Humanitarian relief can be a frustrating, dangerous task. Even the best-intentioned donors can face hostile conditions or less than honorable intermediaries. Two years ago, the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria issued a report describing how corrupt officials in Djibouti defrauded its programs of millions of dollars in cash, medicines and health supplies. Another well-organized theft ring, the group found, was operating across several African countries stealing anti-malarial drugs from supply chains and reselling them in the black market. Also two years ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) discovered that inefficiencies in the supply chain had left a backlog of bed nets languishing in Nigerian warehouses, giving corrupt officials more time and opportunity to steal them.
The truth is that while the phrase "humanitarian relief" may sound grand and abstract, in practice it usually involves transporting specific items by people to other people who need them. And each person who comes into contact with these sometimes valuable goods can potentially speed up -- or sabotage -- the journey. The supply chains for these goods extend from urban depots to remote villages, often crossing myriad checkpoints along the way. This makes it easy for warlords and corrupt officials to delay or divert vital supplies for their own gain while depriving the starving and sick.
Aid workers are often put in harm's way. In Darfur, a wave of killings, kidnappings, and intimidation was aimed at stopping aid during the peak of the conflict in 2006. In the years since, the violence has forced relief teams to retreat or cease operations.
Convoys supplying the isolated Yemeni region of Dammaj earlier this year were attacked by rebels, killing many workers. But even the absence of hostilities does not mean that aid will reach its intended recipients. In Pakistan's Punjab province, desperate crowds stranded by floods in 2010 looted trucks bringing food.
More from Democracy Lab
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
- The 'Cold Peace' Between Moscow and Washington Just Got Colder
- Too Many Stakeholders Spoil the Soup
Thugs, crowds, and sleazy officials are just one kind of obstacle. Rough terrain, foul weather, fuel shortfalls, warfare, and inefficiencies also deplete aid flow. Ironically, such barriers shift the incentives for aid delivery towards larger, more populated centers where security tends to be stronger. The result is a skewing of aid that encourages migration from small villages into the larger towns and aid depots -- exposing the already vulnerable recipients to crime, trafficking, and illness along the way. And each time a cargo is delayed, tens, hundreds, or thousands of people may perish. Reverberating across oceans, all these losses and inefficiencies undermine donors' faith in the aid process overall.
But what if you could leapfrog over these obstacles? The technological versatility of airborne drones, the flying robots that are already transforming warfare, also has the potential to revolutionize how humanitarian aid is delivered worldwide. Now used by the U.S. military to conduct surgical, sniper-like missile strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, drones have many capabilities that are easily applicable to peaceful pursuits as well. Just this past December, the U.S. Marine Corps used an unmanned helicopter to resupply troops in Afghanistan for the first time -- demonstrating that drone technology is also feasible for the transport of cargo.