Solutions vs Tools in the “Refugee Crisis”

Humanitarian aid workers are always telling us technologists off for thinking that we can solve “the refugee crisis” with an app. I’ve always found this quite strange, because as far as I know, no-one has ever claimed that an app could solve any intractable international emergency.

When I delved a little deeper into it, it became clear that part of this confusion comes from the way humanitarians and technologists use language. In particular, the word “solution” can stop techies and humanitarians from really understanding one another, and this is a real difficulty for all involved. 

In a humanitarian context, “a solution for the refugee crisis” means either making asylum much easier and safer to secure, or even that forced displacement will stop happening. For example, Amnesty International recently published this comprehensive article called “8 ways to solve the refugee crisis”, which details the activities that need to take place to significantly improve the lives of people displaced by conflict. Their eight solutions are designed to be implemented by world leaders, and range from getting states to invest in search and rescue operations, to combatting xenophobia and racial discrimination, to opening up safe routes to sanctuary.

Undoubtedly, these strategies would be far more effective at helping people fleeing conflict than any app could ever be. This is why, I think, humanitarians are dismissive when we technologists talk about our solutions. When Amnesty International uses the phrase “a solution for a crisis”, they mean “a solution for a crisis in its entirety”. When technologists use the phrasea solution for a crisis” they mean a solution for a specific problem experienced by people affected by a crisis”. Technology can be great at solving small and bounded problems, such as how to provide wifi to transient communities, how to clear minefields safely or how to provide higher education to refugees in new countries. What is confusing is the fact that we are using the same word to describe problem solving on very different scales.

It’s time for us techies working in the humanitarian sector to ditch the word “solution”. If we replace the word “solution” with “tool”, “device” or “equipment”, humanitarians will stop thinking that we are deluded enough to believe we can end forced displacement with apps, and they will start to think of us as people with skills and products they can harness as part of a suite of strategies to make the world a better place.

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