Q&A: How Digital Tech is Transforming the Fight Against Global Hunger

SCOPE is WFP’s platform to collect data and support people wherever they are. It helps to confirm people’s identities, manage cash assistance, and more. Photo: WFP

Digital technology is revolutionizing the fight against global hunger.

As the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has been at the forefront of this change. From using satellite imagery to forecast drought and drone technology to map disaster damage, WFP is reimagining emergency response.

In a new report, Digital Foundations, the agency explores how digital technology has enhanced its operations and saved lives in the process. I spoke with WFP’s Senior Digital Advisor Jean-Martin Bauer about what this digital transformation looks like on the ground and how it is enhancing WFP’s work to end global hunger by 2030.

Q: When we talk about digital technologies and transformation, we often think of this as a recent phenomenon, but WFP has been in the business of using digital tools to improve its work for some time. Can you talk about how WFP’s use of digital tools has grown and evolved?

Jean-Martin Bauer: I’ve worked at WFP for 20 years now. In that time, there’s been a sea change in how we use technology. Where we are today in 2021 is very different from the day I walked in the door of the Niger country office in 2001. The project was sending email over high-frequency radio to our deep field offices that did not have any other form of connectivity — this was about bringing email to the humanitarian front line.

You’d send an email from your computer to an office in the desert. That email was turned into a packet of data that was sent by radio, received at the deep field location, decrypted, and turned into an email on their laptop. It was like magic!

Today, we’re somewhere that’s completely different. But it happened in a very incremental way. For the humanitarian sector, we’re seeing investments made 15 years ago bearing fruit today. One example is WFP’s mobile VAM project, which started in 2012 and provided for automated data collection using SMS, using interactive voice response. It was brought to scale for the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and helped us reach places that were under quarantine. So we were able to deliver insights on food security and humanitarian needs in places we couldn’t reach.

HungerMap LIVE can hone in on the food security situation at both national and subnational levels. Photo: WFP

That has now turned into what we call HungerMap LIVE, a platform based on artificial intelligence and machine learning that provides granular real-time insights into hunger in almost 90 countries in the world. And what they did is they built on data streams — including the mobile surveys I just mentioned — but also other datasets to produce these very accurate predictions of food insecurity.

So innovations have built on themselves. Anyone who visits the HungerMap LIVE website and has access to this kind of granular data doesn’t necessarily realize that this is work that’s gone back 10 years.

The report is filled with different examples of how WFP is using digital tools and innovation to work differently and more effectively. I’d love to hear more about how prioritizing digital transformation within WFP has changed the lives of people in the countries in which you work. 

I’d say the best example that comes to mind is what we do with digital payments. Again, taking you back 20 years, all of WFP’s assistance was “in kind,” which meant we would put food on a ship, then it might need to go on a barge, then be delivered to a refugee camp or to a community that needed the assistance. That’s a process that can take months. Now we’re able to get cash transfers to people who need food assistance in a matter of days after the money hits their bank account.

It makes WFP’s work easier, but it’s also got quite a few benefits for local communities. When you do cash transfers, you’ve got a multiplier of 1.3 on every dollar you spend in the community. That helps us have a wider, positive footprint in the community because you foster an entire cascade of economic interactions that benefit the host community. And that’s a way of making food aid work better for people.

Before coming to New York, I was in Congo for almost four years. We found a lot of value in early warning systems. This is an area that is completely changed thanks to technology. When I was there, we had two very serious years of flooding in the Ubangi River related to climate change. It was the worst flooding since the 1960s and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The Ubangi River in Congo is in the north on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] and the Central African Republic. It’s very remote. There are no roads to get there. People live along rivers so you need boats to reach them. Just getting information when something happens in that part of the country is extremely complicated. But we were able to use high-resolution satellite imagery and know very quickly how many people we needed to help. So that real-time information helped us understand how much funding we needed, and helped us work with the government to understand what the strategy should be.

Those were some of the most harrowing situations I’ve seen as a humanitarian professional. You’ve got people on their roofs, screaming for help. When people need help immediately, you can’t wait for a few weeks for information to trickle down through an analog system. You need real-time information. And if we’re able to bring assistance when people need it the most, it’s a complete game-changer. It means humanitarians are finally doing things the way they were meant to be done.


"When people need help immediately, you can’t wait for a few weeks for information to trickle down through an analog system. You need real-time information."

Jean-Martin Bauer

Senior Digital Advisor, World Food Programme

One essential theme in the report is around cooperation. I’d love to hear a little more about the different ways that WFP works with partners across sectors to deliver assistance around the world. 

What I really like is WFP’s Innovation Accelerator, based in Munich. It was created to be a space for innovators with funding from the German government. And the idea is that in one place, you’ve got WFP, universities, and the private sector all collaborating, exchanging ideas, and co-creating solutions for hunger. They’re working on some interesting AI [artificial intelligence] projects with Google research, for instance.

