Tag Archives: humanitarian action

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.

Conundrums in the Embrace of the Private Sector

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The humanitarian sector faces an unprecedented number of crises globally. The growing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed.  This involves a strong focus on cooperation and partnerships with the private sector.  A large part of the allure is the notion that private-public partnerships will make humanitarian response faster by entrenching market-oriented rationalities, thus enhancing effectiveness. This is also how the private sector presents itself:

One should never underestimate the power of private companies who offer aid. Companies are almost always focused on efficiency, good negotiation, building their reputation (their brand) and getting things done on time and on budget (Narfeldt 2007).

Here, I will try to complicate this narrative by pointing out some conundrums in the vigorous humanitarian embrace of the private sector.

Back in 2007, Binder and Witte noted the emergence of a new form of engagement through partnerships between companies and traditional humanitarian actors, often based on a desire to demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR) and to motivate employees. In parallel, they observed that the War on Terror had enlarged the scope of traditional work with a role for commercial players to provide relief services. Today, these trends continue as public-private partnerships have emerged as a (donor) preferred humanitarian strategy to increase efficiency and accountability (see for example Drummond and Crawford 2014), goals that to some degree seem to merge as efficiency has become an important way of demonstrating accountability. The rationale for a greater inclusion of the private sector in humanitarian action is that partners can contribute to humanitarian solutions with different expertise and resources. Private companies are profit-driven and thus incentivized to comply with the specific deliverables and time frames set out in contracts. Donors are attracted to low overhead and lesser need for constant engagement and monitoring. Moreover, the private sector owns much of the infrastructure on which information and communication technologies are based.

The objections to private sector engagements are well-known and predictable. The outsourcing of humanitarian action has been criticized by commentators pointing to the loss of ground truth, and to the often poor-quality resulting from the private actors’ lack of understanding of humanitarian action, contextual knowledge, and crisis management skills. It is argued that companies are, by their very nature, mainly interested in “brand, employee motivation and doing more business” (Wassenhove 2014). Intensified private sector engagement thus leads to a marketization of humanitarian values (Weiss 2013) where “the humanitarian ethos is gradually eroded” (Xaba 2014).

In the following, I will instead question the idea of efficacy by challenging some of the assumptions underlying the turn to the private sector. I consider how the call for intensified cooperation overlooks persistent tensions inherent in the humanitarian market and in actors’ rationalities. I also identify what seems to be a fairly prevalent sentiment, namely, the assumption that such cooperation may serve the double objective of delivering humanitarians from the much-loathed Results-Based Management (RBM) regime while simultaneously delivering aid more effectively.

The first difficulty is structural: the turn to business cooperation is informed by the notion that the humanitarian market is inherently efficient and effective because it is a regular market. However, as noted by Binder and Witte, the humanitarian market may be characterized as a “quasi-market,” which exhibits an indirect producer–consumer relationship. In the market for humanitarian relief, the consumer (i.e. the aid recipient) neither purchases nor pays for the delivered service. Aid agencies are the producers, donors the buyers, and aid recipients the consumers. As a result, the market is loaded with asymmetries and uncertainties: Donors have difficulty determining whether the services they pay for are indeed adequately delivered, while recipients have few means of effectively making complaints or airing grievances. Nielsen and Santos (2013) note, for example, the often unanticipated and inappropriate delivery of equipment, as well as personnel. In a trenchant critique, Krause (2014) describes this as a market where agencies produce projects for a quasi-market in which institutional donors are the consumers and populations in need are part of the product being packaged and sold by relief organizations.

Interestingly, the currently most successful technology-based humanitarian endeavor is also a concerted attempt to remedy the quasi-status of the humanitarian market: Over the last decade, the international development community has invested heavily in the so-called financial inclusion agenda, aiming to make poor people less aid-dependent; this is sometimes labelled ‘resilience through asset creation.’ The partnership between the World Food Program and MasterCard, for example, uses “digital innovation to help people around the world to break the cycle of hunger and poverty.” For the World Food Programme, this is part of a broader strategy to move away from food aid and to improve food security through cash assets. As I have noted elsewhere, the underlying rationale is that access to financial services such as credit and savings will “create sizeable welfare benefits” as beneficiaries of aid are drawn further into the market economy as customers. The goal of implementing “cost-effective” electronic payment programs is to help beneficiaries “save money, improve efficiencies and prevent fraud.” The belief is that cash can ‘go where people cannot’ andprovide them with choice. However, while these strategies are motivated explicitly by the desire to turn the beneficiary more directly into a customer, the accountability regime constructed around these systems remains directed upwards to donors.

