NGO Connectivity Needs in the Rohingya Refugee Crisis Response
USAID Cooperative Agreement #AID-CIO-A-10-00001
Figure 1: Location map
Since 1982, the Rohingya people living in Rakhine state in Myanmar have been denied statehood and subject to various forms of persecution and discrimination. A series of conflicts and uprisings ensuing since the 1970s have resulted in several periods where large numbers of refugees fled to the Cox's Bazar region of Bangladesh. By 2017, two large refugee camps had been established south of Cox's Bazar, housing nearly 34,000 refugees, with several hundred thousand more living amongst the host community. (Tan, V (2017, September 4))
In August 2017, Myanmar security forces began operations in Rakhine state, purportedly in response to Islamic insurgency (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (2018, September 24)). Médecins Sans Frontières reported at least 6,700 Rohingya died during these operations including at least 730 children under the age of five(Médecins Sans Frontières (2019, December 12)). In the following months of 2017, a further half million people fled to safety in Bangladesh, swelling the refugee population to over 800,000.
Since 2017, NetHope member organizations have been active participants in the international humanitarian response to this crisis. NetHope has been working with its members in the region much of that time to identify critical needs and to improve their access to and use of Internet connectivity.
In recent months, however, challenges have become much more pronounced. Most immediately, the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic has added a significant urgency to the humanitarian response, especially given the risks of contagion among highly concentrated refugee populations with limited access to medical services. Responses to this threat were significantly complicated by restrictive Internet access measures that were put in place by the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) prior to the pandemic and which lasted most of the following year. In September 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) ordered the country’s major mobile operators to essentially cease provision of 3G and 4G mobile Internet service in the area containing the Rohingya camps, citing security concerns and claims that mobile access was helping to fuel a rampant illegal drug trade and allegations that refugees were gaining network access via black market SIM cards – SIM cards purchase being restricted to Bangladeshi citizens with national identity cards. The GOB announced that the restrictions would be lifted in late August 2020, just as this report was being finalized(Daily Star, August 28 2020). While this late development will likely alleviate some of the most dire challenges that humanitarian agencies have faced in terms of digital access, this report underscores ways in which a year-long internet shutdown dramatically blunted the response of these groups and agencies - well beyond the Rohingya community itself.
Goal of activity and report
In modern humanitarian response situations, responding agencies have come to rely heavily on fast communications and online systems to coordinate activities, manage logistics, make decisions, keep records, report results, and operate securely and efficiently. The strict limits on network access imposed by the GOB have had the additional effect of also severely limiting those agencies’ ability to use these tools. In this sense, the policy of the GOB is in many respects a “blunt force instrument” that has seriously disrupted humanitarian response and service delivery, including that carried out by arms of the GOB themselves.
Through its Global Broadband and Innovations Alliance (GBI) partnership with USAID, NetHope has surveyed its nongovernmental organization (NGO) memberships in the region as part of an effort to better understand the role of digital connectivity in the Rohingya response and to more clearly discern insights into the effects that the government-imposed access constraints. This report seeks to describe the limitations resulting from lack of connectivity, how NGO actors are responding, to identify program activities and objectives that NGO actors perceive as priorities for improved connectivity, what aspects of the response would be carried out differently if connectivity was available, what solutions might be feasible, and to identify ongoing efforts to overcome access challenges at program, organizational, and sectoral levels. By restricting access to the Internet, the Bangladeshi government has also drawn into focus the most important uses of Internet connectivity in this kind of response - the things that humanitarian workers talk about missing or finding ways to work around. While the paper focuses on the needs in Chittagong district, it may also indicate how Internet access may enhance refugee camp management in the other settings.
NetHope believes that facilitating improved communications options to the camps – even in a targeted and comparatively limited way - would have a deeply beneficial effect on the humanitarian response and can help responding agencies to overcome a number of critical challenges that have come about since the network shutdown took effect. By collecting and sharing the experiences of the responders themselves, the practical effects of limited connectivity can be more closely traced, and donors and other institutions can more effectively craft and target creative and innovative solutions.
Approach and Methodology
To achieve the goals set out in the report, NetHope carried out a series of dialogues with staff members of member NGOs that are active in Bangladesh. These participants in the dialogue are directly involved with the Rohingya response and closely familiar with on-the-ground activities, and nearly all have responsibility for monitoring and maintaining day-to-day, field-level connectivity and digital tool implementation at the program level. The formal roles of staff respondents varied across IT and program team roles, and in some cases even senior country leadership participated in the conversations. While assessments of this type are typically carried out though in-person field visits, this assessment was carried out as a desk exercise. As part of its approach, NetHope staff conducted a series of semi-structured personal interviews, team discussions, and exchanged email correspondences with these personnel. Organizations consulted directly for feedback included:
- Action Aid
- Catholic Relief Services
- Christian Aid
- Concern Worldwide
- Emeregency Telecommunications Cluster/World Food Program
- Plan International
- Save the Children
- World Vision International
In addition to these consultations, NetHope reviewed a number of secondary sources in order to gain a deeper perspective into dynamics related to the crisis, the response of the broader (non-NetHope) NGO community, the methods, scope, and scale of activities of international humanitarian organizations, and the Bangladeshi telecommunications and Internet sectors.
