Tag Archives: drones

Humanitarian experimentation

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Humanitarian actors, faced with ongoing conflict, epidemics, famine and a range of natural disasters, are increasingly being asked to do more with less. The international community’s commitment of resources has not kept pace with their expectations or the growing crises around the world. Some humanitarian organizations are trying to bridge this disparity by adopting new technologies—a practice often referred to as humanitarian innovation. This blog post, building on a recent article in the ICRC Review, asserts that humanitarian innovation is often human experimentation without accountability, which may both cause harm and violate some of humanitarians’ most basic principles.

While many elements of humanitarian action are uncertain, there is a clear difference between using proven approaches to respond in new contexts and using wholly experimental approaches on populations at the height of their vulnerability. This is also not the first generation of humanitarian organizations to test new technologies or approaches in the midst of disaster. Our article draws upon three timely examples of humanitarian innovations, which are expanding into the mainstream of humanitarian practice without clear assessments of potential benefits or harms.

Cargo drones, for one, have been presented as a means to help deliver assistance to places that aid agencies otherwise find difficult, and sometimes impossible, to reach. Biometrics is another example. It is said to speed up cumbersome registration processes, thereby allowing faster access to aid for people in need (who can only receive assistance upon registration). And, in the case of responding to the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, data modelling was seen as a way to help in this response. In each of these cases, technologies with great promise were deployed in ways that risked, distorted and/or damaged the relationships between survivors and responders.

These examples illustrate the need for investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application of new technologies in humanitarian response. It is incumbent on humanitarian actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during the response, but long after the emergency ends. This balance is between, on the one hand, working to identify new and ‘innovative’ ways of addressing some of the challenges that humanitarian actors confront and, on the other hand, the risk of introducing new technological ‘solutions’ in ways that resemble ‘humanitarian experimentation’ (as explained in the article). The latter carries with it the potential for various forms of harm. This risk of harm is not only to those that humanitarian actors are tasked to protect, but also to humanitarian actors themselves, in the form of legal liability, loss of credibility and operational inefficiency. Without open and transparent validation, it is impossible to know whether humanitarian innovations are solutions, or threats themselves. Aid agencies must not only to be extremely attentive to this balance, but also should do their utmost to avoid a harmful outcome.

Framing aid projects as ‘innovative’, rather than ‘experimental’, avoids the explicit acknowledgment that these tools are untested, understating both the risks these approaches may pose, as well as sidestepping the extensive body of laws that regulate human trials. Facing enormous pressure to act and ‘do something’ in view of contemporary humanitarian crisis, a specific logic seems to have gained prominence in the humanitarian community, a logic that conflicts with the risk-taking standards that prevail under normal circumstances. The use of untested approaches in uncertain and challenging humanitarian contexts provokes risks that do not necessarily bolster humanitarian principles. In fact, they may even conflict with the otherwise widely adhered to Do No Harm principle. Failing to test these technologies, or even explicitly acknowledge that they are untested, prior to deployment raises significant questions about both the ethics and evidence requirements implicit in the unique license afforded to humanitarian responders.

In Do No Harm: A Taxonomy of the Challenges of Humanitarian Experimentation, we contextualize humanitarian experimentation—providing a history, examples of current practice, a taxonomy of potential harms and an analysis against the core principles of the humanitarian enterprise.

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Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, SJD Harvard Law School, is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. Her widely published socio-legal research focuses on technology and innovation, forced displacement and the struggle for accountability in humanitarian action. Most recently, Sandvik co-edited UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability (Routledge, 2016), with Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, and The Good Drone (Routledge, 2017).

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, PhD International Relations Lancaster University, is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. She is an international authority on the issue of humanitarian biometrics and security dimensions and is the author of The Politics of Humanitarian Technology (Routledge, 2015). Her research has also appeared in Citizenship Studies, Security Dialogue, Journal of Intervention & Statebuilding, and African Security Review, among others.

Sean Martin McDonald, JD/MA American University, is the CEO of FrontlineSMS and a Fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. He is the author of Ebola: A Big Data Disaster, a legal analysis of the way that humanitarian responders use data during crises. His work focuses on building agency at the intersection of digital spaces, using technology, law and civic trusts.

The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept

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Kristin Bergtora, who directs the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies (and sits on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network, UAViators), just co-authored this important study on the growing role of UAVs or drones in the humanitarian space. Kristin and fellow co-author Kjersti Lohne consider the mainstreaming of UAVs as a technology-transfer from the global battlefield. “Just as drones have rapidly become intrinsic to modern warfare, it appears that they will increasingly find their place as part of the humanitarian governance apparatus.” The co-authors highlight the opportunities that drones offer for humanitarian assistance and explore how the notion of the humanitarian UAV will change humanitarian practices.

