Monday, June 17, 2024

USAID calls for disaster-resilient ICT infrastructure in Indo-Pacific

The US Agency for International Development’s Better Access and Connectivity project (USAID-BEACON) held a webinar last Sept. 7 to discuss how the Indo-Pacific can improve its ICT infrastructure’s security, resilience, and disaster preparedness.

“Despite the demonstrated need for high quality, affordable connectivity for all, the rising frequency and severity of natural disasters — particularly in the Indo-Pacific — makes both our people and the critical communication lifelines they depend on more vulnerable, particularly in small island and developing states,” said US ambassador to the Philippines Erica Barks-Ruggles during the virtual event.

Barks-Ruggles pointed out that businesses of all sizes survived the pandemic by going digital while education could only continue when it went online. Where schools could not pivot, Barks-Ruggles observed that learners were delayed by a year and female students were disproportionately affected by this learning gap.

Moreover, the worsening climate crisis heightens the need for ICT. “Resilient digital connectivity forms a lifeline in disasters, allowing us to contact loved ones, coordinate response, and enabling communities to address their own needs more quickly,” Barks-Ruggles stressed.

The webinar underscored a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach to solving these problems and set an example by inviting experts from the public sector, the private sector, civil society, and international organizations to share their perspectives.

Stephanie Siy, deputy director for field and impact programs at global nonprofit NetHope, agreed that digital transformation would be key to developing the region’s capacity to withstand disasters.

Siy showed that large-scale disasters are happening once every decade instead of every century, so funding for humanitarian organizations is falling short of the growing crises.

“We need technology and digital transformation to be precise, so that humanitarian funding can go further so we can do more with less,” Siy said emphatically.

The speakers also emphasized providing solutions fit for each location and disaster.

Joel Myhre, senior disaster management specialist at the Pacific Disaster Center, noted that “misplaced tech isn’t going to solve the problem.”

The Pacific Disaster Center has already built custom disaster alert applications for Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines.

Matthew Johannessen, Amazon Web Services (AWS) global social impact senior manager, added that tech solutions should attempt to work with existing systems, which can help disaster response efforts work more efficiently and securely as well as bring down costs.

“It’s important when we think about resilience to continue building and leverage all the technologies that are available… We focus on developing new solutions that customers can incorporate into their disaster response efforts and testing it in real world environments.” Johannessen explained.

Other organizations are assist countries in setting up their context-specific disaster preparedness plans.

Ria Sen, United Nations technology resilience and risk management specialist in its emergency telecommunication cluster, laid out how their group helps regions assess both their resilience as well as recovery equipment and capabilities.

Their recently released tool, the emergency telecoms ROI model, enables organizations to input cost estimates and immediately view how much they can expect in return from their investments.

“This type of tool is very handy for making decisions for public sector as well as for civil society and for our fellow UN agency colleagues and humanitarian partners… to see really where does preparedness pay,” Sen remarked.

Lastly, Crispian Wong, senior manager in public policy consultancy firm at Access Partnership, spotlighted the essential role played by policy makers on this issue.

“We will need a very receptive and supportive licensing and regulatory framework that does not [limit] any technology, because every technology has its role to play in building a resilient connectivity. It’s for policy makers to be able to encourage innovation,” Wong said.

Barks-Ruggles ended her speech by affirming that “the US is focused on doing our part to close the digital divide and connect the unconnected.”

“To that critical end, we are committed to engaging resources and partnerships that can help achieve meaningful and universal connectivity. Such partnerships are critical because no single entity and no single country can achieve such ambitions goals alone,” Barks-Ruggles declared.

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