Figure 1: Map showing Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cox's Bazar
Since August 2017, Rohingya refugees arriving from Myanmar have been settled in the areas around the long established Kutupalong Registered Camp and Nayapara Registered Camps.
Over time, these camps have grown rapidly, from a population of 34,000 in July 2017. As of 31 July 2020, the refugee population of the camps had grown to 860,494 individuals with the largest concentration in the Kutupalong-Balukhali megacamp, amounting to 701,085. 51% of the camp population are under 18 years old. 52% are women or girls. 4% of the camps population is over 60 years old (UNHCR, July 31, 2020).
This rapid growth, experienced over such a short period of time, has allowed little time for planning and preparation – the camps needed to go into use as people were starting to live in them (Draft Joint Capacity Sharing Initiative. (2019, September 26)).
The camps cover 6,292 acres, and are densely populated, with up to 318 people per acre. 93% of the population lives below the UNHCR emergency standard of 45 square meters per person. This lack of space makes it difficult to set up new facilities in the camps (UNHCR Energy and Environment Factsheet. (2020, April 30)).
The physical environment of the camps is decidedly inhospitable. The annual monsoon and cyclone season’s heavy rains and wind leave many areas in the camps subject to frequent risks of flooding and landslides, which destroy temporary homes, facilities, water points and latrines, disrupting the basic needs of the refugee population. The most fundamental challenge faced by the camp is meeting the immediate needs of the girls, women, boys, and men living in the camps. In addition, the host communities, who have been disrupted by the inflow of refugees, are supported in several areas – this amounts to an additional 470,000 people.
The response to the refugee crisis is coordinated by the GOB, through the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), and by the Humanitarian Stakeholders under the oversight of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), through the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG). The following diagram shows the high-level responsibilities (Figure 3: ISCG Coordination Structure):
This structure brings together the Government of Bangladesh, the UN system, and over 130 international and national NGOs to tackle the needs of the refugee community under 11 Sectors, each representing a group of challenges.
Responding organizations bring expertise to meeting the specific challenges through targeted sector activities that comprise the broader strategic approach. Coordination relies on regular “4W” (Who does What, Where, When) reports that catalog and illustrate organizational roles as they relate to needs across all the camps.
In such a large crisis, involving so many organizations in many different activities, the role of timely and frequent communication is essential for proper coordination, both on a day to day basis and to agree large scale objectives.
In terms of areas of focus and responsibility, humanitarian organizations/NGOs may be involved or overall responsible for one or more of the following sectors or activities in a specific camp (Figure 4: May 2020 4W report illustrating the large number of organizations involved in each sector (columns)):
Crowded conditions lead to a high risk of contagious disease, particularly respiratory infections, and diarrheal diseases. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, acute respiratory infections were the most common disease leading to significant mortality in the camps(UNHCR (March 21, 2018)). Health facilities tend to be overwhelmed with patients, and many vulnerable groups do not access health care or key health information; as a result, interventions that promote avoidance or early treatment of communicable diseases are less common (WHO (November 2019)).
The Education Sector is coordinated by UNICEF and Save the Children (a NetHope member participating in this survey). Overall sector objectives are to provide access to quality education to children aged 3-24 years old, while ensuring community ownership of the education, and representation of the children (Education Sector Dashboard (June 2020)) . At present, the sector targets 584,522 people in need. In the context of COVID-19, where gatherings of people are undesirable, these needs have become extremely difficult to meet through traditional pedagogical methods.
WATER, SANITATION, AND HYGIENE
Safe drinking water supply, and sanitation is delivered in the camps through 16,628 tubewell handpumps, 14,886 bathing facilities, 828 handwashing stations, 29,085 latrines and the infrastructure to dispose of the waste – in total, a massive 63,240 sites. Many of these are situated in locations prone to flooding or landslides, which presents significant risks to refugee health and water security. Additionally, a further 4,255 WASH facilities have been set up in the host communities. In the context of COVID-19, handwashing has become particularly important, with frequent handwashing being promoted as one of the most effective measures refugees can take to protect themselves and their families
The interactive dashboard below shows the WASH infrastructure locations throughout the camps, illustrating the scale and distribution of the WASH sectors activities (Data Source: OCHA). Use the Type of Facilities drop down to view locations of different kinds of WASH facilities.
The Logistics Cluster addresses the challenge of getting resources to the people and places that need them. In June 2020, 2118 cubic meters of relief items were transported for 12 organizations using 308 trucks (Logistics Cluster (2020, August 7)).
