Humanitarian groups discuss how the mobile boom can be used for the common good

Representatives from several prominent humanitarian organizations spoke about the emerging importance of mobile technology in the humanitarian sector at a summit in Nay Pyi Taw this week. 

The event, the 3rd Annual Aid & Development Asia Summit, was organized by the Aid and International Development Forum. The summit brought leaders from Myanmar’s public and private sectors, along with international NGOs and businesses, together to discuss trends and innovations that hold the potential to bolster humanitarian projects in the nation. 

The two-day event ran from June 14 to 15. 

Panelists from three humanitarian groups outlined how their organizations leverage mobile technology for public good, and the trends they expect for the future of this sector.The representatives were from Mercy Corps—a global relief organization, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and Marie Stopes International—a reproductive health care provider.

Just over a decade ago, SIM cards in Myanmar could cost thousands of US dollars, said the Country Director of Marie Stopes International, Dr. Sid Naing. Now, SIM cards can be purchased for just over one dollar, and the use of mobile phones has grown tenfold in the past decade, he said.

To jump on this trend, Marie Stopes Myanmar developed an app called MATE, which provides Myanmar language users with much needed information on topics like family planning, pregnancy, childbirth and newborn care. 

MATE is just one project that joined other groups looking to provide accurate information to patients nationwide, many of whom do not have regular access to medical care. One of these efforts is Myanmar 7887 Healthcare Call Center, where people from around the country can dial 7887 to ask pressing medical questions. But, this service is not toll-free, and “people sometimes don’t know that it exists, so it’s not as successful as it could have been,” Dr. Sid Naing said. 

Instead, he said that Myanmar citizens increasingly rely on Facebook as a means for information. The number of Facebook users in Myanmar is nearly equal to the number of internet users in the country, so “you must have a Facebook page, otherwise you are totally insignificant in this society,” Naig argued. According to the doctor, Myanmar people have started to peer source health questions on the popular social network in large numbers. Many local people trust fellow Facebook users with a sensitive question than they do outside professionals, he said.

Other organizations have recognized this Facebook trend. UN OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, uses Facebook as a tool to target individuals after natural disasters. After a disaster hits, people quickly regain mobile internet, the panelist from OCHA said. 

So, the UN organization geolocates disaster torn areas to target afflicted users with surveys. Using Survey Monkey, a popular online survey tool, the organization asks questions to locals in Myanmar language to assess the extent of the damage and evaluate the pressing needs of people on the ground. This tactic allows OCHA to reach out to the maximum number of individuals in disaster-torn areas remotely, all using the tools that people already have and use daily. 

Leveraging Facebook is just one of the many methods that aid groups use to bolster their efforts in Myanmar. According to Drew Johnson, the Program Director of Market Development at Mercy Corp, the future of mobile development in this sector will rely on integrating information services with transactions using mobile money:“that’s the future,” Johnson said.

Integration means using data driven mobile resources to locate individuals who require a service, while allowing transactions to run through the same platform. “This means increasing impact, and increasing complexity,” the panelist argued. 

Mercy Corps has started to develop humanitarian solutions along these lines. One programme they sponsor provides vouchers to farmers, which allow them to purchase agriculture solutions that “we deem valuable,” at reduced cost, he said.

Mercy Corps hopes to encourage farmers to adopt new and potentially fruitful technologies that they have traditionally been slow to adopt. So far, over 110,000 agricultural technologies have been purchased under this programme. About 70 percent of the product is paid for by farmers, and 30 percent is paid by Mercy Corps and its partners, Johnson said.

Ideas like these were discussed at the 3rd Annual Aid & Development Asia Summit, as humanitarian organizations use different ways to leverage the mobile boom in Myanmar for the common good.

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