the praekelt foundation
In an article published last year, The Stanford Social Innovation Review referred to Africa as the newest “mobile continent,” citing the new-found prevalence of cell phones. Mobile device usage has continued to rise, opening doors for Africans and charities who have found new and effective ways to disseminate information, educate Africa’s population and empower African businesses.

Current data shows that more than 450 million mobile phones, roughly equivalent to nearly 50 percent of the population, are in use in Africa. Cell phones are found in both urban and rural neighborhoods, and the Guardian estimates that by the end of 2014, there may be more than 635 million mobile phones in use.

This technological advancement can be used to humanitarians’ advantage, illustrated by the work of the Praekelt Foundation. To intensify the benefits of the spread of technology in Africa, the Praekelt Foundation has targeted mobile phone users. Services and information that had previously been inaccessible, in the words of founder Gustav Praekelt, are now being harnessed for poverty reduction.

Harnessing the interconnected potential of the cell phone has taken several forms. Of course, it allows for long distance communication, which had previously been unthinkable, but it also assumes forms of aid that may not be immediately intuitive. These include the ability to manage bank accounts and payment systems wirelessly, as with Kenya’s M-Pesa system, to sell crops or other goods at higher rates by connecting sellers with consumers at greater speeds and to access forums where virtual groups discuss the stigmatization that follows mental illnesses, AIDS or physical disorders.

Extreme poverty no longer means extreme isolation like it used to. Effective economic and development programs, such as this one, take advantage of what’s becoming global interconnectedness.

“The digital divide is beginning to close,” says Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “The flow of digital information through mobile phones, text messaging, and the Internet is now reaching the world’s masses, even in the poorest countries, bringing with it a revolution in economics, politics, and society.”

The products of the Praekelt Foundation, applications designed to facilitate communication and connection, vary in scope and impact. They include Ummeli, a mobile network created to find employment opportunities for Africans; Vumi, a “conversation engine” built for emerging markets and spreading ideas; and Jmbo, a way to create, publish and discover mobile content.

Other products are TxtAlert, a way to remind patients about clinic appointments, and Young Africa Live, a mobile platform from which youth can talk and learn about love, sex, disease or anything else they think is important.

Reducing poverty must be in the end a collaborative effort. Connecting Africa is the necessary first step in making this effort strong.

– Adam Kaminski

Sources: SSI Review, Praekelt Foundation, The Guardian
Photo: CapitalFM

Humanitarian work is intuitively selfless; it is an opportunity to positively impact a stranger’s life without any expectations that he will return the favor. Although this makes a certain amount of sense, the sentiment is not entirely true.

In fact, when federal government agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development invest to eliminate global poverty, they see huge economic returns. Global markets expand and jobs are created. Financial gain should not necessary be the sole motivation for aid, but humaneness and generosity are not always the federal government’s prime movers. Boosting the economy makes for a good supplement.

The process, from foreign aid to market expansion, works like an investment. The investor, the one providing the aid, is essentially buying consumers who will then in turn spend money on foreign goods.

“From an economic perspective, what happens in one country has ripple effects throughout the world,” says Christopher Policinski, the CEO of Land O’Lakes.

The ripple effects starts like this: a small investment is made in a poor overseas community. Maybe this money provides clean and accessible water, maybe it champions education, or maybe it funds electricity and energy projects. In every possibility, it begins to raise the community out of poverty, making consumerism more viable.

The working poor, for example, may have money for apples, soaps, toothpastes and wheat. Middle to upper classes may now have money for plane tickets, clothing, technologies and cars. These goods are purchased from the United States and from other industrialized countries, boosting their economies.

Current data backs this theory. Here are some statistics you will find on the Borgen Project website:


One out of five U.S. jobs is export-based. This means that one out of five U.S. jobs relies on global markets to succeed. Investments in foreign, impoverished communities expand these markets by creating new buyers of U.S. products, bolstering U.S. export-based business.


Developing nations receive 45 percent of our country’s exports. This is important because it shows how much the U.S. really does rely on foreign communities that are still “developing.” Aiding those people in those markets will likely produce strong economic benefits in the U.S.


The list of the countries with the fastest growing gross domestic products (GDP,) according to their annual average GDP increase percentage, may be surprising. The list goes: Angola (11.1,) China (10.5,) Myanmar (10.3,) Nigeria (8.9,) Ethiopia (8.4,) Kazakhstan (8.2,) Chad (7.9,) Mozambique (7.9,) Cambodia (7.7) and Rwanda (7.6.) In comparison, the U.S. GDP growth rate in 2013 was 1.9 percent. Investing in countries like Angola is smart business.

History backs this theory as well.

“From Germany to South Korea, nearly all of the United States’ top trading partners were once recipients of U.S. foreign aid,” reads the Borgen Project’s “Global Poverty & U.S. Jobs” page.

There is a lot of reason to promote foreign aid for its economic benefits, but it is important not to forget that at its core it is a humanitarian act. People are not only consumers. If Congress needs to think otherwise to secure bipartisan support and increase generosity in development projects, which it could stand to do, then so be it. It could be for the best.