SHELTER/NON-FOOD ITEMS (NFI)
The Shelter/NFI Sector helps refugee families construct and maintain shelters and distributes materials and non-food items refugees need. This includes a major project to distribute liquified petroleum gas (LPG) cooking fuel to refugees. This combats the deforestation caused by refugees collecting wood – more than 1,100 football fields per year. The deforestation contributes to the flooding and landslide risk posed to the camps, as well as impacting wildlife and increasing social tension with the host community (ISCG (2018, July)).
The Nutrition Sector focuses its activities on identifying, treating, and preventing undernutrition in children and infants, and educating their parents in how to feed their children sufficiently with the food items available. This is in close relation to the Food Security sector. Over 30% of children between 6 and 59 months of age suffering from chronic malnutrition and stunting and nearly 40% exhibiting nutritional deficiency anemia (ACF (2019, October).). The Nutrition Sector operates Integrated Nutrition Centers and Stabilization Centers where acute cases of under nutrition can be treated.
Closely related to the Nutrition Sector, the Food Security Sector works to ensure that the refugee population has sustainable access to the food it needs. In June 2020 (Food Security Cluster (2020, July 15)) the Food Security Sector provided food assistance to 188,342 households, with 32,973 receiving food vouchers which can be used to purchase fresh food items through a network of supermarkets in the camps run by the World Food Program (WFP). The Food Security Sector also works to support agricultural efforts by the refugees and the host communities, through training and seed distribution. This provides more secure access to fresh food, income opportunities and has a positive effect on landslides and flooding. During COVID-19 the Food Security Sector has also established mask production by the refugee community as part of the Livelihoods Working Group.
The Protection Working Group (PWG) tackles the major social challenges that arise in the densely populated camps, covering the areas of Child Protection, Gender based violence (GBV) and meeting the needs of children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups. The Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh to escape many human rights violations, (Protection Sector (2019, March)) and many live with deep psychological stress resulting from what they experienced. By virtue of being displaced, and their current living conditions, many are vulnerable to continued threats. The PWG supports the vulnerable. It is also responsible for registering births, deaths, marriages, and divorces within the camps.
SITE MANAGEMENT AND SITE DEVELOPMENT
The Site Management cluster works to coordinate all these efforts, headed up by the Camp in Charge (CiC) and Assistant Camp in Charge (ACiC) teams, and working in conjunction with a lead agency in each camp. Essential tasks including maintaining access to the camps, an engineering task that requires maintaining drainage channels, upkeep of roads and preparation for the escalation of these channels during the monsoon and cyclone season (Site Management Engineering Project (March 2019)).
The camps are on an elephant migration route, during the monsoon season. This leads to conflict between the refugees and elephants, risking injury to refugees and retaliation against elephants. The Energy & Environment Technical Working Group operate a human-elephant contact mitigation project employing refugee elephant watchers to identify when elephants are present and reduce the risk of conflict. This project makes use of bamboo towers, which require maintenance and are at risk of damage during times of cyclone (Energy & Environmental Technical Working Group Newsletter June 2020).
RISK OF CRIME
As with any large population, the risk of crime exists, both within the refugee community, and criminals from outside seeing opportunity to exploit the refugee community. The close proximity of the border adds an extra element to the risks of crime faced by the refugees, host community and humanitarian actors seeking to help them. Of concern is the presence of people trafficking gangs (Anti-Trafficking Working Group (2019, Aug) ). These may operate as recruitment agencies for overseas work, charging high recruitment fees that create debt bondage situations. There have been many cases of refugees seeking rewarding work outside Bangladesh, only to find themselves sold into slavery. It is the actions of these gangs that prompted the Government of Bangladesh to shut down the mobile phone networks covering the camps and restrict access by the refugee community to telecommunications.
The interactive map below shows the population of each camp (blue shading) and the number of activities per camp (orange circle). These can be filtered by sector. A further filter allows viewing activities carried out by NetHope members.
The interactive map below shows the sites in the camps where many of the activities take place. These include hospitals, schools, warehouses, and community centers. NetHope member sites are indicated by their logo.
The interactive map below shows the same sites in the camps, indicating for which sector they deliver services. Select a radio button under Sector to see only sites related to that sector.
The interactive chart below shows the range and number of activities carried out in June 2020 (orange bars) and the number of people that were reached in each activity category (blue bar).
The purpose of this section is to outline two key takeaways:
- The sheer scale of the challenge in the Rohingya camps. The population is like a large city and therefore requires many of the basic services a city would require. At the same time, a population of refugees is limited in its access to livelihoods and autonomy. As such, they are very reliant on the administration of the camps to meet their basic needs.
- As refugees, the population’s needs are additionally complex. These needs are being met by many organizations at almost 1,000 different locations carrying out over 7,500 activities per month. Operations of this nature require careful and constant coordination. Added to this are the additional challenges brought by the environment in which the camps are located, which regularly damage infrastructure and obstruct the work that needs to happen to meet critical human needs.
