Pictured above: Dr. Benjamin Viaris de Lesegno
In this piece, AID:Tech advisor Dr. Benjamin Viaris de Lesegno talks about technology and it’s implications for the humanitarian sector. Dr. Benjamin is a gynaecologial obstetrician and sits on the board of a number of technology companies. Benjamin has also volunteered for Medecins Sans Frontieres and worked on several humanitarian missions.
Hi Benjamin, welcome to the AID:Tech Blog. Tell us about how you think technology can be used in the humanitarian space?
Thanks you. I wanted to talk about the disruption that new technologies can bring to the humanitarian world. And in particular how data management has changed a lot in the last 10 years for humanitarian workers. More and more resources are devoted to management in order to increase the efficacy of the care, but a lot of energy and resources are also lost due to corruption and fraud!
Tell us a little about your background and your experience in humanitarian medical work?
I am a trained obstetrician with a focus on Fetal Medicine. Additionally I do quite a bit of research as I have a Masters in genetics and have become particularly interested in the last few years about the intersection of medicine and technology. I have had the opportunity to serve several humanitarian missions starting in medical school up to last year in a refugee camp in France. Most people are not really aware of this, but obstetricians are some of the most needed doctors where refugees and migrants are present because you suddenly have thousands of women with different medical needs in one place.
What has been your experience at humanitarian missions?
A: I have largely had the experience of serving in quite well organised situations, like on the Syrian border in 2013, which was a large UNHCR camp. However, last year I went to serve in Northern France in Calais and it was a very different experience. The camps there were referred to as “The Jungle” by many of the people and the conditions were worse than anything I had seen in my experience in India and the Middle East. As a very proud Frenchman, I was appalled to see how people were being treated in my own country.
Why do you think refugee and migrant camps have been particularly complicated
A. When I was working in camps it was the absolute lack of coordination and organisation between the NGOs, the state and all the donations that were being made. Often in these situations people want to give and contribute, but it needs to be done in an organised way to effect the most change. You always have a black market, human smugglers and other negative factors that greatly impact how things flow in the camps. For example when I arrived in Calais, there was a serious problem with cavities and teeth issues. I found out that a very kind English dentist had come on his own to the camps to fix teeth. He worked very hard and tried to help the people by leaving antibiotics, toothpaste, etc. But days later most of the people had exchanged the antibiotics for food on the black market or to smugglers. While he was well intentioned, he did not understand that you have to work with the NGOs and experienced humanitarian workers to ensure that your good work is well distributed and controlled. A whole ecosystem exists that most people do not quite understand.
How do you think technology can improve these situations?
I think data is the key to successful humanitarian missions. When you have these very disorganised situations with different cultures and people in one place, building good data on the situation will help underpin a successful response effort. Camps need to quickly gather data, audit and use that information to leverage efficiency in the camps. This is not a new idea of course, the UN has cited data as key for many years. I think the difference now is that technology should allow us to gather and analyse this information more quickly than in the past. Technology should be leveraged to help aid workers quickly understand the population and needs of the camp. Additionally, I think that technology could help people who want to volunteer and give back, like that good Samaritan dentist, in a more organised and efficient way.
Are there any new technologies that you think stand out?
There are a lot of great technologies emerging that are trying to help NGOs solve problems. For example, I am a mentor at Techstars and recently worked with a company called AID:Tech. They are trying to leverage blockchain technology to help bring transparency and efficiency to the distribution of resources in humanitarian situations. This type of technology can also help decrease corruption because it makes every transaction traceable and more difficult to falsify. I hope to see more technology leveraged like this in the future so we can really reshape how we can help people in desperate situations.