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Humanitarian action in armed conflict: why location matters

03-04-2012 Statement

Address by Robert Mardini, ICRC deputy director-general, at the conference on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for the United Nations and the International Community, 3-5 April 2012, Geneva, Switzerland

It might surprise you, but the International Committee of the Red Cross, for which I work, is a very early adopter of new technologies.

The ICRC is present in more than 80 countries with close to 13,000 staff worldwide. Its extensive network of missions, delegations and Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers allows it to take action in close proximity to people affected by armed conflict, other emergencies and natural disasters. We always strive for a strong humanitarian response. Geographic information systems can improve that response.

Until the second half of the twentieth century, maps and location devices were closely associated with military capabilities. In countries at war, travelling near a border or a frontline without a map could be risky. Maps have always been powerful tools of control, administration, and intelligence gathering. This is why holding accurate maps and positioning devices was once limited exclusively to military forces or intelligence agencies.

Over the past 20 years, humanitarian work has become more complex and more specialized. This trend has prompted the adoption of new tools, both technological and managerial.GIS is one of them.

For the ICRC, reliable maps have always been a key tool. In the late 1990s, we started using GIS to design and build water-supply systems for conflict-affected communities. We also used GIS technology to provide maps showing ICRC activities for interested parties in the field. At the time, one of the ICRC's biggest concerns was how to stop our engineers from spending entire days glued to their computer screens using the not-so-user-friendly yet strangely addictive Arcview 3.1 – to the detriment of actual field work.

As of 2006, the ICRC broadened the use of its mapping capacity to gathering detailed data in support of a range of other activities. It enabled better-informed decision-making. Accurate determination of location matters in hostile environments where humanitarian workers often face problems gaining acceptance and access. It matters both for the safety of the people affected by conflict or natural disasters and for the safety of humanitarian workers themselves.


How does the ICRC use GIS to support its humanitarian operations in the field?

Prompt and sound decision-making is critical for the ICRC in acute crises and complex emergencies. GIS help us take informed decisions; they also help us make educated guesses. They quickly provide us with reliable maps containing useful data. We have developed our own system called Geoportal. It is user-friendly and is available online to all ICRC staff, both at headquarters and in the field.

GIS help identify patterns of violence – where they emerge, when and for how long. For instance, they enable us to document attacks on health-care facilities and personnel, patients and medical vehicles.

They also help us repair and upgrade critical infrastructure in war-affected communities. Think of Goma, in eastern Congo-Kinshasa, a city to which so many people have fled the fighting. Today it has a population of over half a million people – a tremendous strain on infrastructure.

A new ICRC project in Ethiopia illustrates how simple technology can help improve access to water for rural villages. The project will link 32 local water boards to a central database. Information uploaded by mobile phone users will then be used to map and chart the status of 7,000 individual pumps and stations, thus keeping them informed of where repairs are needed. We hope this project can be expanded in Ethiopia and replicated elsewhere.

In places where access is difficult, remote sensing allows the ICRC to monitor the impact of some of its programmes. Satellite imagery can show whether irrigation projects, for instance, are making a difference to food production without it being necessary to actually check on the spot. Remote sensing then complements information provided by other sources on the ground.


GIS are also an excellent tool for promoting the flow of information within an organization and beyond.

GIS also have potential for human resources management, interaction with operational partners, relationships with beneficiaries, and many other fields. I will focus here on human resources and operational partners.

GIS can facilitate decision-making and improve the management and dissemination of information. For example, every rapid deployment in complex emergencies obviously benefits from knowing what resources are available where. What are the location and possible uses of facilities such as airports, roads, administrative buildings, hospitals, etc.? This can obviously also be useful in our regular operations as well as in situations where we have to resort to so-called ''remote management''. Our work in Somalia is a case in point.

GIS have enabled the ICRC to enhance the flow of information. Since October 2011, our GIS Geoportal enables all employees at headquarters and in the field to access basic geographical and other information regarding logistics, human resources, and so on. Indeed, it is the only single means of gathering information from staff members and external sources alike. Staff members can upload and share their data, which can then be used by decision-makers to plan programmes and carry them out.