In addition, the rich information provided in the interactive visualizations, built from data regularly collected by the implementing partners, signifies the existing investment in technology for the purposes of coordination, management and communication, and the expectation that this effort will deliver value to the combined objectives of the emergency response.
Role of Connectivity in Humanitarian Response
While models for humanitarian responses to refugee crises were created and implemented prior to the digital age, the Internet and modern communications technology have transformed what is possible and the potential for humanitarian response to be conducted in a more effective and efficient manner. In fact, current models in many ways have come to rely on these tools for proper implementation. Just as any business would struggle to operate today without access to the Internet, humanitarian response efforts would also be significantly hindered in many critical ways. Over time, humanitarian actors have come to expect Internet connectivity as a resource to use in their work. To illustrate, NetHope has worked with the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) for many years, often arriving shortly after an emergency to recover connectivity to enable the humanitarian response to get online, coordinate and work effectively.
As the previous section has shown, the Bangladesh humanitarian response to the Rohingya refugee crisis is a multi-leveled, complex situation in which communication and collaboration is essential. The challenge of meeting the needs of nearly a million people is akin to managing a city – simply put, no administrative organ of a city this size in the 21st Century does this without the use of information and communication technology and the Internet.
As the limitations on communications access were imposed, the collaborative architecture of the response to the refugee problem had already settled into a pattern whereby large amounts of data are shared between responding agencies and brought together by the coordinating organizations. The interactive dashboards presented earlier rely heavily on accurate and timely data flowing from implementing partners and shared through the website of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), humanitarianresponse.info. When talking to organizations responding in the camps about their use of technology, respondents were unanimous in their assertion that keeping these datasets up to date with current and accurate data was a key element of their operations. Every organization’s operation maintains a profound reliance on the contribution and consumption of data derived from these aggregations to make decisions in every conceivable timescale – “in the moment,” short, and long terms.
The IOM, UNHCR and ISCG put significant effort into making the data consumable by a wider range of stakeholders by producing highly visible and regularly updated reports and interactive dashboards using tools such as ArcGIS, Tableau and Power BI. These tools and reports help facilitate the flow of communication between organizations and keep individual team members aware of gaps in service delivery, what else is being done nearby, etc. The data can also be used in reports such as UNHCR’s Rohingya Refugee Emergency at a Glance from 2018, that tell the story of the problem and the response in a tangible and compelling way, easily digestible by responders, donors, governments and the general public. In the future data may also be consumed automatically by other systems, including Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning systems which are able to assist human responders in decision making.
Additionally, donors that fund the humanitarian response increasingly require data-backed demonstration of efficacy from NGOs. “Payment by results” contracts that emphasize measurable outputs and impact are becoming more common (for example, major donors such as UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank). To meet the requirements of these donor arrangements, NGOs have stepped up a greater institutional focus on data-rich reporting mechanisms. That said, even among more traditional approaches, collecting field data into Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEAL) systems is a standard practice, and the use of HTML or applications for collecting data directly into these systems from mobile devices is common. Project specific monitoring systems are also very common. In short, the modern NGO is an active and increasingly robust data collector, and digital tools play a growing role in this.
Beyond monitoring and reporting purposes, data collection also supports numerous critical operational tasks in every sector. For example, in the context of WASH in the camps each of the tens of thousands of latrines, handpumps, handwashing facilities is mapped and identifiable, making maintenance and repair more efficient. Repair teams need to spend less time in search for a broken handpump if the initial report has an identifier linked to geocoordinates, and it is quicker to see the impact of multiple failures. In the health care context, electronic systems may be used to maintain patient records and track data about community health such as malnutrition trends and immunization programs. Cash transfer schemes are used to make food and non-food items available for purchase by refugees and using electronic voucher or credit card style schemes has become an increasingly common practice for direct payment programs. The security and availability of these solutions relies on data connectivity as a fundamental prerequisite in the locations where they are delivered.
While the above data collection and reporting needs and connectivity expectations are important, it should be noted the humanitarian workers we spoke to were unanimous in citing a more fundamental challenge to their work that has come about with widespread loss of connectivity – rapid and rich communication. Group messaging in WhatsApp and similar tools has become a common feature of crisis response communications and coordination. Such tools enable subject oriented groups to be created as needed, at small or large scale. Humanitarian actors are already familiar with how the tools work and install them on the smartphones they arrive with as a matter of common practice. Such tools allow quick and easy communication with teams made up of people from multiple organizations, supplementing text messages with photos, audio recordings, video, and accurate geo-coordinates. The tools show whether a message has been received or read. The utility of this cannot be understated and was mentioned by nearly all interview respondents as a critical tool.
