Ukraine response

Digitising humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid is becoming increasingly digital, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), alongside our global tech partners, is leading the way. But what exactly is digital humanitarian aid? And how have we used it to enable Ukrainians to be heard?

More than 80 per cent of the global population has a mobile phone, and 63 per cent use the internet. It’s a fact: the world we live in has become increasingly digital. And humanitarian aid must keep up.

Our innovative digital aid programming enabled us to act quickly when millions of Ukrainians were forced to flee their homes earlier this year. And it continues to allow us to provide immediate on-demand support to those who need it.

“This digital response is not just transformational for NRC,” says Christopher Hoffman, who is leading the work. “It’s also transforming the sector and allowing it to operate succinctly with the people we’re trying to serve.”

But what exactly is digital humanitarian aid?

Aid in the times of social distancing

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, many feared the impact it would have on delivering humanitarian aid. But in fact, the pandemic created promising new technological opportunities for NRC to explore.

Together with our three tech partners, we conducted a multi-language survey with displaced people in eight different countries. We sent the survey via text message, with the goal of learning what negative impacts the pandemic was having on vulnerable populations.

Using mobile phones in this way is nothing new. But what this technological effort has now grown into is new, the complexity is leading the sector.

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 NRC Yemen team in Aden provided remote counselling and legal advice over the phone in 2020 to prevent the potential spread of Covid-19. Photo: Fares Fuad/NRC

It has grown globally into what we call “Digital Community Hubs” which allow us to have two-way conversations with people forced to flee. The hubs allow us to gather data, distribute aid, get feedback, and provide a personalised service to those in need of support.

Ahead of the curve

When the conflict in Ukraine escalated in February 2022 into a country-wide war, many NGOs, including NRC, quickly assessed how to support those in need.

“In Ukraine, we took the learnings from 27 different countries where we’ve implemented the Digital Community Hub approach,” says Christopher. “We took all these learnings and then we’ve scaled it. So, in Ukraine, we were able to do everything and more.”

What we’ve been able to deliver in Ukraine:

  • Text messages: we send information about where displaced people can, for example, get a food parcel or where they can go and stay in a new city.
  • Call-in centre: our call centre allows people to call in and get information they need or request assistance. Our systems can verify those who are calling in to check that they’re real and that they are who they say they are.
  • Cash and voucher assistance: the system is directly linked to cash and voucher assistance. Displaced Ukrainians send in their applications, which are processed using automated scoring matrices, and the money is sent directly to them. It can be withdrawn from their bank accounts or over the counter.
  • Monitoring: We reach people across Ukraine, even in non-government-controlled areas, to assess their situation, and conduct post-distribution monitoring. This provides us with insight so that we can plan our responses promptly.
  • Self-initiated needs assessments: anyone in the country can tell us what they’re facing and what they’re going through so that we can respond according to the needs.

“What this means with the Ukraine response,” Christopher explains, “is that in essence, we have not had to have field staff go out and find people who need assistance. We have captured people through the system, verified people through the systems, verified their vulnerabilities through the system and verified their locations and been able to distribute cash to every person we already have programming for.”

So far, we’ve distributed over USD 12 million through the system. We’ve sent 60 million text messages, conducted 40,000 needs assessments, and registered over 650,000 individuals.

We’ve been able to distribute cash to everyone who has met our vulnerability criteria, no matter where they’re located.

Partnerships make it happen

Partnerships are essential for our work. We operate in more than 40 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.

We have five of the largest tech companies in the world who sit with us almost on a daily basis and walk this journey with us on their tools. Some of the tech partners who have enabled us to build these innovative systems are:

  • Meta (WhatsApp)
  • Amazon Web Service
  • Twilio
  • Cisco
  • Corteza

Personalisation = dignity

One of the most important elements of our digital humanitarian aid approach is that is provides a personalised service.

“These digital community hubs are beneficial to a family in Ukraine because they allow us to give a dignified response to them,” says Christopher. “We treat them as if they are a customer, not as a person who is in need. We treat them as people we are trying to serve.”

What he means by this is that the Ukrainians themselves are in control. They are the facilitators of the conversation. They’re able to ask the questions that they want to ask and receive the assistance they require.

“And so, I usually say, in simple terms, personalisation equals dignity.”


We're grateful to our donors for the continuous support
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union, Ukraine Humanitarian Pooled Fund, USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, UNHCR, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, German Federal Foreign Office, Belgium Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid.