When I’ve recommended a mobile phone distribution, to strengthen our communication with communities, I’ve seen a lot of colleagues recoil in horror. Not because they don’t want to communicate with refugees and host communities by phone – many already do – but that the challenges of mobile phone distributions are many, and sometimes prohibitive. Immediate questions that spring to mind are: to who? how many? how will we manage to provide credit? will they create tensions in the community? how much will this cost?  

So is it easier to not do them then?

No, and here’s why: Mobile phones are a critical channel of communication with refugees in almost all contexts where UNHCR works. There are obvious locations where phone communication is impossible, but even in some of the most poorly covered areas, a weak 2G signal can be found in some parts of a camp or settlement. We rely on phone communication to share information with communities, often through leadership and/or community structures. Phone communication is also an important way for us to keep up-to -date on the issues and challenges faced in the communities, with many refugees phoning us directly to raise concerns. Finally, many of our referrals to services – be they health, legal, protection – rely on initial and follow-up phone calls. But, communication by phone has associated costs – including calling credit and battery charging. Given the critical role this communication channel plays in our operations, we must fully anticipate and plan for these costs. We cannot assume that refugees – particularly in the early stages of an emergency – can and will bear these expenses. We often rely on individuals with phones, meaning the ‘communication burden’ for the larger community falls on ‘a few’. I’ve spoken to refugee representatives who have wanted to resign from their positions because of the costs associated with topping-up their phones, and the pressure they feel if they don’t have airtime. I’ve also spoken with representatives of women’s groups or youth groups that feel they can’t perform their tasks because they don’t have a phone. Can we really expect refugees to subsidise our communication with communities?  

But we don’t have the resources…Or do we?

As our operations are responding to ever-increasing numbers of displaced people, resources are stretched. It’s very rare that we would be in the position to provide every household with a mobile phone and SIM card. As well as these significant resourcing challenges, there are other factors to consider when planning any blanket distribution, including potential negative impacts on local markets, tensions with local hosting communities, and how the item will be used/shared at the household level. Given these challenges, our experience and learning are based on smaller-scale, targeted distributions.

But, with financial limitations, are small-scale, targeted mobile phone and call-time distributions even feasible? To answer this question it is critical that we understand how communities want to communicate with us, and which information sources they trust. We also need to assess our existing two-way communication practices and which channels we couldn’t ‘live without’. I’ve spoken to colleagues who’ve faced real challenges when refugees’ unregistered numbers are decommissioned, or coverage to a particular settlement has been disconnected. This assessment process will help prioritisation of resources for communications and is an important step for operations feeling the financial squeeze. It would be an interesting exercise to determine the amount spent on printed communications materials per operation, compared to establishing or strengthening phone communication. While I’m not fundamentally against printed materials – they definitely have their use cases – I’m always surprised by the reliance on text-based communication in humanitarian settings – often used as the number one ‘go to’. I’ve also rarely (honestly never) had feedback from communities that printed leaflets and posters would be their prefered communication channel with humanitarian organisations – they are inherently one-way. As we spend thousands of dollars on print and text often for communities with low levels of literacy, can we really say that we don’t have resources for one of our most important communication modalities?


So, how do we do it?

Contexts vary so significantly, it’s not feasible to develop a step-by-step ‘how to’ covering the exact distribution process. However based on learning from operations, we’ve drawn-up a list of considerations and recommendations. The most recent learning is from the Uganda operation, where UNHCR distributed feature phones and credit to a targeted number of representatives of Refugees Welfare Councils in Bidibidi Settlement. The recommendations and considerations below reflect feedback from the mobile phone recipients, Refugee Welfare Council members and our team in Yumbe (Bidibidi) – thanks to them all for their valuable insights.

Getting the right device at the right time:

The phones in Bidibidi were chosen based on an assessment of communications practices (in October 2016). At the time, few members of the community had or were familiar with smartphones – and the preference expressed was for ‘dummy phones’ that people would be comfortable using. It is important therefore to consider the following:

1. Have you conducted an assessment to determine which phones are best understood and used by the community? Through this assessment, you will also identify who may need additional support to be comfortable with the devices.

2. Is taking a ‘phone donation’ the best option? Are the devices being offered appropriate – or will you need to invest resources in familiarising the community with a new phone? Also consider the durability/lifespan of the device being donated – how long have they been in storage? Is the operating system still supported (or has the product been ‘end-of-lifed’)?