Another vital aspect of any humanitarian response is the exchange of information between responding agencies and affected communities. The benefits of this dynamic are clear: The feedback mechanisms can enable a response that is more accountable and responsive to community needs, those receiving assistance are aware of their rights, as well as communicating practical information about how they can access available resources. In times past, this was done through posters, community meetings and anonymous letter boxes. In recent years, as more refugees and displaced people arrive with smart phones, this has supplemented with communications technology, such as International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Mercy Corps’ Refugee.info and Signpost projects.
Feedback from the NGO Community in Bangladesh
As these observations suggest, there is a very strong consensus among NetHope member staff that current limitations on network capacity and infrastructure have had a profoundly negative impact on their organizations’ ability to deliver service effectively and in line with standard, digitally enabled models. Among the key inputs and themes outlined in discussions:
NETWORK ACCESS AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Access to mobile wireless networks is poor in refugee camps and nearby host communities
Predictably, NetHope member staff report that mobile Internet and voice access in the refugee camp settlements is highly unreliable or poor in most areas, with spotty data coverage and poor voice quality. While respondents indicate that 2G/3G voice service is available in some pockets (sometimes intermittently), service is largely unreliable. Even in the relatively sparse areas where signals can be received (for example, in areas near camp boundaries or near host communities that still receive services), members report significant declines in quality and availability in recent months, with poor performance attributed to network operator non-investment in infrastructure;
Regional and sub-regional hubs are critical nodes of access – and remain well-connected:
As a stark contrast to the lack of service in refugee areas, members report that Internet and voice service are acceptable at the regional and sub-regional level; most NetHope members report that they rely heavily on access via reliable (and affordable) Internet connections in offices in Cox’s Bazar - and to some degree, offices in sub-district centers at Ukhia and Teknaf. These facilities are largely served by fiber or near-fiber-quality services and mobile signal availability is also reported to be acceptable. These hub offices represent the only form of reliable Internet access for staff working in the crisis response, and their connectivity is viewed as critical.
Regional fiber backbone infrastructure can support robust access platforms:
As opposed to the case in many other refugee crises worldwide, the network access constraints in the region do not come as the result of poor underlying infrastructure coverage in high-cost areas far from core infrastructure elements. In fact, many settlements are relatively close to existing fiber backbone infrastructure. Bangladesh’s most critical communications link to the rest of the world comes via the SEA-ME-WE-4 submarine cable, which comes ashore at Kolatoli Beach in Cox’s Bazar. A high-capacity fiber backbone then proceeds down route N1 between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf, providing the underlying basis for wireless access backhaul services along this central route.
Examples of NGO-ISP collaborations for camp fiber access exist:
Some NGOs indicate that, prior to the government-imposed network shutdown, they had succeeded in securing terrestrial fiber optic connections to nodes such as health centers and administrative hubs, within camp settlements. These arrangements required special administrative approval from the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), as well as specially negotiated ISP installation fees.
IMPLICATIONS OF CONSTRAINED ACCESS
Lack of access creates significant time lags for information exchange:
There is strong consensus among NetHope members that the lack of network access has disrupted real-time information exchange – and that this disruption is a major constraint on their ability to carry out their missions. Members cite the difficulties associated with the logistics of travel, which have become more acute in recent months with additional limits on overall mobility due to stricter camp access rules. Travel times vary from member organization to member organization, but in some cases field staff must travel 1-2 hours from connected facilities at sub-regional bases to unconnected field sites in the refugee communities, being disconnected much of the way. This disconnect severely limits staff ability to leverage current information (only on the way in) and to deliver timely situation reports (only on the way out).
NetHope members cite security as a concern on several levels. In terms of the physical security of staff and volunteers, poor real-time communications have constrained reporting and emergency calls for assistance, resulting in greater personnel risks. Data security was also noted as a major concern, as local-device storage of data (for example, on laptops and tablet devices that contain offline databases and other sometimes sensitive information) increases the risk of data/device theft and/or loss;
Loss of the digital “force multiplier”:
The number of refugees that any given NGO worker can interact with is necessarily limited by the lack of access to connectivity and real-time digital tools. Interactions are limited to in-person interactions, which are themselves now much further constrained than before due to COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing practices.
EXAMPLES OF ACTIVITIES AND FUNCTIONS THAT ARE CONSTRAINED BY LACK OF ACCESS
Poor access limits program effectiveness and communication/coordination:
Poor connectivity not only prevents a more thorough use of ICT as part of health, education, and other programs in the settlements, it also greatly hinders NGO workers’ ability to communicate and coordinate with each other at the most basic level using real-time tools;
Interagency coordination is hampered by poor camp access:
Disruption of program coordination is not limited to interactions within the responding agencies themselves. Members report that reduced access has had a highly negative effect on the mechanisms of coordination between agencies that are integral to the humanitarian response. Slowed patterns of communication hinder the ability to provide timely, accurate reports to the ISCG coordinating group, and the effectiveness of referrals between responding agencies is significantly diminished;
Poor camp access limits donor situation report development and reporting:
Field staff are often required by donors to write emergency situation reports that reflect their observations and experiences in the camps. Poor/nonexistent connectivity limits their ability to do so, and as a result, these reports are often delayed, contain incomplete of outdated information, or in some cases simply do not get written due to time constraints.