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Kristin and Kjersti are particularly interested in two types of discourse around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The first relates to the technical and logistical functions that UAVs might potentially fulfill as humanitarian functions. The second relates to the discourse around ethical uses of UAVs. The co-authors “analyze these two types of discourse” along with “their broader implications for humanitarian action.” The co-authors make the following two assumptions prior to carrying out there analysis. First, technologies change the balance of power (institutional power). Second, “although UAV technology may still be relatively primitive, it will evolve and proliferate as a technological paradigm.” To this end, the authors assume that the use of UAVs will “permeate the humanitarian field, and that the drones will be operated not only by states or intergovernmental actors, but also by NGOs.”

The study recognizes that the concept of the “humanitarian drone” is a useful one for military vendors who are urgently looking for other markets given continuing cuts in the US defense budget. “As the UAV industry tries to influence regulators and politicians […] by promoting the UAV as a humanitarian technology,” the co-authors warn that the humanitarian enterprise “risks becoming an important co-constructor of the UAV industry’s moral-economy narrative.” They stress the need for more research on the political economy of the humanitarian UAV.

That being said, while defense contractors are promoting their large surveillance drones for use in humanitarian settings, “a different group of actors—who might be seen as a new breed of ‘techie humanitarians’—have entered the race. Their aim is to develop small drones to conduct SAR [search and rescue] or to provide data about emergencies, as part of the growing field of crisis mapping.” This “micro-UAV” space is the one promoted by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), not only for imaging but for multi-sensing and payload delivery. Indeed, as “the functions of UAV technologies evolve from relief-site monitoring to carrying cargo, enabling UAVs to participate more directly in field operations, ‘civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief […].”

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As UAVs continue collecting more information on disasters and the impact of humanitarian assistance, they will “part of the ongoing humanitarian challenge of securing, making sense of and maintaining Big Data, as well as developing processes for leveraging credible and actionable information in a reasonable amount of time. At the same time, the humanitarian enterprise is gradually becoming concerned about the privacy implications of surveillance, and the possible costs of witnessing.” This an area that the Humanitarian UAV Network is very much concerned about, so I hope that Kristen will continue to push for this given that she is also on the Advisory Board of UAViators.

In conclusion, the authors believe that the “focus on weaponized drones fails to capture the transformative potential of humanitarian drones and their possible impact on humanitarian action, and the associated pitfalls.” They also emphasize that “the notion of the humanitarian drone is still an immature concept, forming around an immature technology. It is unclear whether the integration of drones into humanitarian action will be cost-effective, ethical or feasible.” I agree with this but only in part since Kristin and Kjersti do not include small or micro-UAVs in their study. The latter are already being integrated in a cost-effective & ethical manner, which is in line with the Humanitarian UAV Network’s mission.

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More research is needed on the role of small-UAVs in the humanitarian space and in particular on the new actors deploying them: from citizen journalists and local, grassroots communities to international humanitarian organizations & national NGOs. Another area ripe for research is the resulting “Big Data” that is likely to be generated by these new data collection technologies.

Note: This blog, written by Patrick Meier (PhD), was originally posted on the website of iRevolution.

The promise and perils of ‘disaster drones’

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The dire humanitarian consequences of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in conflict have become all too familiar. In contrast, there has been much less public discussion about the potential humanitarian uses of drones. So-called ‘disaster drones’ offer humanitarian agencies a range of possibilities in relation to crisis mapping, search and rescue and (some way off in the future) cargo transport and relief drops.

How can the humanitarian community benefit from the technological advances that UAVs and other unmanned or automated platforms offer without giving further legitimacy to a UAV industry looking for civilian applications for drones developed for military purposes? Are there particular ethical, legal and financial implications with respect to procuring disaster drones? This article gives an overview of current and foreseeable uses of disaster drones and ‘(ro)bots without borders’, highlighting the need for a more thorough understanding of the commercial logic underpinning the transfer of technology from the military to the civilian and humanitarian fields, and the systematic attempts being made by the UAV industry to rebrand itself as a humanitarian actor. It also shares insights from a recent workshop on the potential role of drones in Red Cross search and rescue operations, and concludes by linking the issue of the disaster drone to broader questions regarding humanitarian technology.

Available at: Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Lohne, Kjersti (2013). The promise and perils of ‘disaster drones’. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine.  ISSN 1472-4847.  (58).

