Ways Technology Can Help Solve Humanitarian Issues

Internet access and sustainable energy projects are making it easier for people to access resources and services

12 February 2016

Humanitarian work never ends. The United Nations this year is seeking US $20 billion for humanitarian projects—five times the amount it requested a decade ago. The projects include helping people rise out of poverty and providing aid for those affected by war.

There are no easy answers to the challenges, but technology and education can provide assistance. The Institute interviewed three members of the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee, which launched in January. They shared how simple, low-cost innovations can help.


    IEEE Member Kartik Kulkarni, chair of IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT), which connects IEEE members who work together to help people in need.

    The Internet has paved the way for the sharing economy, Kulkarni notes, allowing people to make money by offering their services online. Although many might initially think of the short-term home-rental website Airbnb and ride-hailing service Uber, other services are offered on a smaller scale.

    Women in Bangladesh, for example, rent their household appliances, such as vacuum cleaners, for a small fee. In Uganda, owners of motorbikes, which are the most popular mode of transportation, have started a service similar to Uber. Using the SafeBoda app [above], customers request to be picked up and pay for the ride from their phone. As Internet access becomes available in more places, more people will be empowered to become entrepreneurs, Kulkarni says, and barriers will be lowered for others to get access to affordable services and resources. “The sharing economy,” he says, “will help democratize higher standards of living.”


    IEEE Senior Member Mario Aleman, chair of IEEE SIGHT Nicaragua

    Bringing electricity to remote villages can be expensive and complicated, but there are now more low-cost solutions, Aleman says. In Nicaragua, for instance, IEEE volunteers helped to design, build, and install wind turbines like the one above, made from recycled materials such as plastic pipes and car parts. The turbines power charging stations, where people recharge batteries to light their homes and power their radios. Nearby households can thus stop using kerosene lamps, which can be dangerous and harmful to health, Aleman says. Children can study at night, too, and businesses can stay open later.

    Moreover, the project is self-sustainable: The IEEE group taught others in the community how to operate the turbines. Because the costs to build sustainable-energy technologies continue to decrease, Aleman says, they are at the center of many humanitarian efforts. More incentives and policies are needed, however, to promote such technologies and keep them affordable and sustainable, he says.


    IEEE Member Jackie Stenson, cofounder of Essmart

    After several years of traveling through rural and poor villages in sub-Saharan Africa and India, Stenson learned most people did not know how to access and maintain the technologies that were built or provided by aid organizations, whether they be solar lanterns [above, right] or advanced agricultural systems that can conserve water. Educating locals is key, she says, to helping rural low-income users adopt what she calls life-changing technologies.

    Her company, Essmart, distributes some 70 technologies throughout rural India, which has nearly 15 million mom-and-pop shops. Her products include reusable water-filtration systems, off-grid mobile phone chargers, and smokeless cooking stoves [above, left]. Essmart works with shop owners to help them sell the products and to educate customers on their benefits and how to operate them and repair them if necessary.

    Find out how you can get involved by visiting the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee Web page.

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