3. What is the impact of your distribution on the local market? Are you undermining local businesses with the scale of your distribution? Assessing local market capacity will help you determine if there is an alternative to an in-kind distribution. For example, there may be a robust enough market for you to establish a voucher system with local traders – enabling individual choice of type of handset up to a certain amount.

4. Have you decided how you are going to target and distribute before you complete the procurement? Electronic items deteriorate in storage, limiting the amount of time items are in the warehouse minimises the risk of battery failure. Batteries with poor performance need to be frequently charged which often has cost implications for the phone user (more below). There will be inevitable product failures, so it’s a good idea to keep back a small number of devices should you need to swap-out any that are defunct.

Considerations regarding SIM cards:

In most refugee-hosting countries, mobile operators are subject to mandatory SIM registration obligations which require customers to present an approved identity document before a SIM card can be activated. Refugees may not always have the required identity documents which meet the ‘Know-Your-Customer’ (KYC) requirements to enable them to register for a SIM. So while it may be physically possible to distribute SIM cards with mobile phones, there could be real legal challenges faced by refugees to activate them. As a communication device, a feature phone is useless without an activated SIM, so understanding this beforehand is essential. In Uganda, this was, fortunately, less of a challenge as refugee ID is officially accepted, so SIM activation by refugees is possible. Unfortunately, in other countries, this isn’t always the case.

5. Have you researched the KYC requirements in-county? If you’re not sure double check with the telecommunications regulator for confirmation on the requirements and if this includes refugee identification? The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is a good place to start. You may need to provide an example of the registration identification to the regulator and explain the registration and verification process. It’s important that the agreement is reflected in writing, and understood by mobile network operators.   

6. If refugee identification is not included in KYC requirements, have you consulted with the government, the regulator(s), mobile operators and mobile financial service providers? This policy note from GSMA provides further details on recommendations for these key actors and includes a number of case studies. There may also be discrepancies in-country between national identity agencies, telecommunications regulators and other departments – it’s a good idea to map all stakeholders and ensure consistency in your advocacy across all.

7. Have you communicated the KYC policy to the community, including to local mobile agents? Even if policies are inclusive of refugees, the identification requirements may not be well understood. This may result in refugees attempting to register without the correct documentation, or local agents not recognising ‘new’ identification types. To avoid frustration, inform refugees how to register their SIM cards as you distribute, and work with local agents beforehand.

Targeting your distribution:

The phone distribution in Bidibidi was designed to support communication with and between the Refugee Welfare Councils. Even with this level of targeting, with the resourcing available it wasn’t possible for every member of the councils to receive a telephone. There’s a wealth of guidance on targeting distributions – and many documented challenges. Based on the discussions in Bidibidi, we’ve identified the following considerations, specific to mobile phone distributions:

8. Have you identified who you would need to rely on to communicate and make referrals? Mapping out a ‘telephone tree’ of how information could be cascaded, and how emergency calls are made can help visualise this. It will also help you identify key ‘connectors’ in your community structures. Test your assumptions in consultation with communities. Are some of your connectors ‘gatekeepers’? A diversity of ‘connectors’ will strengthen information sharing to different groups.

9. Have you identified women who should play a role in your ‘communications tree’? Women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man in low to middle-income countries, and targeted distributions of devices should seek to address this. Our research also shows that the elderly and the less educated are also less likely to own a phone – this should be kept in mind when developing targeting to avoid reinforcing mobile ownership disparities. It’s important to consider what support will be required to ensure these groups have access to mobile phones, beyond the physical asset itself. Your distribution may need to have focused ‘phone literacy’ sessions with women and the elderly, to ensure they are comfortable with the phone’s use and can make full benefit of the features.

9. Have you consulted with the community to determine your targeting and develop ‘terms of use’ agreements? As above, discussion with communities is critical at each step in order to decide the criteria, and to communicate it well. Whilst deciding the criteria, it is important to draft ‘terms-of-use’ agreement with community members. This will outline how the mobile phones are to be used to support communication and referrals on behalf of the wider community – they are not phones distributed to individuals for personal benefit only. This agreement will also stipulate the communications ‘flow’ and the expectation regarding referrals and emergency calls.