The second assumption to be examined is that of shared motivation and shared values, going beyond disapproving criticisms of ‘neoliberal governance strategies.’  I think it is important to recognize that call for intensified private sector collaboration masks a rather thin shared understanding of both the nature of humanitarian work and of the competence, presence, and relevance of the private sector, and that this impinges on how this collaboration plays out. Binder and Witte observed that past attempts to pursue partnerships with corporate agencies have often been frustrated as agencies have been unclear about the intended outcomes for the partnership, or have viewed it as a way of developing a long-term funding arrangement. According to Nielsen (2014), private-humanitarian collaboration is currently characterized by underlying disagreement about what constitutes ‘meaningful’ innovation, and how that impinges on responsible innovation and on accountability and CSR more broadly; there is a sense that the humanitarian customer often “does not know what s/he wants.” The private sector actor is frustrated about having to take all the risk in the development of products, while humanitarians fret about taking on future risks, as they will be the ones to face public condemnation and donor criticism if the product fails to aid beneficiaries in the field. Mays et al. (2012) identify a mismatch between humanitarian and business systems, leading to a clash between entrepreneurial and humanitarian values and the imperative to save lives and alleviate suffering. This resonates with my own observations, as humanitarians complain about being offered inadequate or unfeasible solutions; about being used as stepping stones to market access to the greater UN market; or simply about differences in rationality, where the private sector partner frames the transaction commercially by ‘thinking money’ and the humanitarian partner by ‘activity on the ground.’

Finally, the erstwhile push for business management approaches to humanitarian action was the result of a push for greater accountability and a need to professionalize humanitarian work. Perhaps the most significant import was Results-Based Management (RBM), a management strategy “focusing on performance and achievements of outputs, outcome and impact,” which provides a framework and tools for not only planning activities, but also risk management, performance monitoring, and evaluation. Over the course of time, humanitarians have become exasperated and frustrated with the RBM rationale, both because it is sometimes seen to be contrary to principled humanitarian assistance, and more often because RBM and the results agenda engenders a type of bureaucratization where humanitarians feel that they are “performing monitoring” instead of monitoring performance (borrowed from Welle 2014).

While some humanitarians now strive for a shift towards systems accountability (where they will be held to account with respect to their responsibility for maintaining functional and workable supply-chains or information sharing systems, not specifically demarcated deliverables), others see the private sector as the solution to the RBM straightjacket. There seems to have emerged a notion that increased private sector involvement may in fact allow humanitarians to kill two birds with one stone. Much of the attraction of partnerships and outsourcing to the private sector seems to be that RBM obligations can be offloaded to these actors, through subcontracting and outsourcing that details deliverables and outcomes. Hence, the private sector is both envisioned to be faster at delivering RBM-like outputs — now imagined as a separate objective for humanitarian actors — and quicker to deliver humanitarian response.

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Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), was originally posted on the website of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA).

Estranged violence in Tegucigalpa

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Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world. With 82 homicides per 100 000, there are more than 4 times as many murder victims as there are people who die in traffic accidents. Almost one out of one thousand suffers a violent death every year. In some of the more heavily hit districts the number is up to 3 per thousand. The intensity of violence is higher than in many wars. Despite this, there is very little evidence of violence in everyday life. At first glance Tegucigalpa seems much more peaceful and safe than cities like Beirut. There are no bullet-holes in buildings, no bombed out buses besides the street – the people seem generally relaxed, friendly and happy. The rate of violent deaths in Lebanon was 2.2 per 100 000 in 2012, compared to 82 in Honduras. First time visitors to the two cities could easily assume that Beirut was the more violent of the two.

When speaking to people in Tegucigalpa, the violence is usually described with a strange sense of distance. “La Violencia” is something that happens to other people; either in other areas of the city or to other social and economic classes. Even in the worst hit districts of the city, when talking to the lower echelons of society, people claim a distance to the violence: “The violence is between competing Maras and Cartels, as long as I stay out of it, they will not bother me.”

