume of traffic (colour density) and extent (distance). A variety of maps indicate other internet measures including distance from host, network address, top level domains or ISPs/ cities and many more. Including more detailed maps and raw data!

Other internet map sources include: Rocketfuel, The Opte Project, Cybergeography who publish a fascinating Cyberatlas and Caida.

Internet Map USA

This second image from Infosthetics March ’06

“is an extremely detailed map of the North American Internet backbone including 134,855 routers. the colors represent who each router is registered to: red is Verizon, blue AT&T, yellow Qwest, green is major backbone players like Level 3 & Sprint Nextel, black is the entire cable industry put together, & gray is everyone else, from small telecommunications companies to large international players who only have a small presence in the U.S. This map demonstrates that although AT&T & Verizon own a lot of Internet pipes, they currently do not dominate the Internet infrastructure (yet).”

IP map2

I love this third image again lifted from Infosthetics Dec. ’06, whilst it presents IP address space as a map it provides a clear impression of ‘internet face’ dedicated to continents, clearly if this were broken out in more detail, particularly with breakdown for “Asia” it would become ever more useful. See original source xkcd and comments from the artist.

a chart of the IP address space “on a plane”, using fractal mapping which preserves grouping (any string of IPs will translate to a single compact region on the map). each of the 256 numbered blocks represents one 8th subnet (containing all IPs that start with that number).

When preparing my dissertation on the privatisation of telecoms in Brazil in 1999 a communications star “map” clearly illustrated how minimal traffic was making the hops to and from Africa or Latin America. Different presentation tools using different internet usage “measures” consistently confirm this picture. Though we may not be able to lift detailed quantified facts from such maps they clearly provide tools to reflect trends and bias.

Second Life, the UN and living like a refugee

Second Life enters the humanitarian and development workers sphere of interest!


“The Stand Up Awareness Campaign” is being supported by the UN on Second Life. The Stand Up For Awareness Campaign is part of the larger Millenium Campaign to remind governments of their commitment to the eight Millenium Development Goals (MDG) that they agreed to in 2000, each of the eight 2015 targets are critical to reduce global poverty. This is a far from Bureaucratic excercise, if we can’t measure we can’t manage… by catalysing development organisations, donor governments and recipient governments the MDG indicators and targets, truly provide measures of success or failure that will have to be explained away if they are not met… keeping up the pressure world-wide is important.

DarfurThere is also a simulated Darfur refugee camp on Second Life, “Living Like a Refugee” was built to inform and educate … “An awareness and action camp spotlighting today’s genocide” and even patrolled by hooded avatars. Behind this seemlingly ‘geeky’ awareness approach, after all how many people really use Second Life, is a larger possibility of bringing the complexity, intricacies and daily catastrophe of humanitarian disasters to a increasinly well networked and socially aware next generation.

second lifeTeens Second Life is an interesting development by Linden Labs, visited by BBC’s Digital Planet, yes you guessed it Second Life for teens, governed by community rules, no parents or adults allowed, only screened adults from Linden Labs. Special institutions such as schools can feature on the game but are restricted to the island they create where the teens can choose to visit.

Clearly only the privileged (bandwidth, computers, high quality of life) are using Second Life, currently it acts as an interesting advocacy medium for the humanitarian and development world. But perhaps we should be more creative… why not a self concious training medium for students around the world, an advocacy platform. At the very least it offers an interesting way to capture the interest of youth and techie’s to increasingly support real life humanitarian needs, if only by applying their technology interests and genius to global advocacy and bridging communication gaps with the elite in southern countries.

Al Jazeera – English channel goes live!

Al Jazeera LogoCuriously I have only just discovered that on November 15th, just after its 10th Aniversary on November 1st, Al Jazeera has launched its English News Channel.

Aiming to be the channel of reference for Middle East events, Al Jazeera also has broadcast centres Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.

For the first time this creates a genuinely different view to the US and UK ‘Anglo’ centric opinions on world developments, clearly an event to celebrate. Why is it that this slipped out unnoticed and celebrated? Or maybe this should be no surprise, perhaps conventional channels, cable companies, satellite providers have shun Al Jazeera for political reasons?. The BBC covered it like any other story but with no fanfare, but it does recommend the Al Jezeera English channel as an in depth news source, often it was cast as an unremarkable and bias start. Of course Al Jazeera is not popular with leaders across the Middle East, but despite that Israel plans to have it up and running soon, and Friends of al Jazeera blog gives some interesting perspectives. However I have never been big on conspiracy theory, surely the delay is simply teething troubles while channel agreements are put in place.

Since I am in Brazil and unable to see the channel, I assumed Al Jazeera would be pushing its content online, sadly the only option for viewing (that functioned) included a 99cent charge to watch! no video podcast available yet. I did find a clip of the english channel from a staff blog don’tbomb from Dec 2005. Lets hope Al Jazeera organises all of its channels to market sharpish so they can become another informed opinion and voice available globally!

Rocketboom, UNHCR and refugees

Rocketboom … one of the most popular trivia and news podcasts available on the web published footage from floods and refugee camps in Kenya with UNHCR (21st Nov 2006). A refugee recounts his image of the impact of islamists from Somalia.

