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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

Disintermediation - the future of Aid in a Digital world?
Ian Gray


 A Short Word on Digital Ecosystems

No single product or solution enables digital disintermediation. Such disintermediation happens when a number of factors are aligned, connected and enabling each other, thereby providing the ecosystem for disruption. The more layers and the denser this ecosystem is, the more chance there is for disruption.

For example, humanitarian cash transfers using MPesa, a technology for transferring money between mobile phones, could not have occurred without serious investment by donors into the East African Mobile Phone Networks, the mass availability and penetration of mobile phones in the Kenyan market and the weak power of the financial institutions in Kenya to establish regulations to challenge this disruptive innovation.

Ten years ago, the idea of East Africa being at the vanguard of mobile money would have seemed fanciful, however due to the right ecosystem and enablers (or lack of blockers) being in place, that is what it has become. Those looking to develop resilience strategies in disaster prone countries should be mapping the digital ecosystem and the enabling environment in order to anticipate how, and where digital disruptive innovation could increase resilience, including the local response capacity of affected communities and countries.

 So what does this all mean for Humanitarians?

It is clear that much of the work that Humanitarian Agencies carry out could potentially be subject to Disruptive Digital Disintermediation. It will not be a uniform or quick process, but the journey has already started. If you work for a humanitarian agency, then you need to seriously think about the opportunities and threats that Disruptive Digital Disintermediation poses for the communities you seek to assist, and for how your organisation currently works. Here is a small sample of some of the most pertinent of these.


  1. Increasing choice and dignity for disaster-affected communities regarding the goods and services they can access from an increasing number of actors.
  2. Turning ‘need’ into ‘effective demand’ through the use of digital cash transfers
  3. Building local capacity; of makers to be part of the response, and for local populations to self-organise.
  4. Reducing cost and inefficiency of bloated supply chains and inefficient bureaucracies
  5. Enabling solidarity by providing multiple platforms and ways of assisting and asking for assistance.
  6. Enabling quicker and better knowledge transfer to improve every sector, including, health, education, WASH and protection programmes.


  1. Further erosion of humanitarian principles as assistance is provided by multiple actors who are not humanitarian, and aid is provided based on factors other than need.
  2. Marketising of a public good, leading to the potential corporatisation of humanitarian aid.
  3. Digital exclusion could lead to increased vulnerability of those who do not have access to mobile phones and the internet, or the skills and abilities to use them.
  4. Quality of response could deteriorate as guidelines such as the Core Humanitarian Standard are not adhered to by new actors and individuals
  5. Exacerbating conflict and increasing protection issues for affected people where information and data become ‘weaponised’ by parties to the conflict.

However, thinking about these opportunities and threats is not sufficient. Starting to build capabilities in your organisation to harness new technologies and approaches is critical in order to improve your humanitarian work and ensure that your organisation is fit for the future of humanitarian response.


Ian Gray is the Founder of Gray Dot Catalyst, a consultancy that works in the areas of Strategy, Innovation and Partnering.