The current crisis in Burma and China mean that the invaluable work of humanitarian and aid organisations is even more in the public eye than normal – with normal being the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur and the multitude of other international hostpots.
The importance of providing clean water, medical supplies and food aid to disaster and war zones is obvious but as I have been finding out over the last couple of days, an even more important resource in such situations is ICT. Without the VHF networks and portable V-Sat uplinks to allow the aid agencies to communicate and coordinate, providing aid on the ground becomes infinitely more complex and dangerous.
I was lucky enough this week to take part in one day of a two week intensive training course for ICT staff from a variety of UN organisations including the World Food Programme, and the UNICEF, designed to prepare the IT staff with the skills to survive in the hostile situations they could experience in the field.
One of the exercises I witnessed involved trainees having to dodge automatic fire (paint bullets) from Italian paratroopers. This might seem a pretty extreme way to train people whose main role is to set up Lans and radio networks, but what most people don't realise, including me before embarking on this trip, is that ICT specialists, along with the security teams, form the first wave of most aid agencies disaster response groups.
This training I witnessed, is aimed at assessing whether the ICT participants are capable of being promoted to become managers in the field, with the lives of up a dozen or more colleagues in there hands not to mention a $25m budget on the biggest projects. Funding for organisations such as WFP comes from donations, including cash from tech companies such as the charitable wing of Vodafone, The Vodafone Foundation.
There is an in-depth photo story in the works, but for now here's a taster of some of the tests the participants were put through in a military training ground just outside Pisa this week. The bullets might have been filled with paint – but they still hurt!
The practical training of the UN ICT field staff was overseen by Italian paratroops, the Folgore Airborne Brigade.
The first test involved a walk through a forest trail – pleasant enough apart from the hand grenades. Participants were asked to spot as many decommissioned mines and other explosives as possible, including some wired to very small charges – just to keep things interesting.
The next part of the practical tests involved the would-be UN ICT managers dodging paint bullets from automatic weapons fired by the paratroopers. Even if you know the bullets aren't real, it's still a great test of how people react under pressure.