The distance to “la Violencia” is also evident in its origin stories. One popular narrative goes something like this: Two Latino gangs in the United States, and in particular in Los Angeles, were driven to brutality by fierce competition over the drug market. Their tolerance for violence was further enhanced by the extreme measures of the LA Police Department. In the 1990s a gang crack-down resulted in mass deportations of gang members – the majority of which ended up in Honduras. They brought with them their gang identities, their conflicts, their high tolerance for violence, and their dependence on drug money. This narrative has also been put forward by prominent social scientists (see eg. Rodgers 2009).

Another narrative ascribes the violence to Mexican drug cartels that have moved into Honduras to control key territories for cocaine trafficking. According to this narrative, the cartels have upped the ante in the drugs game – and introduced a new element of bestiality to the violence in Honduras. Unlike most murders in Honduras, Cartel-killings are grisly and seem motivated by a desire to cause general terror.

Both these narratives propose that “la Violencia” is caused by some external entity – or an “Other”. However, these narratives don’t conform to the numbers. The statistics from Observatoria de la Violencia paints another picture entirely. While the context of the murders is usually (51,2 % of cases) indeterminable, only 3,2% of the homicide can be credibly tied to the Maras. The most common form of homicide, where the context is determinable, is murder by hired killers (29 %). Additionally, it seems as if murders happen to all classes, throughout the day, and all week (with a small peak in the week-end). The cartel-murders, unlike the rest of the violence, are very visible both in terms of immediate surroundings (gruesomely manipulated body parts left in public etc.) and in terms of press coverage. Despite their high visibility they constitute a relatively small portion of the total number of homicides. I’m not saying that the popular narratives are untrue – merely that they do not account for the majority of the violence.

The story told by the numbers is that the source of the violence is not some external Other – despite the popular perceptions of its source – rather it seems to be a consequence of a habitualization of violence in society in general. The problem is not, at least not directly, an invasion of foreign elements from abroad. Rather it seems as though the threshold for using violence has been lowered throughout most of the Honduran society. Murders are being committed to settle personal grudges, to commandeer a bus route, or to remove the owner of a competing kiosk.

While the narratives seem off the mark, the routines of daily life are not. People are generally wary of public transports, and the middle classes avoid the official taxies – preferring the use of private drivers. The presence of the private security companies is even more prevalent than that of the police. Armed men in diverse private uniforms stand guard outside any major business. The upper echelons of society keep armed personal bodyguards. So while the public narrative creates a distance to the violence, the daily lives of most people are still structured according to security considerations.

Narratives and policy

A narrative is an account that connects subjects and events in a coherent manner – and given the complexity of social phenomenon, such as violence, any cohesive narrative must necessarily be selective. As Scott reminds us in his Seeing Like a State, any formulation of social policy necessitates a certain simplification of reality. When these simplifications of reality become too formulaic and thin, the results can become disastrous. This is what seems to have happened in Honduras.

The state apparatus has bought into the narrative that the violence is an external phenomenon to Honduran society. Framing the violence in this manner makes it logical to oppose the violence with violence – as one would oppose an invading army. The resulting policy is the “Cero Tolerencia” approach, very similar to the more famous “Mano Dura” from El Salvador. Utilizing an underpaid and corrupt police force, reinforced with elements of the army, the state is seeking to reinsert its monopoly on the legitimate use of force by confronting the Maras (and to a lesser extent the Cartels). People can be arrested for showing gang signs or having gang tattoos. Youths can be sentenced to up to 12 years for having gang affiliations – without need for proof of any other crime.

The consequence of this approach is that the streets in the poorer districts of Tegucigalpa are patrolled by heavily armed policeman and soldiers, shabbily dressed and riding in the back of beaten-up pickup trucks. They give the impression of a hastily mobilized militia. In the more well-off districts armed men in diverse private uniforms stand guard outside any major business. The upper echelons of society keep heavily armed private bodyguards around them at all times.

If, as the statistics seem to indicate, the narrative is only a thin partial truth; and if “la Violencia” is a consequence of naturalization of violence – then the chosen response would seem to be the worst possible approach to solving the problem. Norbert Elias wrote of how European society was gradually “civilized”:

“If we consider the movement over large time spans, we see clearly how the compulsion arising directly from the threat of weapons and physical force gradually diminish, and how those forms of dependency which lead to the regulation of the affects, of self-control, gradually increase. “

His main point is that the importance of self-control slowly evolved via the influence of the upper classes (moving from knights to courtiers) and the state. When the upper classes engage heavily armed private security and the state engages heavily armed thugs – this does not encourage self-control or regulation of affect. On the contrary, if Elias is a good fit, the chosen policy would only reinforce a culture of violence.

