Here’s how governments can help mobile phones become a humanitarian lifeline

Mobile phones can help deliver vital services to people like this migrant from Mali.
  • Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile phones have become a lifeline for many.
  • However, too many people are still excluded from this vital technology, especially marginalized groups such as refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Governments need to step in to ensure mobile services help the world’s most vulnerable communities access aid and other essential support.

As the COVID-19 pandemic strikes poor and vulnerable people all over the world, mobile phones have become a lifeline for many. They allow wages, vouchers and humanitarian assistance to be transferred safely and efficiently. They also deliver public health information and connect people with healthcare providers. However, too many people are still excluded from this vital technology, especially marginalized groups such as refugees and asylum seekers. The economic fallout from the crisis is also putting pressure on providers, just as their services are needed most.

Mobile technology has the potential to transform lives in the long run, not just during the coronavirus crisis, as long as we take the right steps to ensure nobody is left behind. Here are three ways governments can step in to ensure mobile services help the world’s most vulnerable communities fight the pandemic and access essential support.

Broadening access

Mobile money services have long played a positive role in fostering social and economic inclusion around the world. In low- and middle-income countries, where comparatively few people have access to conventional banks, they were already widespread before the crisis. Since 2017, 2.7 million people in 44 countries have received cash and voucher assistance (CVA) through mobile money platforms. Due to the growing popularity of this safe and convenient way of transferring money, the ratio of digital to cash-based transactions has increased by nearly 50% since 2017. These channels have become even more important since the onset of COVID-19.

Governments and aid organizations around the world are increasingly using digital payments to avoid the infection risk of cash-in-hand disbursements. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides financial assistance through mobile money in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.

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However, many marginalized groups such as refugees live in countries where proof-of-identity is required to access mobile services. This means they have to show documentation such as a passport and proof of a stable address in order to obtain SIM cards or access mobile money wallets – documentation that very few of them have. It’s estimated that around the world, 1 billion people face such an “identity gap”, meaning they lack formal proof of identity.

Such lack of documentation and access prevents many of the world’s most vulnerable people from receiving financial aid via their phones, receiving important information, and communicating with family members. Their inability to legally activate a mobile connection or access a mobile money wallet in their own name leaves them even more marginalized.

A lack of legal and regulatory certainty and consistency can also disrupt the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Research conducted in 2018 by UNHCR and GSMA (the global mobile industry association) found that these barriers were a common problem across 25 refugee-hosting countries.

One concrete step to facilitate such assistance during COVID-19 would be for governments to temporarily ease proof-of-identity requirements for certain services for marginalized groups such as refugees. Such measures will have to be balanced against the risk of supporting criminal activities like money-laundering or the financing of terrorism. This risk-based approach has already been adopted in countries like Ghana, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan. For example, steps like imposing transaction and account balance limits on accounts where Identity requirements were relaxed.

Furthermore, effective collaboration and coordination between Central Banks and Telecommunications Regulators can ensure that the proof-of-identity requirements (and any temporary measures) for accessing SIM cards are consistent with those for opening mobile money accounts and in line with global recommendations.

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