10. After your distribution, have you monitored the success of your targeting? As phones are highly sought-after assets, there is an inherent risk that distributions will create tensions. It is important to ‘check-in’ frequently with the community to determine if there is an understanding as to why certain individuals received phones, and many didn’t. This may highlight gaps in communication around the distributions, and also if the ‘terms of use’ are not being adhered to.

Finding a credit solution:

‘Why give me a car without providing any fuel’, was one of the comments shared with us by a Refugee Welfare Council representative in Bidibidi. The mobile phones, distributed in November last year, had been provided with an initial amount of credit. This is now depleted, and the operation needs to identify ‘top-up’ solutions to the credit challenges being raised. There is not a simple, one-size fits all, solution. Ultimately call time costs, but are there ways to minimise and manage this expense?

11. Have you included the ‘beep-me’ or ‘flash-me’ option in your terms-of-use agreement? This is a common tactic for post-paid users who are low on credit – ‘flashing’ their number on someone’s phone, to give them a missed-call without being charged. While this is often used by refugees, it may not have been formalised in your terms-of-use agreement, including the expectations and timeframe for call-back. This also, of course, means that the staff member (or partner) whose phone is being flashed needs credit too. Discuss this option and the expectation with the community and include in your agreement.

12. Can you establish a ‘caller-group’ or ‘une flotte’? Many mobile network operators provide the option of establishing caller-groups – between members calls are free to the user and charged to a centrally held account. This system allows you to include all the essential numbers in your communication tree, and know that calls can always be made regardless of the credit status of each device. These caller groups can often be negotiated at competitive prices, so while there is a cost incurred it can be kept to a minimum – and the number of personal calls limited. However, this option may not always be available in-country or feasible at the scale of your distribution.

13. Can you negotiate a rate for automatic top-ups with a mobile operator? When bought in bulk, call and data credit is often available at significantly reduced rates. In discussion with the corporate social responsibility team or your account manager, are you able to negotiate regular automatic top-ups to certain registered numbers? Again, this will have implicated costs for the organisation – but will certainly be cheaper than providing credit on an individual basis. By providing regular instalments (rather than lump sums) it will also be more manageable in terms of monitoring and adjusting the credit amounts.

14. Can you negotiate a bundle designed for your community’s preferred channel? This would be based on the Terms of Use agreement and ‘how’ the community would best like to communicate. For example, if WhatsApp is the key channel of communication it might be possible to negotiate and regularly provide a ‘WhatsApp’ bundle. These bundles are available at much lower rates than a non-restricted data package, and are available for a number of platforms. Discuss with mobile network operators in-country to determine what is feasible.

15. Is mobile phone credit being provided for through any other programmes – including cash transfers? This is where coordination is critical, as you may find that other programmes or partners are providing credit in-kind or allowing for credit in the calculation of cash transfers. It’s important to work-out where there are duplications and where savings are can be made. You may also be aggregate the credit needs across a number of partners and access ‘better bundles’ with mobile operators.

Keeping the phones on:

In Bidibidi the mobile phone distribution was initially designed to be provided alongside solar powered/wind-up radios which can also charge phones. Unfortunately, the distribution of radios has been delayed, and the lack of charging options raises challenges. ‘It’s important the phone is on 24 hours, for emergencies, but of course, this costs’ was a comment from a mobile phone recipient in Bidibidi. Once the radios are distributed, access to free charging should be easier for the Refugee Welfare Councils. It’s important that you consider power options when planning your mobile distribution:

16. Can you combine your distribution with a solar solution? Examples may include combining with distributions of solar lanterns at an individual level, or perhaps for larger items (like the community rado sets) at Refugee Council/community group level. Access to community charging assets will need to be included in ‘terms of use’ agreements. Provision of larger-scale solar solutions (a solar panel and battery), may also provide opportunities to generate an income for the group or council – by establishing charging options for the wider community. While this has obvious initial investment costs, it may provide a sustainable solution for credit costs in the longer-term.

17. Can you provide ‘free-charging’ for agreed users at your office or through other services? Are there ‘powered’ locations where it is possible for people to drop-in and charge their phone on a regular basis? This will of course depend on context and distances from each village/community. Charging could also be provided for through negotiation with local traders who offer paid-for charging solutions, for example through ‘charging vouchers’.

Feedback, ideas and examples welcome!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of considerations. If you have examples of other solutions – especially for the credit and charging challenges – it would be great to hear your experiences. Please do share!


We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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