Humanitarianism and urban violence – another narrative

There is a potential for humanitarians committing the same type of mistake as the Honduran state when engaging with urban violence. In recent years, several works have gone into developing repertoires for what humanitarian organizations should do in violent urban contexts. While the Honduran state has based its policy on a narrative specific to Honduras, the tendency is that humanitarian organizations are basing their work on a generic narrative of the urban.

Even the term “urban violence” itself, implies a commonsensical, yet erroneous, narrative: Traditional, peaceful and rural societies, with closely knit community ties (gemeinschaft) have been supplanted by urban societies. Unlike the rural societies, there are few community ties and little solidarity to be found in the city. The anonymity, lack of solidarity, and close physical proximity of different social actors breeds a new form of violence. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized the new challenge for humanitarians is to mitigate the consequences of the violence, or even seek to reduce the violence itself.

As with the narrative of violence in Honduras, it is very difficult to dismiss this narrative as completely untrue – and yet it doesn’t fit well with the empirical data. To begin with, the traditional rural societies, a few hundred years ago, were generally a lot more violent than our contemporary urban societies. It has been argued convincingly, that urbanization has actually been a vital factor in reducing violence in society (at least as a general trend over long time spans). Many of our assumptions about the urban way of life have been repeatedly disproven when investigated empirically (see eg. Saunders 1981). Many of the traits ascribe to the urban way of life are actually better described as aspects of modernity. They apply equally to both rural and urban settings.

I am not saying that there are no new operational challenges to humanitarian projects in urban settings – but I am saying that building a new form of humanitarianism centered on a generic narrative of “urban violence” could be a mistake. The urban narrative is too simplistic to capture the full complexity of violence in cities – violence which often takes the same forms as violence in rural areas – and often with the same root causes. Violence, and the ways violence is mitigated in society, has been the most central theme in social science from Hobbes to Tilly. Reducing violence to its urban causes, or framing projects to reduce violence around an urban narrative, will lead to important aspects of the reality on the ground being ignored. As we saw with the example of the Honduran states engagement with violence – the temptation to frame policy in cohesive and simplified narratives can lead to unfortunate consequences.

A Humanitarian Technology Policy Agenda for 2016

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The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 will feature transformation through innovation as a key theme. Leading up to the summit, OCHA has voiced the need to “identify and implement….positions that address operational challenges and opportunities” (OCHA 2013) relating to the use of information technology, big data and innovations in humanitarian action.

In this blog post we sketch out four areas in need of further research over the next two years to provide policymakers, humanitarian actors and other stakeholders with up to date and relevant research and knowledge.

1.    Empowerment and Accountability

  • Pivoting humanitarian action: Maximizing user-benefit from technology

Affected populations are the primary responders in disasters and conflict zones, and actively use information technology to self-organize, spread information about their condition, call for aid, communicate with humanitarian actors, and demand accountability. New technologies also have the potential to put responders at the center of the entire life cycle of humanitarian action – from needs assessment and information gathering, to analysis, coordination, support, monitoring and evaluation.  It is crucial that member states, humanitarian organizations and volunteer & technical communities (V&TCs) improve their actions to take advantage of this opportunity. The 2016 Summit should strengthen the end-user perspective in the development of guidelines for V&TCs.

  • The changing meanings of accountability

Increasingly over the last 20 years, the humanitarian community has focused on issues of agency accountability and professionalization of humanitarian action, vis-à-vis donors as well as beneficiaries. However, the technological revolution in humanitarian action and the increasingly central role of large telecom and tech companies makes it necessary to broaden the focus of accountability considerations.  For example, OCHA is now considering developing guidelines for how formal humanitarian organizations and V&TCs should cooperate with these companies. Leading up to the 2016 Summit, there is a need for more reflection and research on how technology can be used to enhance accountability in humanitarian action for all parties, including new actors.


2.    The role of aggregated data

Data collection and the importance of aggregated data have come to occupy an important role in humanitarian action. As illustrated by the 2013 World Disasters Report, big data and remote sensing capabilities provide an unprecedented opportunity to access contextual information about pending and ongoing humanitarian crises. Many notable initiatives such as the UN Global Pulse suggest that the development of rigorous information management systems may lead to feasible mechanisms for forecasting and preventing crises. Particular attention should be paid to three issue areas:

  • Veracity and validity

Multiple data transactions and increased complexity in data structures increase the potential for error in humanitarian data entry and interpretation. Data that is collected or generated through digital or mobile mechanisms will often pose challenges, especially regarding verification. Although significant work is underway to establish software and procedures to verify data, understanding the limitations posed to veracity and validity of humanitarian data will be critical.