– Adam Kaminski 

Sources: The Borgen Project, Bloomberg Businessweek
Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek

From the West Bank, to Syria, the Balkans and to Uganda, International Orthodox Christian Charities has worked to provide over $488 million in emergency disaster relief, development aid and supplies around the world since its establishment in 1992. Implicit in its mission, IOCC derives its inspiration from Matthew 25:35-36, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was naked and you clothed me…”

IOCC is the humanitarian relief organization of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States  – 1 of 13 geographical Orthodox bishop assemblies around the world. It is also a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of more than 140 churches and agencies that engage in development work, humanitarian assistance and advocacy.

Active in several regions around the world today, IOCC is on the front lines addressing the needs of refugees affected by violence in Syria and most recently, displaced Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

While Orthodox communities in the Middle East have dwindled in recent years, historically, communities have existed in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Gaza and Southern Turkey for centuries. As a result, IOCC is able to work closely with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch to address the needs of all affected by the violence and disasters in the region.

Since 2012, 1.5 million displaced people inside Syrian as well as the populations in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Armenia have all benefited from the support and relief work that IOCC provides.

IOCC, with one of the largest established humanitarian relief networks inside of Syria, is currently working with local relief partners to provide basic supplies such as bedding and hygiene kits to more than 2,800 refugee families. In addition, they have been able to gather and distribute school supplies to more than 3,000 children whose education was interrupted due to conflict.

Most recently, IOCC has begun to gather emergency aid for families affected by violence in the Gaza Strip. With over 240,000 seeking shelter, people have turned to schools, churches, mosques and other facilities to escape from the bombardment of rockets into communities.

Since it first began operations in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1997, IOCC has been able to provide assistance to over 30,000 families. With a well-established network in the region they have been able to make sure that basic supplies are reaching the more than 700 displaced Palestinians who sought refuge at the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, as well as the more than 12,000 displaced people in northern Gaza communities of Gaza City, Beit Hanoun, Shuj’iyeh, Al Zeitoun and At Tuffah.

IOCC is just one of many faith-based organizations that provides vital aid, supplies and support to people affected by violent conflict and natural disasters around the world. Faith-based organizations play important roles because they often have deep ties to the people they serve and therefore have a unique insight into the needs of communities and countries in which they work. By addressing the needs of the most vulnerable, IOCC is contributing not only to the immediate needs of people affected by disaster and conflict, but also their longer term prospects of achieving peace and building sustainable livelihoods.

– Andrea Blinkhorn 

Sources: Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, IOCC 1, ReliefWeb, IOCC 2
Photo: IOCC

reject drones
Drones buzz through the skies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to monitor this mineral-rich country that has been racked with war for 20 years. The U.N. Stabilization Mission, or MONUSCO,  a peacekeeping operation with over 21,000 personnel, brought two of these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles into action in the DRC last April. MONUSCO then offered to share drone-collected information with humanitarian NGOs working in the DRC.

The offer was emphatically rejected.

The NGOs reject drones because MONUSCO is a military operation. International NGOs are humanitarian and as such are bound to the principles of “neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.” Using drones for both military and humanitarian information gathering compromises these principles.

A July 14, 2014 statement released by NGOs working in the DRC pointed to the potential for data gathered with a humanitarian objective nevertheless informing combat operations.

2006’s guidelines for how humanitarian actors and MONUSCO are to coordinate has recently been revised, but IRIN reports that a final draft “does not directly address the use of info gained through drones.”

NGOs are concerned that they have no guarantee the info will come from non-drone sources.

Drones have served both military and non-military purposes in the past. For example, while one drone might use its infrared camera to search for people congregating at night (a sign of an attack brewing), another drone might be tasked with monitoring the geological activity of a volcano.

On May 5, 2014, drones in Rwanda that were flying over Lake Kivu relayed information indicating a ferry had capsized, leaving 20 people in the water struggling for their lives. Rescuers saved 14 people who probably would have drowned otherwise.

However, the issue here is not whether drones are capable of serving a non-military function; humanitarian organizations know they would find information gathered by drones helpful. The issue is that, according to certain core principles, humanitarian NGOs cannot take sides in a war.

The drones’ many uses could embroil the NGOs in the conflict because MONUSCO might use “humanitarian information” for military purposes.

The region these drones patrol is highly unstable, with many armed groups fomenting conflict there. Last June, members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a militia group with a large presence in the DRC, proclaimed their desire to disarm and negotiate. Provided the offer to disarm was genuine, some thought this might stabilize the region to a certain extent.

However, recent attacks on barracks in Kinshasa by a separate group highlight how one party’s exit from the conflict can hardly be used to foretell an end to the larger conflict. Because of this, drones will remain a fixture in the DRC’s skies.

-Ryan Yanke

Sources: IRIN, BBC News, The New York Times
Photo: BBC

Since World War II the rate of humanitarian crisis around the world has been drastically increasing. This trend is likely to continue or even get worse, considering the effects climate change, population growth and urbanization will have in the decades ahead. Humanitarian aid agencies and organizations continue to stretch their capabilities and resources to the limits in their efforts to respond to the rush of conflict zone and climate driven crises emerging worldwide.

