Amid the movement restrictions and spread of Covid-19, ICLA  team at NRC office in Aden is providing remote counseling/ legal advice over the phone to prevent potential spread of Covid-19.

Photo: Fares Fuad/NRC

The technology partners helping to give displaced people a voice

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, many people feared that it would hit refugees especially hard. However, few predicted that it would also open up new technological possibilities that promise to be a game-changer for humanitarian aid.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has been working with technology partners to open up new channels of communication with displaced people around the world.

NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland explains: “Most refugee families – or least most of the communities – now have a mobile phone. So, we can communicate with them. And we can now do surveys, by asking: ‘How are you faring?’, ‘What is your advice to us?’ and ‘How can we help you better?’”

In August 2020, we did just that. Together with our partners, we conducted a ground-breaking survey of 14,000 displaced people across the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. The aim: to find out how Covid-19 was affecting displaced communities, and what we could do to help.

A multi-country, multi-language challenge

Running a survey of this kind presented a number of challenges. How could we contact people in a consistent way across eight different countries and nine different languages? How could we gather feedback in a way that was manageable – both for us and for the respondents?

"Certains déplacés exerçaient le commerce ou l'élevage. Mais avec le Covid-19, tout s'est arrêté, les marchés ont été fermés. Les commerçants qui avaient des stocks de vivres ont augmenté les prix. Le plat de sorgho, qui coûtait 250 francs CFA, est passé entre temps à 300, même 400 francs. Dans les localités difficiles d'accès comme Foubé et Pensa, le prix est allé jusqu'à 500 francs.
Quand on fait un tour au centre de santé, on voit beaucoup d'enfants malnutris."

Date: 05 August 2020
Location: Barsalogho - Center North Burkina Faso
Photo:  Innocent Parkouda/NRC
Read caption Displaced people all over the world are keen to make their voices heard. Augustin is a resident of Barsalogho village, Burkina Faso. “With Covid-19, everything stopped. When you go to the health centre, you see a lot of malnourished children,” he told us. Photo: Innocent Parkouda/NRC

So, we approached three of our ICT partners: Pluralsight, Twilio and Telerivet. They all asked immediately: “How can we help?”

Partnership working is essential for an organisation like NRC. We operate in more than 30 countries around the world, and our staff have a wealth of knowledge about humanitarian issues in different contexts. But we rely on technology specialists to help us innovate and drive change.

Our three partners assisted in different ways, providing expertise, funding grants, a telephony platform, free SMS messages and phone calls, and access to phone numbers of people who had given their consent to be contacted.

So, how did it work?

We began by devising the survey itself: ten questions, each with a simple set of multiple-choice answers.

The questions focused on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on people’s income, work and coping mechanisms – and what further impact it might have on food security, housing and education.

Then, our country offices swung into action. NRC staff in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Uganda and Venezuela translated the survey into their local languages and made audio recordings of all the questions.

Once we had our contact list in place, we were ready to run the survey.

  • We sent all the contacts an initial SMS message informing them that they would receive a phone call within 24 hours.
  • Over the next 24 hours, we called each person on the list.
  • Each call was automated, with button-push answers so that the respondent could reply easily using their phone’s keypad.

We were delighted with our response rate of just over 10 per cent – almost double the global average for this kind of survey. The message was clear: displaced people want to be heard.

And what they told us was alarming, and vitally important to how we plan to support them over the coming months. For example:

  • 77 per cent of people surveyed had lost a job or income from work since March
  • 70 per cent had been forced to cut the number of meals for their household since the pandemic broke out
  • 73 per cent reported that they were less likely to send their children to school because of economic hardship

Read the full report: Downward Spiral: the economic impact of Covid-19 on refugees and displaced people

June 19, 2020. Colombia: A group of Venezuelan is walking on the highway a few kilometers after Bogota. They are coming from Lima (Peru), from where they left a month ago. They are going to Valencia in Venezuela. They start walking in the morning at 6am and stop around 5pm. In the last few days, they are only 10 km a day because one of the women is 4 months pregnant. They wash themselves in the rivers they come across or in the petrol stations. Credit: Nadège Mazars for NRC
Read caption Venezuelan migrants return to their native country during the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Nadège Mazars/NRC

Digital community hubs

Our collaboration with technology partners has brought unexpected benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have actually been able to increase the number of people we serve,” explains Egeland. “New technology has helped us in so many ways. We work differently now to how we did only seven or eight months ago.”

Sean Nicholson, NRC’s corporate relations special adviser, agrees: “What was surprising was that Covid helped us to accelerate some of our use of technology as an organisation, and leverage the fact that we could communicate with people. We created this idea of ‘digital community hubs’.”

Digital community hubs enable us to have two-way conversations with people forced to flee. The hubs include helpdesks where people can access information on how to get birth certificates for their children, how to get a “stay permit”, how to report protection concerns, how to get a Covid-19 test, and so on.

One NRC pilot project in Libya showed the huge potential of this approach. Egeland recalls: “We expected to have 500 people seeking advice when we went live, and we got 21,000 requests for assistance in the first month!”

When schools close, education continues

One particular success story has been education. When schools around the world closed in February and March, millions of displaced children risked getting even further behind with their education.

Thanks to our new digital capabilities, we were able to help.

 “We helped teachers in numerous places to do digital education,” Egeland explains. “This meant refugee children sitting on their mobile phone, maybe five children sharing one phone, getting tutoring from their teacher and having homework assigned to them.”

We were also able to offer support to young people who had graduated from vocational training.

They are all students in the Online Training Course at NRCs youth center in Nyumanzi Settelment.

Only 3% of refugee youth have access to tertiary education, compared to 36% of the world’s youth. While a growing number of programmes provide tertiary education opportunities to refugees through scholarships and distance education these are few and with little documentation about processes and outcomes. The partnership between. Arizona State University (ASU) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is a direct response to this need.

In August 2018, ASU and NRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish an ASU Earned Admission programme at Ayilo and Nyumanzi refugee camps in Adjumani District, Uganda. The programme provides students with access to online courses through the university’s Global Freshman Academy.

25 South Sudanese and Ugandan learners participated in the programme. 40% are female and the makeup of the group otherwise reflects the importance of working hand-in-hand with the host community.

Location: Youth Center in Nyumanzi Settelment, Adjumani, Uganda 
Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC
Read caption Young people in Uganda have been learning ICT skills online at NRC’s youth centre in Nyumanzi Settlement. Photo: Ingrid Prestetun/NRC

What does the future hold?

NRC is now firmly at the forefront of digital communications in humanitarian contexts. For example, through our digital community hubs, we push out information via SMS on behalf of a number of different aid agencies. In Kenya alone, we are planning to reach hundreds of thousands of refugees over the next year with messaging and by setting up call centres in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps.

The ongoing impacts of Covid-19 have made our work with technology partners more urgent than ever.

“I am optimistic that if we get increased resources, we will really be able to ramp up our aid,” says Egeland. “Which we need because there are an estimated 150–200 million more mouths to feed, just because of the pandemic.”

He concludes: “The tech sector has been challenged like no other sector, and it has shown us how it can survive the pandemic. We need the tech sector to focus on the most vulnerable. Please help us help those who are now truly in freefall.”