  • Identity and anonymity

As humanitarian data is aggregated and made public, the chances for re-identification of individuals and groups increase at an unknown rate. This phenomenon, known as the mosaic effect, is widely recognized but little understood. There is little understanding of the dangers that shared anonymous data would pose in a humanitarian context, where data may be limited, but the potential damage of re-identification would be quite extreme.

  • Agency and (dis)empowerment

The aggregation of humanitarian data from multiple data streams and sources decreases the likelihood that individuals and groups reflected in that data will be aware of, and able to influence, the way in which that data is used.  This principle, sometimes referred to as informational self-determination, presents a challenge to digital and mobile data collection contexts generally, but is highly problematic in humanitarian contexts, where risks associated with personal information are particularly grave.


3.    Enabling and regulating V&TCs

Remote volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) now play an increasingly important role in humanitarian contexts – generating, aggregating, classifying and even analyzing data, in parallel to, or sometimes in collaboration with more established actors and multilateral initiatives. They increasingly enjoy formalized relationships with traditional humanitarian actors, processing and generating information in the support of humanitarian interventions. Yet individual volunteers participating in such initiatives are often less equipped than traditional humanitarian actors to deal with the ethical, privacy and security issues surrounding their activities, although some work is underway. Although in many ways the contribution of V&TCs represents a paradigm shift in humanitarian action, the digital and volunteering revolution has also brought new concerns with regards to the knowledge and understanding of core humanitarian principles and tasks, such as ‘do no harm’ and humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

In considering the above issues, attention should be paid to inherent trade-offs and the need to balance competing values, including the following two:

  • Data responsibility vs. efficiency. There is an inherent tension between efficiency and data responsibility in humanitarian interventions. Generally, protecting the privacy of vulnerable groups and individuals will require the allocation of time and resources—to conduct risk assessments, to engage and secure informed consent, to implement informational security protocols. In humanitarian contexts, the imperative to act quickly and decisively may often run counter to more measured actions intended to mitigate informational risks to privacy and security
  • Western values vs. global standards. It has also been argued that privacy is a Western preoccupation, without any real relevance to victims of a humanitarian crisis facing much more immediate and pressing threats. This argument highlights the important tension between mitigating informational risks to privacy and security, and the need to efficiently and effectively expedite humanitarian aid. It does not account for the concrete risks posed to individual and collective security by irresponsible data management, however.

This is our modest contribution to an agenda for research and policy development for humanitarian technology. We would like to join forces with other actors interested in these challenges to contribute to a necessary debate on a number of issues that touch upon some of the core principles for humanitarian action. The ambition is to strengthen humanitarian action in an innovative and accountable manner, making us better equipped to help people in need in the future.

Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), Christopher Wilson (The Engine Room) and John Karlsrud (NUPI), was originally posted on the website of the Advanced Training on Humanitarian Action Project (ATHA).

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.

CorePhil DSI

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.

Urban Humanitarianism: Accessing informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya

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This blogpost is based on the first phase of my PhD fieldwork in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Over the next four years you can follow the developments of the NUPI/PRIO project Armed Violence in Urban Settings: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms on this site. Our goal is to explore the humanitarian engagement in the field of urban violence.

Access is a critical issue for any humanitarian organization making their entry into a new field. Often, the question of access is purely physical:  During the rainy season, populations in villages connected to rest of the world by a single dirt road can be impossible to reach. The informal settlements of Nairobi do not fall into this category. Huruma can be seen from the Northeastern corner of the UN compound. Resident expats catch an excellent view of the Kibera Slum from the 11th hole at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Nevertheless, short physical distance is no guarantee of easy access.

Urban access. If access to an informal settlement is not granted by the local residents, there will be no security for staff and no project. Negotiating access to such informal urban settlements can be daunting, as humanitarian actors  must navigate several layers of formal and informal governmental structures. While permission from the central government is required, nothing will happen without the seal of approval from the presidentially appointed chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders who hold key positions at the local level. The loyalty of these elders is primarily to the community, including at times those engaged in criminal and violent activities.

