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Our World. Your Move: Technology in the service of the most vulnerable

The IFRC Digital Divide Initiative

Thanks to modern technology – computers, the Internet, mobile phones – we now have access to entirely new ways of working. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have used these tools to become more efficient internally, to work more closely with their partners in the IFRC and in civil society, and increasingly to reach out directly to the vulnerable communities they serve.

Access to these opportunities is not distributed equally.

In poorer countries and communities equipment can be prohibitively expensive, skills are difficult to come by, infrastructure is lacking and the price of connectivity places it beyond reach. Many National Societies closest to vulnerable communities are deprived of the benefits of modern technology. This is the reality of the Digital Divide in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

In early 2011 the International Federation assessed the information and communications technology (ICT) capacity of 113 National Societies. As expected, the greatest difficulties are experienced in the poorest regions of the world; but in every zone National Societies are struggling to maintain the appropriate technological level to run an effective organization in the modern world.

This has an impact through all National Society’s activities. Programme and service delivery is compromised by lack of communications, inability to gather and evaluate information, and lack of volunteer data. Inadequate financial systems hamper reporting and reduce accountability. Limited connectivity makes it difficult for a National Society to get its message out through modern online communications tools, and failing email systems impede its ability to play a proper role as a member of the International Federation.

As a Federation, in some areas we possess considerable strengths. Our better resourced National Societies often have skilled staff and sophisticated systems. But here, too, our potential greatly exceeds our current achievement. Sadly, in ICT we don’t often function as a Federation; instead each National Society works in isolation. When the introduction of a new system can cost hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs, this leads to enormously wasteful duplication of effort. In a group of 45 National Societies which reported that they had a volunteer management system in 2011, no two had the same system. Not a single National Society had benefited from the experience of any of the others. We can do better than this.

At the same time, a few National Societies still manage to use technology effectively in the most difficult circumstances. They demonstrate what is possible, and serve as an example and a standard to aspire to as we assist the others.

The Digital Divide initiative aims to create an environment enabling all National Societies to benefit from the best of modern technology. The initiative addresses three areas:

Crossing the Digital Divide: Our first priority is to address the needs of National Societies whose lack of capacity in ICT directly impacts their strength and effectiveness. Combining direct assistance to National Societies in need and the negotiation of global preferential deals with suppliers, this programme aims to ensure that, over time, a base level of ICT capacity is established across all National Societies, moving the ICT focus from problems to opportunities.
Discover and harvest: Often the same problems are addressed over and over, each National Society working on its own. We will establish a clearing house of applications and expertise, allowing the best solutions to be reused and preventing National Societies from being forced to invent their own solutions for needs which have already been addressed elsewhere.
A technology community: We are our own best resource. This programme aims to bring together Red Cross Red Crescent technology specialists no matter where they are located to provide each other with support and ideas. Through online communities of practice, remote training, expert forums and the establishment of a global knowledge base, we will harness the power of our global network.

The secretariat has established a team of experts in ICT and development, and proposes a five year programme to bridge the Digital Divide in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. We are looking for funders interested in exploring the power of technology to help beneficiaries and National Societies, and associating themselves with a significant and innovative initiative which will put the International Federation in a leadership position in the field.