Time-sensitive digital tools:
Some NGOs rely on data applications that are only of limited effectiveness when updated at least daily. Without connectivity, these applications cannot be properly updated. Early warning systems that rely on timely information are not able to function as designed.
Refugee community access to information and refugee-facing digital applications:
Several respondents indicated that a core tenet of responding agencies’ approach is to make community involvement a central component to the response. Without basic access to communications services at the refugee level, these organizations simply cannot engage communities or individuals in an effective manner.
Health data management challenges:
Respondents with operations in health and nutrition realms indicate that challenges related to the management of health care data at the point of service are especially relevant at a time when COVID-19-related information is highly critical for public health interventions;
EFFORTS TO UNDERTAKE COLLECTIVE ACTION
Collection and sharing of mobile signal coverage:
NGOs have made impromptu efforts to map signal coverage, and although these efforts are not comprehensive, they have supported the notion that coverage is too spotty to rely on for regular activities.
Existing Connectivity workgroups:
Recognition of common challenges has fed impulses focused on collective action. Some NetHope member respondents indicate that a working group has formed in Cox’s Bazar that seeks to advocate for improved connectivity and to facilitate collaboration among responding agencies. There is also a report of an Education Sector working group that has been established among interested NGOs to document limitations and to advocate for policy changes, with a common recognition of the importance of digital tools in education service delivery.
NGO-SOURCED RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SOLUTIONS OR IMPROVEMENTS
Several NGOs have indicated a strong desire for at least one dedicated Internet hub in every camp that can be used by workers and staff for remote communications and to facilitate the transfer of content and other data to support humanitarian service delivery;
Concern over NGO worker perceptions and access disparity:
NetHope member staff recommended that any solutions that target NGO access, such as network solutions that emphasize “NGO-only” access, while potentially improving NGO’s ability to deliver service, should take into account such disparities at an interpersonal level. NGO personnel suggested that such disparities can lead to stigma or tensions between NGO field workers and refugees and undermine trust, an indispensable element of crisis collaboration.
Extension of existing wireless signals:
NGOs that use fiber connections with Wi-Fi access points for limited staff access in camps suggested that the use of more robust antennae infrastructure at camp facilities would enable staff to use data services further into the camps;
Electric power considerations:
Availability of electric power in the camps is an underlying challenge for digital communication. A number of NetHope members have solar solutions in place, but since the structures in the camp must be of a semi-temporary nature and space is restricted, these solar solutions are limited in size and may already be working at their limits. However, networking equipment does not draw a great deal of power and this remains untested. NetHope is in the process of investigating the requirements in terms of batteries, panels and control systems for powering network equipment without being an additional draw on (or subject to the limitations of) existing solutions, and minimal local intervention needed after installation.
While there is a consensus that the recent restrictions on telecommunications have had a negative effect across the board, NGOs are managing and adapting, and report a range of intensity of access requirements to keep activities going. While all NGOs indicate that improved connectivity would be of significant benefit to their operations, NGOs that rely on certain types of applications have a greater appetite for more robust requirements. For example, food distribution, WASH, and shelter teams tended to place lower emphasis on need for more ubiquitous, ruminant, and high-speed connections. Agencies focusing on emergency response, child protection, and health tend to report a greater emphasis on this type of access.
Efforts to Overcome the Challenge
For two years prior to the shutdown of 3G and 4G networks covering the camps, NetHope members had reported challenges to obtaining sufficient connectivity in the camps. During that time, NetHope has worked with partners to seek options and solutions. As a recent example from 2019, NetHope collaborated with BRAC (a Bangladesh-based International NGO that works closely with BRACnet, an ISP spun off from BRAC in 2005) to explore options along the highway between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf. Established Internet points of presence were mapped against BRAC’s and NetHope members’ sites located within the camps, and feasible point to point Wi-Fi links were identified as candidates for potential network last-mile extension. At that time, a major challenge was identified in that many of the NGO member sites were either not permanent or not adequately secure enough to host network equipment. However, it was also determined that some members had established hospitals in need of connectivity and could act as relay nodes for more distant sites. Using this topology, it would be possible to connect 8 locations in the Kutupalong mega camp and an additional site in the Unchiparang camp. Depending on topology and the practical challenge of installing towers at each site, hot-spot antenna could be set up to provide coverage to an additional 23 locations used by NetHope members. A concept note explaining this was circulated to potential donors and partners in early 2019. This was further tested in a presentation at the NetHope Asia Chapter meeting in September 2019, where the need was still viewed as required, very shortly before the government restrictions were implemented. Financial support for the solution has not yet been forthcoming. The shutdown of telecommunications infrastructure in September/October 2019 side-lined this approach, as the lack of a legal NetHope entity in-country rendered obtaining licensing for such shared infrastructure extremely complicated under the circumstances.