PoC: How the Security Council in 1999 came to consider protection of civilians in armed conflict

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It is now fourteen years since the UN Security Council formally decided to include protection of civilians in armed conflict as a separate item on its agenda. The event was marked by an open discussion on protection in the Security Council – the first of its kind – which took place in February 1999.  It was followed by a request to the UN Secretary-General for a comprehensive report on the subject. The report was duly submitted in September (S/1999/957), which highlighted problems (“challenges “in UN language) and ways of addressing them. The Security Council endorsed the report’s recommendations in a formal resolution.

That was the beginning of a biannual, and later annual, routine in the Security Council  of dedicated discussions, reports and resolutions  that highlighted protection of civilians in armed conflict. Dedicated websites now follow the process. The practice has become so well institutionalized and widely accepted that we readily overlook the significance of these first, path-breaking steps in 1999.

Before then, the Security Council had focused on “hard” security issues of war and peace. Occasional reports had been requested and resolutions passed that dealt with refugees – not surprising given the existence of a large, and in the 1990s increasingly powerful, UN agency with a mandate to protect refugees (UNHCR). Questions of protection of civilians in armed conflict had also surfaced in the context of particular crises – notably the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was told to stick its head in the sand rather than respond to the unfolding signs of a genocide, and also when UN peacekeepers the following year were passive bystanders to the massacre in Srebrenica. But it took another five years before the Security Council was energized to consider protection of civilians in armed conflict as a subject worthy attention on its own, and in its own right. Protecting civilians was in effect elevated to the sphere of ‘high politics’.

How  did that happen?   And why then?

The context was favourable. The 1990s was “the humanitarian decade”. Humanitarian action was the language of the time, the veil of politics, and in part also a driving force. Analyst spoke of an international order with “embedded humanitarianism”.

An agent was needed as well. The crucial initiatives came from the Canadian government, above all its innovative and energetic foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy. The government (then liberal with a small as well as large L), was seeking a seat on the Security Council and campaigned on three issues. “Human security” was one of them. Having rescued the term from near-oblivion (it first came to general attention in the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report), the Canadians had been promoting  “human security” as a central concept in foreign policy and international relations.  The new orientation had already contributed to a very significant result – the treaty banning landmines was signed in Ottawa in 1997. With their eyes on the Security Council seat, the Canadians were now seeking broader support for the “human security” concept and its possible concretizations.

The Norwegians soon signed on. “Human security” fitted nicely with the country’s general foreign policy traditions as well as the particular orientation of the new coalition government lead by the Christian Democrats (Bondevik I). Not so coincidentally, Norway was also angling for a future seat on the Security Council and needed relevant issues and allies. In 1998, the foreign ministers of the two countries met at a small island in western Norway where they declared their support for human security (the Lysøen Declaration).

Canada did win a seat in the Security Council (1999-2000), and so, a bit later, did Norway (2001-2001). The Canadians immediately tabled the issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict. The rest, as they say, is history. The issue never left the Security Council again. Outside the Security Council, the Canadians promoted “the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) as a matter of principle on the national and international level, receiving a measure of endorsement by the UN World Summit conference in 2005.

The above analysis of how the Security Council routinely came to pay attention to protection of civilians in armed conflict is cast in a neo-realist mould.  In this perspective, noble ideas need to be propelled forwards by more robust national interests of power and ambition, such as getting a seat on the Security Council. That is, we need to recognize the instrumental value of ideas to account for their political saliency. We also need to step outside a narrow neo-realistic framework to consider the conceptual clarity and normative power of the idea itself. At the time,  “human security” was a powerful idea; concretizing it in terms of protection of civilians gave it a focus and policy relevance necessary to capture the agenda of the Security Council.

What this all matters on the ground, outside the chambers of policy debates in the United Nations, is of course another question. But high-level recognition of a problem surely is a necessary (though not sufficient) prerequisite for effective active.

What, then, of the future? Will “human security” again provide inspiration or legitimacy for new initiatives in the humanitarian sector? The original carriers – Norway and Canada – will this spring mark the 15th anniversary of the original Lysøen Declaration. It will be a low-key and totally unofficial affair. The present Canadian government, no longer liberal with a small l, has practically banned the term (and taken down the website). The Norwegian government has not gone quite as far, but seems focused elsewhere.  Yet there is no lack of urgent issues. On top of my list is the development of an international regime to regulate ‘targeted killings’, particularly through drone strikes.  To get this squarely on the table of the Security Council and beyond, however, probably requires a massive lift – more than even an inspired Oslo-Ottawa axis could carry.