While the police might have achieved some sway in Mathare, the law is enforced by youth gangs in many of the Kibera villages, where The twelve disciples and Yes we can! are among the groups providing protection.  While  the defeat of the dreaded Mungiki is widely proclaimed in Mathare, the gangs remain a formidable force in this settlement. Financed by “taxation” of the community they ensure that the residents’ property and lives remain safe from external and internal threats. Any organization setting up projects in Mathare will need their tacit approval. Landlords are also important actors. Rents are rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances; a local water and sanitation project can result in increased prices that force the residents into financial exodus. Any structures or renovations in the slums need approval of the de jure owners, who are not known for their philanthropic nature.

The INGOs interviewed for this project have almost exclusively relied on a Community Based Organization (CBO) to negotiate first access. This, however, is not a fail-safe plan. These organizations are often centered around a charismatic leader, whose politics can compromise neutrality. There are also several “suit-case CBOs” with few real ties to the community and no actual projects. Selling projects to the humanitarian and human rights organizations is potentially very good business; a fact that creative entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on.

Having managed to work with and around these political structures, humanitarian actors still face a real risk of involuntary involvement in the tribal and ethnic conflicts that dominate Kenyan politics.  Tribal suspicions run high, and skewed representation of one tribe among the staff could potentially be enough for the INGO to be seen as a partisan.  Rumors run fast through the settlements and any organization wishing to operate in this area must keep one ear constantly to the ground: Catching and disproving rumors early is of vital importance for staff safety.

Put to the test? While the conflict during the 2007-08 elections was between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, the current political drama is playing out between the Kikuyu and the Luo. Prior to the 2013 election,  the graffiti “No Raila: No Peace” could be found everywhere in Kibera, including at the gates of the MSF Belgium clinic. In 2007-08, the violence spread from the city to the country side – eventually engulfing most of the country. The death toll rose beyond a thousand and estimates of the number of displaced vary between 180 000 and 600 000.

Despite the large number of humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, the humanitarian community was caught off guard. Evaluations of the response indicate that while IDP camps received the necessary aid, the humanitarians were largely incapable of aiding those who settled elsewhere. Those who sought shelter among family and friends in the settlements were hard to identify and support.

At the time of writing, it appears that in 2013, the  humanitarian community has been better prepared. OCHA has initiated a hub-based coordination system that ensures that actors know of each other and the relevant government structures in the areas where they operate. Nairobi has been divided into seven sub-hubs, each of which is led by an organization with solid local knowledge. The responsibility for the life and dignity of Kenyans rests with the Kenyan government. Making government actors aware of the resources they can call upon from the humanitarian community, and making sure that humanitarian response complements the government efforts, has been a cornerstone of the preparation.

The move from a sector-based to an area specific coordination of humanitarian action and the inclusion of the CBOs and Faith Based Organizations in the disaster preparedness plan are approaches which on a general basis could enhance access to urban populations during crisis and   strengthen the humanitarian response.

Update April 2nd: In the end there was no test. The Kenyan Supreme Court decided against the petition fronted by Odinga, confirming the election of Uhurru Kenyatta as the president to succeed Kibaki. Raila Odinga held a speech reaffirming his commitment to the constitution and thereby also the decision of the Supreme Court. There was no outbreak of political violence, though two deaths were reported by Kenya Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

 

PoC: Where the Price for Mobilizing Protection Laws is Your Life – the Plight of Colombia’s Women IDP Leaders

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In November 2012, Human Rights Watch published the report  “Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia” documenting the failure of recent improvements in Colombia’s laws, policies and programs on gender based violence to translate into effective protection for internally displaced women, so-called IDPs.  The long-term activist Angélica Bello was interviewed in the report, decrying the lack of protection against rape, the lack of health care and the lack of compensation for displaced women.

At the age of 45, Bello, the director of the National Foundation in Defense of Women’s Rights (FUNDHEFEM) had been displaced four times due to her crusade on behalf of Colombia’s  3,5-5,4 million displaced, of whom a majority are women. Coming out of a meeting at the Ministry of Justice in Bogotá in 2009, she was abducted and sexually assaulted – and told by her assailants that she was being punished for her activist work.

