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Will Google and Facebook Drive the Drone Agenda in International Development?

By Denise Phelps on December 9, 2014


Working in ICT4D, you are reminded again and again that there is no “magic bullet” of development. Yet as each new technology emerges there is a flood of programs designed around it. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are no exception. Drones are the newest cool gadget to quickly appear in programs. However, we are not alone in our excitement over drones.

Private Sector Drones

Google, Facebook and other companies are racing into developing countries with drones too. And even though they have no experiences in conducting humanitarian work, through advertising, money, or product donations, multinational companies have the ability to drive the agenda in development and they sometimes do.

Drones are a great example. There is already hype around Google’s drone delivery program and Facebook’s drone-delivered Internet access as solutions to infrastructure problems that have plagued humanitarian work for decades, before either service is even fully functional. They are pre-marketing drones as the fast solution to slow local economies and limited capacity of other development actors.

However, several humanitarian organizations are already testing out the potential for drones to circumvent poor infrastructure. The World Health Organization is utilizing drones to transport medical supplies, such as vaccinations, to rural areas in Bhutan and Doctors Without Borders is testing drones to combat a tuberculosis epidemic in Papua New Guinea.

Then there is the UN. They are using drones to support peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, DRC. As Helena Puig Larrauri and Patrick Meyer point out, using drones in peace building and conflict prevention is fraught with danger. And yet, the conversation around drones is still driven by the next Google or Facebook announcment.

Community Engagement


As we have already seen with mobile phone programs, ICTs are a huge asset when appropriately applied within a specific context and project. Again, drones are no exception. Continuing community engagement is a central recommendation in the UNOCHA policy brief on drone usage. Yet, what community involvement are Google and Facebook doing?

We need more civil society and government actors engaged in determining what standards will be expected when designing and implementing drone programs, especially by private sector organizations.

Yes, multinational corporations can have an impact on development and their involvement is key, as donors, technical experts, and partners, but development professionals need to get ahead of new technology hype and frame the dialogue, instead of waiting for corporations to do it for us.

We need to ensure that corporations and NGO’s alike abide by drone best practices.

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Written by
Denise Phelps is an international health communication and ICT4D consultant.
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