A triumphant year for the ETC despite layered crises

If 2020 has proven anything, it is the transformative power of communications technology in a world suddenly upended.

By Enrica Porcari, Chair of the ETC / Chief Information Officer and Director of Technology, WFP.

Members of the Emergency Telecommunications Sector (ETS) team walk through Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in August 2020. Photo: WFP/ETS.

The need to communicate transcends borders. For affected communities who are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, a mobile phone becomes a lifeline. I was often asked in 2020 how the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) was responding to the crisis.

“Which one?” I would ask.

While the COVID-19 pandemic shook our way of life, it was not the only crisis the cluster had to deal with — it was just an additional layer to the seven humanitarian emergencies we supported last year. Even so, ETC services earned us our highest average user satisfaction rate: 92%.

ETC Coordinator in the Pacific — Shantal Boodhun — prepares satellite terminals before showing the Fiji National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) how to use them. Photo: WFP/ETC.

How did we manage to be so effective during these unprecedented times? The first thing that comes to mind is our partners’ dedication and innovative spirit. Our increasing emphasis on preparedness, resilience and localized capacity building is also part of the Cluster’s recipe for success.

Even with social distancing a necessity, the ETC managed to stay close to the people it serves. Working with national health authorities and medical partners on the ground, the ETC set up several health hotlines, including in Libya where an inter-agency call centre called Tawasul (meaning “dialogue” in Arabic), responded to over 19,000 calls in 2020.

In Bangladesh and Yemen, the ETC kept those on the frontlines of the pandemic connected in over 20 isolation and quarantine centres, giving access to life-saving information.

An ETC officer during an evaluation mission to Bria, Central African Republic, October 2020. Photo: WFP/ETC.

In a year where much human interaction went online, ETC training courses followed suit. The shift in our approach proved to be overwhelmingly positive: capacity building activities will now be offered both online and in person long after the pandemic has passed.

2020 was really a story about how the ETC used the pandemic as an opportunity to approach challenges head-on by innovating, adapting, and overcoming. For that I must thank all the ETC’s dedicated partners, who were there every step of the way, making emergency preparedness and response possible in an unprecedented year.

The ETC 2020 Annual Report is out now — have a look at where we were and what we accomplished.

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