The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is a nonprofit organization that aids communities and individuals affected and displaced by conflict across the globe. Its activities are multifaceted, covering several interrelated areas of focus: Shelter and Non-food Items, Food Security, Protection, Income Generation, Coordination & Operational Services, Community Infrastructure & Services, Humanitarian Mine Action, Armed Violence Reduction (AVR), Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) and Education.Read about how they are innovating in the field in high-risk situations. This case study was first published in “The Organization in the Digital Age” in December 2016. Photo credit http://danishdemininggroup.dk
Update 2017: The project has developed significantly since this case was written. The project has been transferred to local ownership and DDG is no longer directly involved.
Rune Bech Persson is a Program and Operations Coordinator with the DRC’s specialized Mine Action unit of the Danish Demining Group (DDG). It operates in some of the most volatile conflict zones in the world. This includes countries affected by the use of landmines, other explosive remnants of war and the widespread availability of small arms and light weapons. DDG’s Mine Action Application (MApps) project seeks to link communities to Mine Action through digital platforms. The situation in eastern Ukraine has provided an opportunity to innovate in an ongoing conflict situation.
Opening Up Communication
Rune explains, “The objective of DDG’s pilot project is to enable two-way communication between civilians, aid agencies, and government bodies. This is facilitated via an SMS system, mobile apps and a web portal that contains all the information reported. The technological infrastructure allows people to report the location of mines and unexploded ordnance, and potentially to request victim assistance or Mine Risk Education. They can use a web form, SMS or an app. The portal is open to the public. Anyone can see it.”
All this necessitates extensive engagement by DDG and its project partners with different interest groups, including civilians in conflict-affected areas, government bodies and local NGOs.
Beneficiary inclusion is extremely important to the incremental development and implementation of the pilot project. This requires an agile approach, adapted for the complex environment of a live conflict zone. Much is ad hoc, and high levels of responsiveness and flexibility are essential. DDG and their partners may have had a broad idea of what they hoped to achieve at the very beginning, but inclusion of beneficiaries from the earliest phases of the project has resulted in regular refinement.
Operating Within Constraints
All parties recognize the value and potential benefits of the pilot project and its objectives. Yet two factors, in particular, have made it far from straightforward. The first is the constraints of an overstretched Ukrainian government to dedicate enough time and resource to the initiative.
The second is the time required to build trust in a new system, and the unease about providing any information before that trust has been established.
Human considerations inevitably skew the best-laid plans, further highlighting the need for small, experimental steps.
Focus groups and test scenarios are central to the pilot project’s success. Overwhelmingly, though, this is a digital initiative shaped by ethical considerations, with the project beneficiaries, the civilians in affected territories, of primary importance.
Rune observes, “Testing new solutions in a war situation with shelling and shooting forces our people to weigh the importance of each humanitarian intervention to ensure critical resources are not wasted. You have to constantly weigh your risks against the benefits. In the Ukraine, we were able to do this because we were not at the front lines. Still, when we are working with people and showing them how to use the reporting system, we are taking their time. We have to believe we are doing something that will really be useful to them, and not wasting their time in a very critical situation.”
This is not a one-size fits all solution. Where mobile phone use is extensive in the Ukraine, for example, it is less prevalent in Vietnam, where DDG is running a parallel exercise. The contexts are different too in the two countries: Ukraine represents an acute humanitarian crisis scenario whereas Vietnam is dealing with the legacy of a historic scenario. The lessons learned from the trials and errors in both geographical locations will enable DDG to develop a people-centric, technology-enabled framework for implementation elsewhere.
Digital augments rather than replaces physical presence.
A virtual presence, however, is not enough. People, present and accessible, are necessary to liaise with different partners and beneficiaries, addressing evolving concerns as the context in which the project is being run is constantly shifting. Rune makes a pithy observation: “I don’t think digital tools can really replace material assistance, feet on the ground.” For Rune, digital equates to the augmentation rather than replacement of a physical presence among the communities DDG serves.