One example of this is the devastation caused by typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in November of last year. The wave of destruction brought by the storm affected 14 million people and put relief organization into high gear.

In collaboration with the government of Philippine, aid organizations and the U.N. provided much needed emergency relief services in the form of water, food and sanitation. In a massive deployment, U.N. and other aid personnel were able to clear over 500 miles of road and provided temporary shelter to over 550,000 families.

Even as media attention has moved to other crises, aid workers continue to work behind the scenes bringing emergency relief services to all affected people. Beyond the small portion of aid work that makes the headlines, aid work provided by the U.N. and other aid agencies is complex, multifaceted and long term. The U.N.’s aid network “forms the backbone of the global humanitarian response system.”

While the U.S.’ aid network remains strong, according to Richard Brennan, the World Health Organization’s Director of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response, aid agencies have been working at their maximum capacity for several years. This is cause for concern, since it allows vulnerable people to fall trough the cracks.

But it is not all gloom, there are things that can be done to change the course. First and foremost, aid agencies need the necessary funding to do their job well. So far, many aid initiatives remain severely underfunded, despite continuous calls from the U.N. and other organisms for support. Governments, non-governmental organizations, private businesses and individuals all have a stake in making these contributions happen to reach the necessary funding goals. This cannot be a one-sided effort, and it is in the best interest of everyone to protect those in the most vulnerable situations.

Secondly, the international community should be more attentive to the well-being of aid workers. These workers risk their lives to provide much needed services to the most precarious and devastated places on earth. It is our responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being, so that they can continue this valuable task.

And last but not least, strengthening the humanitarian system cannot only be a function of responding to crises; it is imperative to include prevention as a main objective of humanitarian aid. It is much easier and more cost effective to construct communities that can identify and avoid risk, or at least to be more resilient in the face of disaster, not to mention that it considerably reduces suffering as well.

The global humanitarian aid system is large and strong, but it can only do so much without the support of governments, businesses and individuals. It is our collective responsibility to support this system and to ensure that its members are able to continue bringing emergency relief to those who are suffering.

– Sahar Abi Hassan

Sources: Diplomatic Courier
Photo: Diplomatic Courier

humanitarian aid
A report released by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) last week has shocked the humanitarian aid community. The report, entitled “Where is everyone?,” took a hard look at areas where aid has been falling short, especially in regard to emergency responses.

The three main issues the report finds are: funding is too slow and inflexible, NGOs operating at the grassroots are shut out of the UN-dominated system and emergency response is not prioritized in the humanitarian aid system.

Responses to MSF’s report have not all been favorable. Some, such as Bertrand Taith, a cultural historian of humanitarian aid and director of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, have criticized MSF’s methodology. Taith called the approach taken by MSF “headline grabbing.”

However, despite the controversy over MSF’s methods, the overwhelming response has been appreciation for the debate it has sparked. The MSF report’s website states: “We intend this paper to start a real discussion with our colleagues in the aid community…to make us all improve how we respond.”

One contribution to the debate has taken the form of a blog entitled, “Where is everyone? We’re standing right next to you.” Bob Kitchen, director of the International Rescue Committee’s emergency preparedness and response unit expressed in the blog that his agency and others “continue to stand and deliver in the face of chaos and mounting humanitarian needs.”

Kitchen’s comment is in response to the report’s finding that humanitarian aid agencies are not targeting the most vulnerable areas, because they are too dangerous and hard to access. One such population being unregistered urban refugees in Jordan.

“We’re not saying [agencies] should take unnecessary risks, but we do feel that in some cases, a perceived lack of security becomes a rather defensive argument,” says Jens Pedersen, a humanitarian adviser with MSF.

Kitchen, however, cites the work his agency is currently doing in Somalia. “A country,” he describes, “so violent that MSF itself has withdrawn.”

Funding is another issue that the report addresses. Not lack of funding in general, but lack of flexible and easily accessible funds. The report begins by saying, “the international humanitarian aid system has more means and resources at its disposal…than ever before.”

The issue is that the money is often inflexible and earmarked. It is also slow; on average, it takes three months for donor funds to be disbursed through UN agencies and reach their target. Three months that emergency response situations cannot afford.

To combat this delay, certain networks have been established. One is the START network, which operates outside the UN. It provides a shared source of emergency funding for 19 major NGOs.

The report effectively sparked debate in the aid community. MSF “has made it clear that [the report] is intended as a trigger for critical discussions in the aid community,” reports IRIN. And, in that regard, it has succeeded.

Humanitarian aid agencies across the globe are preparing for the World Humanitarian Summit, which will take place in Istanbul in 2016. The stated goal of the summit is to “find new ways to tackle humanitarian needs in our fast-changing world,” and the summit will provide space for the conversation about aid effectiveness to continue.

– Julianne O’Connor

Sources: IRIN, MSF, World Humanitarian Summit
Photo: NewInt