Mobile network operators pledge to support their subscribers in humanitarian crises

3 March, 2015
5 Feb 2014, Guiuan, Philippines: Residents affected by Typhoon Haiyan charge their phones at a community centre. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes
5 Feb 2014, Guiuan, Philippines: Residents affected by Typhoon Haiyan charge their phones at a community centre. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes
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As fighting was escalating in northern Iraq in August last year, more than 500,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Many were stranded in scorching heat on Sinjar mountain. In desperation, people called the UN asking for food and water. And mobile phone chargers.

Their phones allowed them to stay connected with their communities and to access information about how to reach safety. Aid agencies ensured that food, water and other essentials were air-dropped on to the mountain – including solar lanterns equipped with mobile phone chargers.

The experience of people on Sinjar – this need to communicate with responders and with each other – is a common one for people affected by a crisis. In recent years, aid groups have come to recognize that information and the ability to communicate can be just as important as physical aid.

The “Humanitarian Connectivity Charter”

In recognition of this, GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association – a global industry body for telecommunication providers) this week launched the “Humanitarian Connectivity Charter” at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The charter offers a common, predictable operational framework, to ensure that mobile network operators respond to people’s needs more quickly and efficiently in the wake of a disaster. The first operators to adopt the principles in the charter are Axiata, Etisalat, Ooredoo and Smart Communications, who together represent over 1 billion subscribers in 35 countries.

“To date, mobile operators, through services such as early warning systems and SMS information campaigns, have demonstrated their commitment to citizens during adverse events,” said Anne Bouverot, GSMA’s Director General.

“The Humanitarian Connectivity Charter will strengthen preparedness and collaboration within the industry, ensuring that mobile operators are undertaking measures to prepare their own operations, support subscribers and equip responders to face the growing challenge presented by humanitarian emergencies around the world.”

“Mobile phones services can make the difference between life and death”

Under the charter, mobile operators will pledge to make mobile services more accessible to those affected by humanitarian crises through the provision of free or subsidized network access where appropriate.

“Mobile technology has helped ensure there is a two-way conversation,” explained Gwi-Yeop Son, the Director of OCHA’s Corporate Programme Division. “Aid responders are empowered with the exact information of what the needs are from the people themselves.”

Innovative technology can also dramatically reduce the cost of aid, while amplifying its impact in some of the world’s most critical humanitarian environments.. In disaster-prone Somalia for example, the use of cash transfer technology has empowered vulnerable people to make decisions affecting their lives directly.

“Harnessing the power of the mobile industry will be a great step towards making the best use of technology during emergencies,” said Ms. Son. “Mobile phone services can make the difference between life and death in a crisis.”