As these options were being explored and into 2020, the World Food Program (WFP) had already initiated a collaboration with the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Sector (ETS) on establishing infrastructure to support the electronic Point of Sales devices for use with electronic voucher sales in their food distribution supermarkets in the camp settlements. Continuing NetHope liaison with WFP/ETS project staff have recently indicated significant progress and may help form the basis for solutions that can alleviate some of the critical needs identified by NetHope members.
By early 2020, eight wireless base station towers had been established existed to support the WFP/ETS network, with a further 13 proposed. This work acted as a proof of concept for meeting wider networking requirements, and the concept of the ETS “Chātā” network was established. The Chātā network concept envisions ETS acting as a humanitarian response agency-focused ISP, providing connectivity exclusively to the humanitarian community in the camps (restricting access by the general population). In April 2020, a network technical design and requirements document envisioned connecting 15,000 users at up to 1,000 sites. The Chātā network makes use of existing telecommunications towers built to connect UNHCR sites, using those towers to house point to point radios and antenna to extend bandwidth availability to more locations. Additional towers are required to reach the camps in the south around Teknaf, via long distance point to point radio links. In addition, the Chātā network incorporates a VHF radio system for security and safety support.
The benefit of the Chātā network approach is that the ETS represents a much wider body of organizations than just NetHope membership, and that, as one of the formally recognized sectors of the response the ETS has strong relationships in place with the Bangladeshi authorities and myriad of coordinating agencies. With access to existing infrastructure and a mandate to deliver communications, ETS is likely best placed to deliver any solution that requires deployment of alternative network infrastructure and comprehensive stakeholder buy-in. The (related) downside of this approach is that it must juggle the diverse requirements of a larger number of stakeholders. Managing a larger network is more complex and requires a different level of design. Given that its members comprise 28% of the crisis’ roster of responding agencies, NetHope can play a significant facilitative role in relation to ETS and its member-affiliates.
Due to the GOB restrictions around refugees accessing the network, access to the Chātā network is anticipated to be strictly limited to humanitarian workers using individual login credentials and other measures. Points of access will be limited to specific sites where the signal is available through local Wi-Fi. Humanitarian workers will be able to access the Chātā network at any of these sites, even if the site is managed by a specific organization. ETS will supply and manage all the links and equipment to all sites, but the organization managing the site will be responsible for the power supply to and physical security of the equipment, and act as the signpost to ETS for troubleshooting and user support. ETS will operate a central data center hosting the infrastructure servers, a network operations center (NOC) and a helpdesk and engineering team. The network is designed to be highly resilient, as its infrastructure will be subject to the same challenges faced in the camps.
Work to implement the ETS Chātā network was delayed by the lockdown, but has since resumed, with ETS reporting an objective to connect 70 additional sites by the end of 2020 (ETC (2020, August 10)). At the time of this writing, ETS has reported that a USD 2 million investment has been secured through partnership with USAID, and that network development in the coming months is expected to accelerate. A funding gap of USD 1.3 million remains to provide coverage to all identified sites, with an additional USD 230,000 required to meet additional telecommunications needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Based on the input above, several potential options can be considered by the humanitarian sector, donors, private sector partners, and others. The following range of options could be followed as stages in a process, with each stage potentially being a step towards the next, with the exception of Option 5, which would make infrastructure set up to support preceding options redundant:
Option 1 – Strengthen and share ‘work-around’ approaches to existing connectivity limitations
This option most closely resembles a “status quo” approach that presumes that active measures to loosen existing government restrictions or to build alternate infrastructure solutions are not forthcoming in the near term or otherwise. This option focuses on supporting the humanitarian sector to better and more thoroughly leverage and disseminate existing workarounds for limited connectivity, such as use of offline capable tools. It does not address the need for real time communication in the absence of cell phones and high-frequency radio solutions.
Option 2 – Build out Internet to fixed locations in each camp
Option 2 envisions facilitating the installation of point to point Wi-Fi links at strategic locations to extend the Internet from existing points of presence to fixed locations in all the camps. This would meet the desire expressed by some NetHope members, to establish at least one Internet hub in every camp that can be used by humanitarian workers. This is largely consistent with the plan that is currently under consideration by ETS. Several local ISPs have points of presence along route N1 that runs from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf, to the east of the camps. Several international NGOs already maintain offices in settlements along this highway, to support their work, and have established Internet connections in these locations. From these existing locations, it is possible to extend fiber or point to point radio connections to sites within the camps. This was done by Christian Aid into camps 14 and 15 working in conjunction with an ISP (named Angel Drop) at a cost of BDT 25,000 (approximately USD 300) for both sites.
