Analysis - Technological Developments

Smart Aid

Multiple Uses of Technology for Saving Lives in Conflict
Thursday، December 15، 2016
Smart Aid

The technological revolution has contributed to the field of communications and information sharing in supporting urgent humanitarian relief work for those affected by natural disasters and those fleeing devastating military conflicts and large-scale violence. Through interactive relief maps, smart cards, advanced electronic warning systems and urgent SMS messages, dozens of humanitarian organizations have managed to provide “life-saving” aid for many people. They include internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees fleeing from conflict zones, or civilians in besieged areas, as well as those in need of emergency healthcare.

Experts, researchers and humanitarian aid activists have introduced non-traditional aid that employs modern technologies under the umbrella concept of “Smart Aid.” But the concept is not new. It was initially used by major humanitarian institutions in the development of developing countries during the 1990s. At the time, it intended to increase the scale and quality of aid to developing countries, provided that the results were specific, clear and measurable.

Smarter aid is in the results

In the nineties, particularly during former US President Bill Clinton's administration, there was a need to put an end to the enormous waste in US aid to the African continent. This was because it was the poorest continent in the world, had the largest need for aid and consumed the highest share of it.

At the time, the administration came out with the broad motto “Trade Not Aid” to Africa adopting a set of policies to enhance growth opportunities and support the local economy. This took place either through direct assistance provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or through Washington’s lifting of restrictions on import from more than 35 African countries. It was known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

These measures emerged at a time when the conversation around bilateral development appeared inescapable. On the one hand, politicians and experts felt that US aid did not offer anything significant for the continent. The other side believed that Washington and other rich countries should pump more money into the arteries of African economies. Major humanitarian organizations wished to see aid having an impact, so they tried hard to demonstrate that financial aid had succeeded in achieving specific goals in specific contexts.

At the time, the conversation around smart aid was also timid, focusing on the achievement of measurable results, or output-based assistance. The concept – originally borrowed from the field of healthcare - soon received support from former US President George W. Bush's administration. The Bush administration applied the concept in Africa, with funds allocated for output-based assistance in specific fields of aid, particularly anti-AIDS programs.

The US government pumped $6.7 billion into sub-Saharan Africa through development aid agencies during the Bush’s eight-year tenure in the White House. The amount represented four times the value of aid provided by the Clinton administration. Since 2003, a large proportion of the funding went to implement a comprehensive program to combat AIDS, entitled the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). USAID says the program provided millions of dollars’ worth of medication for people living with the disease, of whom five million were on the brink of death. Also, under the program, medical consultations were provided for nearly 50 million others.

As Bush was preparing to leave the White House, the UN issued a report revealing that PEPFAR had provided antiviral drugs to half of all people living with HIV in Senegal and Rwanda, and to three-quarters of patients in Botswana and Namibia. The program was later recognized as a successful model of smart aid. This is because the money was channeled towards practical strategies and was designed to be results-oriented. Politically, it made Bush very popular within the African continent, unlike other regions of the world that made no secret of their joy at his departure.

Malaria control programs also represent another example of smart aid. Major countries allocated financial aid to fund specific strategies to tackle the disease, including the production of effective drugs and made them available at a low price. They also spent on a preventative approach to diseases by providing vaccinations for children under the age of five. In recent years, the number of malaria cases has fallen by more than 60 per cent in some West African countries, such as Senegal and Gambia. And in Rwanda and Ethiopia, the figure was 50 per cent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

How can aid be smart?

Analysts began to set standards and guidelines for transforming aid into "smart aid." Given the wide variety of aid initiatives and concepts used in the field, one cannot rely on a single precise or accurate definition of the concept. According to AidData, an organization founded in 2009 to provide the largest amount of data and information concerning aid across the world, aid must comprise five elements to be “smart.” Each element borrows its initial from the term “smart” as follows: Aid should be sufficient in size to achieve the desired goals. The results of the funded project should be measurable for all parties concerned, to enable them to see the progress made over time. The aid must also hold civil society accountable for it and monitor exactly where the funds go. And there should be clarity among the responsible parties for the financial flows of the project. Finally, there must be transparency in the delivery and spending of funds. These general principles were at the core of specialized foreign aid and international declarations, such as the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action.

A “smart” leap forward

In recent years, development and humanitarian aid workers and researchers have made amendments to the general logic behind the definition of "smart aid." This was to enhance the concept of cost-benefit analysis, which demonstrates the dominance of the American attitude to aid assessment. The latter approach probably fits the launch of development programs in countries that enjoy a degree of political stability (after an armed conflict or natural disaster). This means there is no measurable and assessable "smart aid" in times of emergencies, such an eruption of an armed conflict, acts of large-scale violence, an outbreak of natural disasters or the rapid outbreak of epidemics.

Some experts resorted to differentiate between “development aid”, which is a form of long-term aid involving slow decision-making and needing time to evaluate results on the ground, and “humanitarian aid”, which is urgent in nature and requires a quick response to determine its size, type, delivery method and the nature of its target groups. The latter form of aid benefited from the enormous potential for rapid transmission of information, enabled by the digital revolution. Relief organizations employed digital technologies and advanced digital communications to assist people affected by armed conflicts and violence. The aid is “smart” in two ways. First, it is measurable and delivers tangible results on the ground, because its aim is not only to improve the situation for civilians but also to save lives. Second, the aid benefits from “smart” means of communication and information technology to lend a hand to those who need it.

