Changing Perceptions to Make International Relationships More Effective

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Dr Elena Lobo, Senior Space Innovation Facilitator at the Satellite Applications Catapult, looks at how the international community is trying to collaborate more effectively to enhance responses to humanitarian and sustainability challenges.

International events provide excellent opportunities for understanding how approaches to using satellite data are changing, and how it can address the needs of different communities and sectors across the globe. As a result, I recently attended two such events in Europe in the fields of humanitarian response and sustainable development.

The first was the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) in Geneva, Switzerland – an annual event organised by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UK Department for International Development. The aim was to convene a broad range of organisations to focus on key issues in collaborative working for humanitarian response and to learn from each other.

A need for collaboration

Several international ‘frameworks’ have arisen in the last few years, including the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, the World Humanitarian Summit and the Climate Summit in 2015. These all illustrate a willingness to address global challenges, but have also highlighted the fact that no single group can or should have sole responsibility for providing solutions to these issues, whether it is the UN, governments or multinational organisations.

In addition, it’s become clear that some key groups are not yet fully engaged and integrated with such efforts, including industry and even civil society. So the 2017 HNPW event was particularly focussed on bringing together businesses and private organisations with the more traditional humanitarian community, such as NGOs and UN agencies.

Recognising the value of technology and data

The other notable shift is the growing awareness that technology and data are essential to being more effective when looking at such problems, rather than relying solely on the ‘traditional’ approach of sending people out to work ‘in the field’. There need to be new ways for humanitarian organisations to benefit from technical innovations that are happening globally, and several of the sessions at HNPW focussed specifically on this. Although this won’t result in sudden changes – as there’s no single way to resolve this issue – it’s a big step and was very encouraging to witness, as was the greater number of representatives from industry at HNPW compared with just a couple of years ago.

What’s also interesting is that this is not just about engaging with large multinational businesses, but at a country level would also encompass small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Requirements-based solutions

Amongst the many sessions of interest to the technology community at HNPW was ‘Technologies in support of coordination’, which covered the issue of new technologies being needs-based, rather than allowing technology to drive how response is coordinated.

As with some other sessions, this highlighted the gap that often exists between the user community, which knows what information it requires but does not understand the technology in great depth, and therefore does not know what actual data they want, and industry, which does not always talk in a language that users understand. This, in turn, shows the need for organisations such as the Catapult that can bridge this gap.

Developing African-European partnerships

The second event I attended was a Workshop on EO Application for Sustainable Development in Africa organised by GIZ, the German development agency, and the Network of European Regions Using Space Technologies (NEREUS). The workshop’s core objective was to get African technology SMEs together with European participants of all sizes to discuss the challenges of using Earth observation data to address sustainable development in the countries represented.

The key issue raised during this event was that the African delegates really require long-term partnerships in order to ensure solutions work and the effects are sustainable, and that the role of European companies is not always best served by acting as ‘suppliers’. In addition, there is an opportunity – and one that may ultimately be most effective – for closer interaction at an operational level below that of governments and/or international organisations.

An example of how this might work is the model used by the UK Space Agency in its International Partnership Programme, where there is, in effect, enabling support from the UK Government, though it is not the partner in the project.