As reported in “Online Video Sharing…” and “Alive in Baghdad” … this highly accessible medium is making it ever easier for the young in the west to find out what they want when they want… as new generations increasingly shun TV for the Internet, or formal media for community and peer approaches. potential important tools for advocacy indeed!

Rocketboom can be accessed at their website or downloaded from i-Tunes, it presents 3 to 5 minute news clips for free, daily. Produced at very low costs, only distributed online (available world-wide), its ‘status’ has been achieved purely by word of mouth, and it seeks to engage its audience in an online dialogue, see WikiBoom.

New ‘participatory’ media is truly beginning to change the manner in which news and information is obtained, limitations to web access may not ensure video becomes common in developing countries, but there is no doubt that it will become an ever more important medium for communiction, information sharing and advocacy. Its great to see Rocketboom democtatising news broadcasting.

Mobile phone banking … post conflict ready!

Mobile phones replace cash, debit cards, credit cards, ATMs and even banks! The Economist reveals all!

Many of us have heard rumours of upcoming payment and credit card services by phone, indeed they are common in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, however it seems that such servsices can truly benefit developing countries far more. For proof look to South Africa The Good News. (Oh no not again!)

Running a hair salon, grocery store or supplying goods? All payment transactions out, paid in, cash transferred, utility bills and of course paying mobile bills can be handled by Wizzit. Think of the advantages if you do not live near a bank branch, an ATM, or cannot get credit. Of course removing branches radically reduces both financial risk and operating costs, Wizzit claims services are a third cheaper, thus they can afford to serve individuals making multiple small transactions.

South Africa was one of the first to introduce mobile ATM’s in 2004 or Mzansi to taking banking to the populace. Banking by phone is chasing the 16m South African adults (more than half the adult population) who still have no bank accounts… but 30% do have mobile phones.

Already over 0.5 million use Wizzit as their bank, 8 in 10 customers had no bank account, this was achieved using an old developmental participatory approach or modern marketing tool… ‘peer to peer’ networking, in this case using 2000 unemployed people or ‘Wizzkids’ as mobilisers.

In many middle income and developing countries from Brazil to Kenya mobile coverage has overtaken fixed telephone lines quickly due to high pricing and the difficulty of getting a phones. Initially crediting prepaid time became a mechanism to transfer money… now we are seeing the development of integrated mobile banking platforms in a surprising array of countries as communities and countries skip physical banks and move straight from cash to mobile. Including M-Pesa micro-credit in Kenya and Celpay in Zambia and Congo. Keep on top of developments with Mobile Africa.

Imagine the possibilities in countries transitioning from post conflict to a more stable scenario. Mobile phones are common, banks if they exist provide appalling service, many people are not ‘credit worthy’ in the traditional sense, professionals need to get cash to families widely scattered, migrant workers return funds to family at significant cost, suppliers cannot provide significant credit. In short mobile phoning bank could slash transaction costs, free up liquidity, and enable micro credit schemes to flourish will reducing risk. No doubt the Hawallah’s will be the first to see the potential.

Next time I leave the beaten track perhaps I can leave the greenbacks at home with my credit card!

Ubuntu … user friendly Linux software suite is taking off!

How much do we all object to paying the exorbitant costs of using microsoft windows? Not just the licence fee but all the additionaly costs for support, updates, maintenance and of course Virus checkers, firewalls …..

Linux has oft been touted as the solution… open source software that those with the ability can adapt themselves, sadly it has never been too user friendly, so whilst it dominates the server market it has tended to be marginal for common PC users like the rest of us. – – – No longer!

MS Windows licence fees are exorbitant in countries where labour is cheap. The cost of a PC put together by skilled labour may be less than the cost of purchasing MS software! As a result in some middle income countries where there are huge disparities in income but a demanding, increasingly vocal and ever growing middle class Linux has taken off, for example supporting 7% to 10% of small business and home PCs in Brazil.

In South Africa it has literally become the mother of invention. Ubuntu is a free linux based operating system providing a complete suite of software like MS Office. Unlike MS it is easy to install, use and maintain as witnessed by monkey.blog and digg, the software is intuitive and ‘tinker’ friendly. This is no pipe dream, it is operating in at least 6 countries and take up is spreading to Europe. Ubuntu, perfectly attuned to the needs of special interest groups with specific cultural or language needs, has been adopted by minorities in Germany, Spain as well as larger groups in Brazil and of course South Africa.

The BBC’s Digital Planet discussed Ubuntu with its brain child, Mark Shuttleworth (famously the first space tourist), made his fortune as an entrepreneur using linux whilst isolated in South Africa, he wishes to it unleash possibilities for others also.

Edubuntu a popular package, will in South Africa be complimented by a complete online educational curricula developed and evolving through teacher, parent, student collaboration… in effect an educatoinal Wiki.

Ubuntu may well become a huge success since it maximises the one oft available resource, enthusiastic capable youth, (if you can put a computer together then you can install and operate Ubuntu). It negates needs for external expertise and money, breaks the cycle of dependency on feature heavy software with unneeded functionality and ever increasing demand on computer power, memory and upgrades, but most importantly it places the opportunity to develop digital competency where it should always have been, in the hands of communities, their youth and their future.

It seems likely that Ubuntu will genuinely take great strides to tackling the digital divide by starting where it matters most, in the minds and understanding of people without sophisticated education, reliable access to the internet or more than minimal access to cash.