Hardest hit: The impact of digital disadvantage on recovery after a disaster

By Femke Mulder | Reading time: 7 minutes

“I wasn’t at home when the earthquake happened” Ashmita says, pointing to the pile of rubble that was her house only two years ago. “I was in the fields with my two daughters. Fortunately, we were fine.” Ashmita is one of 500,000 Nepalis who lost their houses in the 2015 earthquakes.

It took a week before Ashmita was able to phone her husband who works in Quatar as a labourer. “Our local power generator had been destroyed and there was no network coverage. A friend told me that it was still possible to phone out from the largest village in our area. I walked for hours to get there in order to phone my husband.”

Ashmita has struggled since the earthquakes happened. Her husband did not have enough savings to fly back to Nepal or help her out much financially. “I didn’t know what to do or where to get help” she says. “My neighbours were able to get tarpaulin in the market and together we built a tent. My daughters and I still live there now. It’s freezing cold in winter”.

The government of Nepal has made funds available to help citizens rebuild their houses but Ashmita can’t access it. She is absent from local government records. NGOs who use these records in order to identify people who need aid also have no idea of her existence. “Our house was registered in my husband’s name” says Ashmita, “I don’t have a marriage certificate or any papers to prove my identity. Sometimes I listen to the radio on my friend’s phone”.

“There is public information about the earthquake and about the government’s compensation scheme. None of the information is relevant to me however because I don’t have the necessary papers. I have no idea how to get money in order to rebuild my house and provide my daughters with a future. I don’t know who to turn to or what to do.”

Birendra had a very different experience. “I was on the second floor of my apartment when the earthquake happened”, says he. “I ducked under my desk for shelter. It was terrifying. After the shaking stopped I immediately ran outside. I spent the night in my car. The next day I quickly went back inside my apartment to grab my laptop and my cell phone. Fortunately, the mobile network in Kathmandu was up and running so I was able to get online through 3G. I phoned around to make sure that my family and friends were alright. I managed to get hold of everyone that very day.

One of my friends had set up a tent in his garden and I spent a week there, just streaming the news and Googling anything related to the earthquake I could think of. Via Facebook I found a local engineer who was able to check my apartment right there and then. Luckily, there was no major structural damage so after a week of camping outside I moved back into my apartment.”

Web 2.0: for whoever has, to him more shall be given…

In times of crisis, affected communities share a lot of information about what is going on, who is where and who needs what through social media and by phone. Through online platforms (like Facebook groups) they help each other find information about what to do, who to contact and where to go in order to address their specific needs. Governments and humanitarian organizations also make a lot of crisis information available on the internet. Search engines (like Google) make it possible for people to use all this information in order to find out exactly what they need to know. This is a lot more effective than listening to the radio or watching TV if you need information on how to solve your specific problems.

Indeed, having the mobile network up and running again within hours was very helpful to Birendra. Ashmita was not so fortunate. She lived in an area with poor ICT infrastructure and did not have a laptop or a smartphone. However, even if she had been able to get online, she would not have been able to use the information or meaningfully participate in online disaster community groups. Most relevant websites were written in English or Nepali. Ashmita does not speak either well. Her native tongue is Tamang, one of the 123 distinct language spoken in Nepal. Also, like 53% of women in Nepal, Ashmita is functionally illiterate.

As such, Ashmita is digitally disadvantaged: she is unable to use the internet in order to find the information and people she needs in order to get back on her feet. Digital privilege has a massive impact on people’s ability to cope when a disaster occurs. It also greatly influences how well people recover in the months and years following a disaster. Nine out of ten people who lack digital privilege are also disadvantaged in multiple other ways. Digital inequalities therefore mean that the web helps the relatively better off recover a lot faster, sometimes at the expense of those who are less well of. This can happen, for example, when aid gets channelled to groups who make themselves highly visible online and not to offline communities who are significantly less visible to humanitarian responders.

But there is hope…

A number of grassroots initiatives have sprung up that try to link the digitally disadvantaged to information and contacts available on the internet through human intermediaries. They use hand-held devices to help people like Ashmita find out who they should contact and what they should do to get access to relief services that are available to them. One example is the Accountability Lab in Nepal who I will be joining at the end of this month for a period of five weeks. I will observe the work of their community focal points in the field and carry out open and structured interviews with local people about how they accessed and shared important crisis related information after the 2015 earthquakes.


Femke Mulder is a PhD Candidate in the department of Organization Sciences. Her research especially focuses on how different humanitarian agencies map, interpret and govern (online) information networks in their efforts to respond to natural and man-made disasters and crises

If you are interested in how it went get in touch at f.mulder@vu.nl!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s