Well before mobile technology was ubiquitous, a French-based non-governmental organization (NGO) called Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) realized that in addition to water, food, shelter, and health, there was a real need for telecommunications in humanitarian efforts. TSF is credited with inventing the concept of humanitarian telecoms in terms of access to communications for relief workers as well as disaster victims. The Vodafone Foundation started funding TSF in 2002. After supporting TSF for several years, the foundation realized there was plenty more to do to provide communication-related aid to agencies and victims in emergencies. As a result, the Vodafone Foundation developed the Instant Networks Programme, to quickly provide information and communications technology (ICT) in the wake of an emergency like the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Eastern DRC has been plagued by ongoing civil unrest and violence resulting in mass displacement. In 2013, in response to the most recent uprising, the Vodafone Foundation brought the Instant Network Programme, in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to Mugunga 3, a displacement camp housing almost 20,000 Congolese, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province. There, the Vodafone Foundation set up four ‘phone booths’ providing a total of 20 mobile phones for IDPs living in the camp. Each ‘phone booth’ is equipped with five mobile phones: four phones for making and receiving calls, and one phone to send and receive text messages and money transfers through a service called M-Pesa.
IDPs are allowed five free minutes of calls per week. These parameters are flexible especially in case of emergencies, like the death of a family member. “There is mobile coverage in Goma and its surrounding areas. A five-minute call costs about 50 cents but people in the camps are living on less than one dollar a day. Five minutes of free calling allows them to save half of their available income while staying in touch with their loved ones,” shares Instant Network Programme manager Oisin Walton. “By connecting family members, it enables IDPs to access their support network and hopefully get positive news from their villages about when it may be safe to return home.” The ‘phone booths’ also provide IDPs with access to support in the absence of livelihoods opportunities and aid. Two years after the height of the crisis, food distributions in Mugunga 3 were reduced to once every two months due to decreased funding. This is not enough to cover the needs of the average family. If relatives can send money via M-Pesa, this is one more way to support those most affected by the conflict and displacement. M-Pesa is service provided by Vodacom, the local brand of Vodafone in the DRC, which allows users to transfer money via SMS. Callers can ask family members to send money to the one phone dedicated to text messaging and M-Pesa. Once received, a Vodacom staff member can transfer the money onto an approved mobile phone in the camp or cash the money to provide the recipient with cash-in-hand.
The same phone that operates M-Pesa allows family members and other connections to send messages back to those residing in the camp. When messages are received, Vodacom staff record them and then deliver the messages. This means that even if a camp resident and one of their contacts cannot arrange a time to connect voice-to-voice, they can still communicate.
Instant Networks Programme has offered about 160,000 free calls since operations started in October 2013. This allows those uprooted from their homes, living in arduous conditions, to maintain some semblance of normalcy by connecting with relatives. Oisin explains: “Just a few free minutes provide those who have lost almost everything with something: the ability to reach out to family or friends.” The program has been very successful in the DRC. Oisin admits: “It’s easier to manage and offer these services in countries like the DRC, Kenya, and Tanzania, where Vodafone operates the cellular network.” However, the Vodafone Foundation has also implemented similar programs in countries outside of Vodafone’s coverage, working through a partner operator. “There is a growing trend of operators getting involved in disaster response to help clients through difficult times and support agencies bringing in aid; and to get the networks up and running as quickly as possible so that business continues.”
“The humanitarian community has come a long way since 2001. Not to say that food and shelter are not paramount in the aftermath of a disaster. It is more a growing recognition of the role that technology can play in addressing certain challenges,” highlights Oisin. From keeping in touch with loved ones, to accessing education and even financial support from distant relatives, mobile technology plays a pivotal and growing role in relief efforts to better meet the needs of those most affected by crisis. The Vodafone Foundation is driven to continue to push the larger development field to recognize the impact technology can have, and to view it as a vital need as opposed to a luxury.
This case study was developed for Foundation Center's Equal Footing project.