Option 3 – Build out Internet with ubiquitous Wi-Fi
This option would incorporate the baseline technical requirements of Option 2, but would go a step further, with the aim of providing Wi-Fi coverage over a larger area in each camp using strategically located hotspots with higher gain antenna ad additional radios so each node covers a wider area. This has the additional benefit of providing access to rich real time communication via WhatsApp or similar applications outside specific locations, as well as meeting more traditional reporting needs. This would bolster the security for humanitarian workers as well as improving short term coordination. A drawback for this, identified by NetHope members, is that by having a special network for humanitarian workers which they are visibly using, and in the absence of anything similar for refugees, it more strongly underlines the difference between refugees and those receiving assistance. This undermines trust essential for effectively delivery of services.
Option 4 – Ubiquitous Wi-Fi with walled garden content for refugees
Building on Option 3, with broad Wi-Fi coverage of the camps, this option includes the addition of an open/minimally secured SSID that only provides access to specific content stored locally at the data center, and no general Internet. Refugees could access this network to reach targeted and tailored content hosted on local servers and signposted through SSID sign-in pages. This has been done in other refugee/migrant situations, for example IRC/Mercy Corps’ Signpost and Refugee.info initiatives in Greece, Jordan, and Colombia, using networks that NetHope facilitated in those locations. Research carried out by Save the Children in the camps found that 50% of refugee families in the camps had access to a smartphone and would therefore have the means to access information in this manner. In the context of COVID-19, this would provide a way for refugees to access information in a way that maintains social distancing, without undermining the objectives of the GOB restrictions on access to the internet. In this scenario, Humanitarian workers still get access to the internet through a separate fully authenticated SSID.
A drawback to this option is that refugee users will require more local bandwidth, and the additional challenge of supporting access to a much larger number of people with a wider range of needs and expectations than the humanitarian community. Additional resources would also be required to produce material for refugees. However, the infrastructure to deliver content to refugees may be in place through a ubiquitous network.
Option 5 – Full 4G coverage
A step further would be to encourage and assist local mobile network operators (MNOs) to expand their infrastructure to provide 4G coverage over all the camps. This would solve many of the communications challenges faced by humanitarians and provide access for refugees to many more resources and livelihood opportunities. Additional investment would be required from local MNOs to restore and upgrade the existing infrastructure. Several NetHope member organizations commented that this would be the most transformational option, and that perhaps the benefits outweigh the risks. On 24 August 2020, a year after the ban was imposed, the GOB announced that it was shortly to lift it and allow refugees to access phones and Internet connections Bhuiyan, H.K. and Anik, S.S.B. (2020, August 24). On the 28th August, as this report went to press, Robi, an MNO serving the area announced that it had restarted the 3G and 4G services. However, it should be noted that prior to the shutdown of the cellular networks, coverage in the camps was patchy and unreliable, and the humanitarian response was looking for ways to improve the experience. MNOs often do not consider refugee communities to be attractive markets, and investment may lag other locations. For this reason, in the short to medium term, the ETS Chātā network is still required to provide sufficient and reliable data connectivity, independent of future decisions.
NetHope has experience, through its Demand Aggregation program, working with NGOs and MNOs to surface the demand from different stakeholders and communities to demonstrate viability for new infrastructure investment to be made, or the scale of barriers to unlocking sufficient investment to meet humanitarian needs. This approach, in partnership with the UN system, its responding agencies, ISPs and MNOs may be key to unlocking a more performant, robust and sustainable communications solution that meets the needs of responders, refugees and the host population.
We would like to thank the following for assistance and support in creating this report: USAID for kindly funding this research through the GBI partnership with NetHope. OCHA for the marvelous data and information resources of humanitarianresponse.info and the Humanitarian Data Exchange, and all who contributed the data on the Rohingya response stored at those locations. Without this it would be impossible to carry out research under the current circumstances. Salesforce and Tableau for supporting NetHope’s use of their visualization tools. Ekue Ayih from ETS in Bangladesh for providing feedback and advice around the ETS project. Our friends from NetHope members who shared their experience and insights into the challenges operating and using technology in the response in Bangladesh: Md. Monir Uddin and Sariful Islam from ActionAid; Ram Das and Saidal Haque Dipu from CARE Bangladesh; Tasminal Haque, Nihar Ghosh and Chris Lacey from Christian Aid; Rabnawaz Khan from Concern Worldwide; Snigdha Chakraborty and Ephrem Degefhu from Catholic Relief Services; Ronnel Figuracion from IRC; Carl Adams, Phil Lindell Detweiler and Christina Lindell Detweiller From Medair; Nazat Chowdhury and Shakil Gurung from Save the Children; Kajal Xavier Gomes from World Vision. For patient editing of the draft, and Stephanie Siy from NetHope.
About the Authors
Duncan Drury has been working with IT in the international development sector since 2003. He is the Connectivity, Infrastructure and Energy Associate at NetHope.
Forrest Wilhoit is the Senior Program Manager for USAID/GBI at Nethope.
Filed Under: Disaster Preparedness and Response