GIS have also made it possible to open up the humanitarian sphere to a new group of people. Like other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC has benefited from an impressive goodwill on the part of volunteer mapping communities such as OpenStreetMap. They greatly helped the ICRC in places like Haiti in 2010, Kyrgyzstan during the 2010 riots there, and more recently in the Congolese city of Walikale, where we are currently using crowd-sourced maps to support the repair and extension of the water-supply network. This dynamism is a promising opportunity for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to take advantage of constantly evolving technological skills possessed by people willing to work as volunteers.

Finally, the ICRC benefited from UNOSAT analyses in recent emergency operations such as flooding in Pakistan and the earthquake in Haiti. UNOSAT and the ICRC are both working on closer cooperation.

The ICRC has a reputation as a secretive organization that deals with confidential information and data. However, 90% of our work is not confidential at all. I am convinced that sharing information with the main interested parties (humanitarian organizations or local partners) in the field improves the overall humanitarian response. We are committed to sharing more information with those parties provided it does not jeopardize the safety of the beneficiaries and our confidential dialogue with government authorities and armed groups.


New technologies are profoundly changing some aspects of the humanitarian sphere. Beneficiaries will increasingly have their say about when and how humanitarian organizations will work. A combination of GIS and social media will no doubt sharpen and significantly shorten the phase during which needs are assessed in complex emergencies.

We have observed that many people requiring humanitarian aid are already able to send information about their situation and their needs using high-tech devices. This is clearly changing the way we work.

At the same time, however, the expectations of people affected by conflict and other disasters are also greater. Mobile and smartphones may help collect and disseminate information, but they also prompt people to think that relief should come faster, be more professional – and that is a right.

But the logistical, financial, travel and other constraints we face on the ground remain unchanged, and we need to work hard on how to bridge the gap between high beneficiary expectations (and understandable impatience) and the chronic slowness of the response. Humanitarian organizations need to engage in innovative thinking. Things like credit transfers via mobile phones, perhaps, rather than flying and trucking bags of flour and corn.

We live in a data-driven world in which donors and policy makers want to see exactly where their money goes and how it is used. Complex planning and reporting mechanisms are needed. Maps can do a great deal to present data in a clear and easily digestible manner. They can also be used to send powerful messages.

GIS make access to information cheaper and more widely available. While this development is generally positive, that can't always be said of the means of production and reliability of the information and the use to which it is put. Indeed, cyberspace can be just another arena for a conflict, with false information an important weapon in the propaganda battle. At the 2011 CrisisMappers' Conference, the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations stressed the protection- and security-related differences between emergency operations and operations in "conflict-affected" environments. Since then, the ICRC has been spearheading an advisory group of NGOs and UN agencies involved in protection work to adopt "Professional Standards for Protection Work" that can be applied to "e-volunteers".

The humanitarian community must harness technological innovations to further improve its response to the needs of conflict-affected populations and those suffering from the effects of natural disasters. Maps promote evidence-based and well informed decision-making. However, they do not actually provide solutions to conflicts and other complex emergencies. Humanitarian workers need to strike a balance between the urge to take swift and effective action and the increasingly obvious need for sustainable action. Thus, action can be too slow, it's true – but it can also be too hasty.

Actually, the ease and speed of data collection should not overshadow the fact that maps remain an abstract representation of certain facts. They do not tell us anything about ethnic dynamics among local groups, sociological factors, or the nature of the local people's ordeal. If mapping systems are not properly used, or if they are wrongly combined with other forms of assessment, tragic mistakes may occur. The "view from above" can provide very useful information about flood-affected areas, deforestation and population movements. However, it will not give any insight regarding people's resilience, coping mechanisms or patterns of abuses.


While technology is hugely useful, it can never replace field presence and proximity to the people we are trying to help. The benefit of GIS lies in carefully balancing its scientific technological capabilities with the experience, flair and "field credibility" of the humanitarian workers themselves.

The ICRC looks forward to working on this issue with you and with others in the countries where it operates.