There are various examples of those benefits, both in the Middle Eastern context and other regions of the world. The refugee crisis of people fleeing across the Mediterranean in recent years would have led to the loss of tens of thousands more lives were it not for new technological applications. Roughly one million refugees, mostly Syrians, their war-torn country were able to reach the shores of Europe last summer. This was attributed to the use of smart, efficient, small and cheap mobile devices. Internet-enabled smart phones allowed refugees to navigate the 1,500 km journey from Syria to Europe. In seeking refuge, they found “smart” support in the form of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

These platforms provided invaluable information to refugees on how to hire rubber boats and ways of safeguarding themselves during arduous journeys. The refugees also learned how to reach the shores of the European continent, as well as paths of escape from border guards in Greece, for example. A senior official at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Alessandra Morelli, described them as “Facebook refugees” because they “know exactly where to go, whom to talk to and what to buy.”

Smart maps

Major international organizations, especially aid agencies, are increasingly setting out to employ these technologies to improve the overall global response to crises. One example of these techniques is to expand the mapping of satellite feeds via data from the Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The United Nations has already gotten accustomed to using these maps in peacekeeping missions. Furthermore, its specialized agencies, such as the Office Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), increasingly used the maps during disasters. For example, in Haiti, maps have been used to identify affected areas and to provide emergency aid in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010, which left more than 300,000 people dead. Catholic Relief Services also deployed the mapping technology to illustrate the locations of destroyed homes and sites better, while keeping track of the construction of more than 10,000 temporary homes. It subsequently carried the practice over to African countries such as Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

During recent years in the Middle East, the United Nations adopted such maps to locate gathered or trapped IDPs, as well as other civilians who were in urgent need of assistance. There are detailed maps of the Zaatari refugee camp, the largest of the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, as well as Dumez camp, the biggest Syrian refugee camp in Iraq. The maps help to identify the demographic changes in the camps, count the number of tents and other numbers, which contribute to determining the form of urgent aid that should be provided. It also allows the tracking of numbers of individuals fleeing the fighting zones at the border crossings between Syria and neighboring countries. The maps play another important role: they bring focus to camps that do not enjoy much attention in regional and international media, such as Al-Rukban desert camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border, which contains more than 60,000 refugees.

There has also been a qualitative shift in the use of maps to support relief operations around the world through interactive map technology. For example, some humanitarian relief organizations, including Red Cross societies in the US and Britain, and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) launched the Missing Maps project. The project is designed as a smart response tool for humanitarian crises, since natural disasters kill about 100,000 people annually, and displace about 200 million people, according to Missing Maps.

This site is an open technical source allowing the development of information on missing persons during disasters and the form of emergency aid required. It will thus be a valuable guide for the coordination of emergency relief work. Another project, Open Street Map, is an open source mapping platform that utilizes GIS to capture, store and analyze different types of data on one map. This makes for better coordination between the actors in the process of providing humanitarian relief.

Smart transfers

Digital E-cards represent one of the best smart technologies for helping refugees and IDPs during natural disasters or armed conflict. The cards are various, from those which help to obtain cash assistance, to supply cards for food or clothing. For example, humanitarian organizations, and especially the UNHCR, have used biometric verification systems for Syrian refugees in Jordan since 2013. This system, which relies on the refugee’s fingerprint, enabled tens of thousands of refugees to get cash assistance quickly and efficiently through ATMs. It also gave provider organizations control of the data, reduced fraud and prevented duplication of beneficiaries’ names in the program.

The World Food Programme (WFP) demonstrates another way digital cards can be used. In 2012, it launched a program with the Turkish Red Crescent to provide food to Syrian refugees. The program provides electronic smart cards for refugees in five camps in Turkey to buy food worth $45 USD for each family member per month. This amount is enough to buy at least 2,000 calories per person per day, enables the purchase of food from stores according to taste and helps in supporting the local economy. The program was also launched in Lebanon this year.

In 2015, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) undertook an initiative to provide smart cards for refugee children in Lebanon so they could obtain winter clothing, including shoes, socks, trousers, a jacket, hat, gloves and long socks. In doing so, it provided aid to some 50,000 refugee children under the age of 14 years.


1. For more information on development law and opportunities in Africa, see: 

2. Janisch, Claus P., and Malcolm Potts. "Smart aid—the role of output-based assistance." The Lancet 366, no. 9494 (2005): 1343-1344.

3. Dagne, Ted. Africa: US Foreign Assistance Issues. DIANE Publishing, 2006. Link:

4. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Report on the Global Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome Epidemic. Unaids, 2008.

 5.  Boyce, James K. "Aid conditionality as a tool for peacebuilding: Opportunities and constraints." Development and Change 33, no. 5 (2002): P. 1037.

6. Ivan Watson, Clayton Nagel and Zeynep Bilginsoy, (September 15, 2015)'Facebook refugees' chart escape from Syria on cell phones, Link:

Keywords: ConflictAidTechnologySmart AidHumanitarian AidDevelopment StudiesMapAIDS