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Humanitarian innovation: why Asia-Pacific is taking centre stage

18 November 2013, Bangkok - UNOSAT joined some 100 disaster management professionals representing 20 countries from Asia and the Pacific for a two-day meeting convened by OCHA to discuss ideas and best practices in humanitarian assistance and emergency preparedness. This was the fifth meeting of the “Regional Humanitarian Partnership” in the region. Olivier Van Damme of UNOSAT who attended the meeting from the UNOSAT office in Bangkok says "there is a growing sense of partnership building in this region and humanitarians are driving some of this efforts forward. The meeting showed that there is indeed strong potential here".

Rashid Khalikov, Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, said that the meeting provided “new ideas for humanitarian workers worldwide, sending a clear message that Asia and the Pacific are taking a leading role in innovation of the humanitarian system”. Mr Khalikov made also another point, which is of primary importance to UNOSAT: “The humanitarian community is constantly searching for innovative approaches to building resilience and managing disaster response to minimize the loss of life,” he added.

UNOSAT has invested constantly over the years precisely in developing and testing innovative approaches, and in combining edge technology and new applications with training and partnerships. The Programme has developed solid alliances within the region based on trust and a constant exchange with national experts, regional organizations and UN sister agencies active in the region. A formal agreement with ESCAP is the backbone of UNOSAT presence in the region and UNOSAT offices in Bangkok are provided by the Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Reduction Division of ESCAP.

So, why is Asia-Pacific taking centre stage in humanitarian innovation? Firstly, the region accounts for the majority of natural disasters occurring in the world and it is home to a vast majority of those affected by disasters. The on-going emergency in the Philippines is just the latest in a series of stark reminders of the extreme vulnerability of people in this region. Secondly, current patterns in climate change are threatening the very existence of some Pacific island states. In this part of the world reducing disaster risk takes a more dramatic significance,  which in some cases is about survival altogether. Thirdly, innovation and technology are woven into the very fabric of Asian vibrant economic and social landscape and they represent a common denominator across most countries in the region. Many Asian countries master new technologies and have innovative ideas. They also have developed a deeper understanding of the role of technology in preventing disasters and responding to emergencies.  

Meanwhile humanitarians have developed a better understanding of the role of technology in more aspects than communication and information management. UNOSAT experts say that only a few years ago it was difficult to introduce technology as a topic in any of the discussions held in the humanitarian community. But today everyone understands that new objectives in joint assessment and integrated data collection are unfeasible without technology. Things are changing faster than ever before. OCHA's 2013 report “Humanitarianism in the Network Age”, for example, opens the door to a new debate on how humanitarians can harness the power of technology to increase the efficiency of response.

Photos: The Head of OCHA in Asia-Pacific, Oliver Lacey-Hall, addressed the Regional Partnership Forum. Below: UNOSAT has led innovation within the UN by being the first to own light UAVs for disaster response.