Without the most advanced technology, the UN isn’t reaching its full potential in danger zones.
As the need for emergency response and peacekeeping continues unabated in hotspots around the world, is the United Nations using the technologies it needs to be effective in a modernizing world? A look at the expanding mobile phone coverage and capabilities worldwide shows that the UN is behind in exploiting the information technology revolution.
Mobile phones have changed the way societies communicate in profound ways. The growth in cellphone usage across the globe has been staggering (see Figure 1). Even in the developing world, where most aid and peacekeeping operations are deployed, the use of cellphones is becoming ubiquitous, more than doubling over the past five years.
Additionally, the qualitative evolution of hardware and software for these devices has accelerated. These hand-held tools are moving closer to all-purpose mobile miniature computers that can share information at high speed from the most remote locales. But the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations has not harnessed this phenomenon of wider communications among and with the population to its advantage.
Figure 1. The huge growth in mobile phone subscriptions in both the developed and developing world.
Source of Data: “Key Global Telecom Indicators for the World Telecommunication Service Sector”: International Telecommunication Union
There are a few promising examples in some UN agencies, following the example of advanced NGOs, where simple functions like messaging (SMS) and image transmission are used to co-ordinate the distribution of aid in the field and to communicate basic information about outbreaks of violence or emergencies. Several reports by the independent UN Foundation have explored examples of mobile technologies: mHealth for Development and New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts. Last summer, the U.S. Institute of Peace issued a special report on Mobile Phones for Peacebuilding in Afghanistan. These studies show important statistics, case studies, and critical insights on the value of using mobile devices for development and humanitarian response.