The Innovation Accelerator is about more than just funding. It’s about getting access to expertise. It’s an interdisciplinary space that allows for new ideas and cross-fertilization. The partnerships and the connections that come together in a place like our Accelerator matter more than a check a donor could write.

One of WFP Innovation Accelerator's projects is called H2Grow. The program brings locally adaptable and affordable hydroponic solutions to vulnerable communities around the world. Photo: WFP

The report cites two major global challenges that are changing the nature of hunger around the world: COVID-19 and climate change. Can you tell me about how the pandemic has changed WFP’s work, and what it exposed in terms of needing better digital infrastructure?

When COVID hit, lost employment and the impact on agriculture and supply chains caused increased food prices and widespread food insecurity. I was in Congo at the time, and in the city of Brazzaville, the rate of food insecurity rose from 10% before COVID to 35% after. People were desperate for food. The same thing happened during the HIV pandemic in southern Africa. We realized during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and in DRC that providing food helped people stay at home and decrease the spread of the virus.

So food and health go together. I’m hoping that after COVID, we will realize that any good public health response must have a solid food security component as well.

And as you said, the pandemic also brought to light the enormous opportunities to use digital technology in our work. This meant scaling up contactless ways of helping beneficiaries. WFP also set up an emergency marketplace so other UN organizations, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and governments could tap into our supply chain and logistics expertise in a transparent way.

Hopefully, one of the silver linings of COVID is that it’s accelerated some of these efficiencies and these new ways of collaborating within the UN.

Women in the waiting room of WFP e-Shop in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Ismail Taxta / WFP

And all of that happened very quickly — especially when we think about change in large organizations and bureaucracies. 

Taking some of those lessons and thinking about another global challenge, can you talk a little bit about how WFP is using digital tools in the context of natural disasters, agricultural shocks, extreme weather, and other effects of climate change?

Climate change has changed WFP’s work. Right now, Madagascar is experiencing what WFP is calling the “first climate change-induced famine.” We need to realize that things are probably going to get worse unless we strengthen adaptation to climate change at the local level and change our ways of operating. Digital technology offers a great way to start responding to climate change.

What’s happened over the past few years is a huge change in the availability of earth observation data, which helps us understand what’s going on and which communities are most affected by climate change. Right now, a small satellite can be built in a day. So you’ve got hundreds of satellites orbiting the earth, capturing imagery that’s beamed back to analysts in real-time who look at crops, vegetation, what’s going on in the ground, and that can help us better understand risk at the micro level and develop plans that are tailored for different communities.

It also helps us act ahead of time. In South Sudan, where we have one of our largest operations, WFP uses data analytics and optimization to make sure we get the most out of our budget. Thanks to optimizing software, we’re able to do more pre-positioning of commodities ahead of the rainy season.

We know conflict is the leading driver of hunger around the world. How is WFP using some of its own digital transformation to better respond to this challenge?

Technology can help remove gray areas in our knowledge. In the past, we would say that an area is too dangerous because we have no information. Now we’re able to see settlements of internally displaced people pop up on satellites so we can locate them. We’re able to see impacts on crops.

My colleagues in West Africa have done a very interesting project on earth observation in central Mali, where you can see the impact of conflict on crops and grazing ground by comparing images before and after episodes of violence. 

Climate, conflict, and macroeconomic shocks severely affect local food security. WFP uses data modeling to assess their impact to ensure a timely response. Photo: WFP

Can you tell me about how WFP is working to protect the data of individuals and communities it serves when it comes to this new technology?

There’s a very big onus on WFP to get things right and to be sensitive about issues around protection. We work with 100 million people, some of whom are the most marginalized in their societies. I think one of our greatest achievements has been the creation of a Global Data Protection office. We’ve got a team of experts — the best in the business — advising us on these issues. I believe it’s one of the first offices of its kind in the UN system. We’re really proud to be leading in that area.

Where do you see the greatest opportunity, or what gives you the most hope in tackling global hunger?

I think the greatest opportunities are the fact that governments all over the world are beginning to have the capacities to use the tools I just described. They’re not for WFP or for the UN alone. We have the opportunity to share these tools, so countries can use them to wage their own fight against hunger.

One of the big buzzwords in the UN right now is “anticipatory action,” which only works if you’ve got an information system to back it up. Thankfully, we’re in a place where there’s more data than ever before. And we know what questions to ask better of data than ever before. So that makes me optimistic that we will be able to be more responsive in the future.

I started my career in the Sahel in the early 2000s and West Africans were telling me about the responses to food insecurity during the great droughts of the 1970s and the 1980s. It took much longer for help to arrive. We didn’t have the same tools. We didn’t have the same data.

So the democratization of data and analytics, to me, is one of the great opportunities. I’d love to see something like a data commons take shape.

Right now we have the data, the analytical capacities, and the processing power to do so much more than we ever could. Now that we have all this data, we now have even more responsibility to respond.