Technology Salon


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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

COVID-19 Challenges for Refugee Settings and Low-Income Countries

To date, over 3 million people globally have coronavirus and the world is bracing for it to overwhelm low income countries. As the death toll rises, and health systems in developed countries struggle, health responders and activists around the world are racing to understand how best to prepare and protect refugee settlements.

Where water, a bar of soap, and physical space are scarce, as they are in refugee settlements around the world, social distancing and good hygiene become impossible. Where wifi and technology is lacking, small organizations that fill gaps in communities such as homeless shelters and domestic violence centers on the front lines must close rather than continue doing their critical work.

As we shift our entire days online, the COVID-19 response becomes uniquely digital. While technology has never been a panacea, with smart and thoughtful design we can absolutely, together, spur one another toward solutions.

Learn more from experts in the video above.

Report Back on the Salon

What are COVID-19 Responses for Refugees and Low-Income Countries? the second salon in the Tech in the Time of Coronavirus virtual series featured insights on COVID-19 response from:

  • Nana Afadzinu, Executive Director, West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), Accra, Ghana
  • Irfan Younas, CEO, KCC Communication, Islamabad, Pakistan
  • Mike Zuckerman, Creative Activist,, Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda

More than 80 people from around the world gathered to learn about how best to support refugees, civil society, and news media in low income countries.

Techfugees mobilized a network of volunteers around the world to map the impact of COVID-19 on refugee communities. Indeed, the challenges displaced people have faced before coronavirus will not disappear, and will likely become more challenging. In the nonprofit / civil society sector, most agree there will be many organizations that don’t survive.

Organizations that serve vulnerable people will shutter. We are all challenged in this dark time to process and lead through uncertainty and to prevent even more catastrophic losses.


Key Points From Speakers

Mike Zuckerman

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda

  • Information is the most important thing. People need trusted information, and to know where to find it, rather than only hearing it from other people’s mouths. In Nakivale, there are phone hotlines for information and over 10,000 phone numbers. There we’ve put hand washing points in the area.
  • Solutions need to come from the refugees themselves. We need to support them. It’s critical to put resources and decision making in the hands of beneficiaries. The way forward is to spark local decisions. For resilient solutions, we can play a supportive role. Technology can help, such as developing chatbots to provide information.
  • It’s challenging to know which solutions work, but there’s a good way to find out: Ask. Kuja Kuja, which means “come come” in Swahili, is a WhatsApp based language messenger that asks displaced people questions and requests their feedback. Some example questions: ‘Are you happy with the response? Are you aware of COVID? Do you know the symptoms?’ It’s important to take the time to ask people what to do and get local answers.
  • People weren’t aware of COVID at the refugee camp in Uganda. The common thought was that black people get Ebola, white people get COVID-19, so there was a rumor that Africa would not be affected. Getting better information and answers through Kuja Kuja helped with decisions on whether to do more education and awareness about the virus, and/or teach hand washing and hygiene.


Nana Afadzinu

West Africa Civil Society Institute, Ghana


  • Most importantly, this current pandemic has shown the gaps. Many organizations typically engage with communities face to face. Now, all work has to be online. But remote work is difficult. Many organizations don’t have the resources to work remotely. For example, many are using desktop computers, so it’s hard to take go remote.
  • Local organizations are stuck. If we don’t get out of this situation soon, many will not exist soon. We will lose staff and assets.
  • We need more cloud tools, but also need more training. There are limitations with free tools. We need data collection tools and digital security tools that are easy to use as well as marketing tools and training. More companies should give special offers to NGOs. More technology capacity will be critical now and post-COVID for long term development goals.
  • We need partnerships with organizations to provide resources to civil society.


Irfan Younas

KCC Communication, Pakistan


  • Culture and religion make social distancing a challenge. In Pakistan, especially as the holy month of Ramadan begins April 25, people will likely gather in large groups.
  • Facebook usage is high in Pakistan. Facebook Live is becoming the new media. And youth are, of course, especially drawn to it.
  • Radio is the acceptable and traditional channel for communicating in rural areas. It is socially acceptable because there is no video or pictures. Women in Pakistan only have access to radio.

Overall Discussion Themes

We also moved into breakouts to go deeper into the issues. These conversations were not recorded to maintain discussion privacy.

Response Design

  • Ensure you hear the voices, needs, insights and opinions of local refugees, civil society leaders, and news media and design responses together. One way to do this is to invest resources at a local level.
  • Information can truly save lives.
  • Collaboration technology has a uniquely important role to play in this crisis– support and promote access to cloud technology and training and maximize WhatsApp, conversational AI/ chatbots, Skype, Teams, Hangouts, and Zoom.
  • Mobile money can be an effective way to share funds with vulnerable people.

Bright Spots

  • Watch for refugees taking the lead in the response.
  • Innovation will spark from within. For example, in Nakivale, groups are creating bar soap.
  • We’ll witness more access to and use of inclusive collaboration tools.


The salon followed the series kickoff How Can the Tech Sector Respond to COVID19, which featured guidelines and collaboration points derived from the digital development principles to help the tech sector align along best practices for using technology to support global health responses (as well as what mistakes to avoid).

Read about past and future Salons in the series:

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