February 16 2013, Bello’s struggle for social justice and better protection for displaced women ended with a bullet to the head. Her death was initially ruled suicide- the authorities stated that she had killed herself with a gun left behind by one of her bodyguards in the government-provided security detail. The Colombian human rights community is deeply suspicious and the National Ombudsman has requested an autopsy. Regardless of Bello’s almost extreme personal courage and whatever the truth about Bello’s death, the kind of insecurity she faced as a consequence of her activism, is an all too familiar story of suffering, violence, suspicion- and of laws not implemented. In recent years, many female IDP leaders have been assassinated. Almost everyone get threats.

CIJUS in Colombia and PRIO have collaborated on a three-year multi-methods study on a particular aspect of the PoC issue, namely the role of legal protection frameworks. We have examined the relationship between legal mobilization, political organizing and access to resources for IDP grassroots organizations in Colombia.  Often overlooked in scholarship on legal mobilization, the acute insecurity of those advocating for implementation of existing law and local administrative regulations have emerged as a key finding in our research.

Recognized as a severe humanitarian crisis, Colombia’s massive internal displacement is a consequence of a prolonged internal conflict between guerrilla groups, government forces and illegal armed groups, compounded by an extended war on drugs. Displacement results in dramatically increased rates of impoverishment. In the city, IDPs experience discrimination in the labor and housing market, and in accessing government services such as education and primary health care. For women IDPs, these crosscutting forms of marginalization are compounded by gender-specific types of vulnerability, such as sexual violence and poor maternal health.

We have looked specifically at the efforts of, Liga de la Mujeres Desplazadas, the League of Displaced Women, to use the Colombian Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to achieve physical and material security for its members.

In a relatively sophisticated state bureaucracy such as Colombia’s, humanitarian policies will not be based on the traditional humanitarian tool kit, but on administrative structures, social programs, and regulations that are justiciable.

Since the 2011 Victims Act, there has been a shifting in how the displacement problem is being framed:  In the process of mapping and interviewing all of Colombia’s 66 women IDP organizations from 2010 and onwards, we observed that many began to talk about themselves as “Victims organizations”. However, despite this reframing, the situation on the ground remains unchanged:  implementation is inadequate and poverty and insecurity shape the rhythm of everyday life.

Like Bello, the leaders of Liga de Mujeres have received multiple death threats. Located in and around the Caribbean city Cartagena, the Liga’s highly successful efforts at consciousness raising, income generating activities, and participation in local politics, has also meant that its members and their relatives have been harassed, raped, disappeared and killed by neo-paramilitary groups, also called Bacrims (Bandas Criminales). The Bacrims are organized criminal outfits emerging on the tails of the Paramilitary demobilization process, initiated under the 2005 Justice and Peace law. Bacrims such as the Black Eagles and ERPAC rapidly became the main threat to IDP/Victims leaders, as well as community leaders, human rights defenders, trade unionists.

As a consequence, the Liga has been included in government protection schemes for a number of years. However, seen from the perspective of the Ligas grassroots members, inclusion in these schemes did not result in any form of meaningful protection.  In response, the Liga’s turned to strategic litigation.

The Colombian Constitutional Court has been vocal in its defense of Colombia’s IDPS, and several important decisions have specifically considered the precarious security situation of women community leaders, and ordered the government to provide effective protection.  In 2008, with Award 092, the Court ordered the government to adopt thirteen specific, tailored-made programs on issues such as housing, child care, mental health and security. Auto 092 gave orders for the protection of 600 individualized IDP women considered to be at risk, of whom 150 belonged to the Liga.

To oversee implementation of 092, women’s organizations, including the Liga, formed a national monitoring committee. In April 2011 the monitoring committee received a written threat from ERPAC- specifically mentioning the Liga- in which the women “advocating for the implementation of Auto 092” were declared military targets and threatened with anal rape.

By 2011, parallel to the process with the constitutional court, the Liga had obtained precautionary measures from the Inter American Commission for all its members. The content of such protection measures is the subject of negotiation between those obtaining the measures and the government.  When discussions over what effective protection would look like broke down in July 2011, the Colombian state subsequently redefined the Ligas security risk from “high” to “medium”, and scaled back the government protection scheme.  Meanwhile, the Liga has continued to receive threats from Aguilas Negras and ERPAC.

Angélica Bello’s plight is unusually tragic. Yet, she is not the first and will unfortunately not be the last woman to die in the struggle for implementing laws protecting women from displacement, threats, disappearances and sexual violence.

A shorter version of this blog was posted on the intlawgrrls blog earlier in March 2013.