Tag Archives: humanitarian principles

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 humanitarian triad

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Three (at least) humanitarian imperatives should inform the taking moral and/or material action across borders in the name of humanity, not only the one – to act – that we all know: a just cause, addressed by just means, so as to achieve a just outcome. The trick if one may so put it of achieving a justifiable humanitarian morality-in-practice, and studies thereof, is to keep all three imperatives in play, under care and control, in the air, and of course on the ground, all at once. Shall we speak then of an imperative humanitarian triad to maximize humanitarian gain, and minimize humanitarian loss.

It behoves anyway always to think plural about noble keywords, that work also as lockwords, of which humanitarian is one, about their passive as well as active performative verbal dances. Ever mindful we should be too of what appears to have been the first use of ‘humanity’ as in the ‘crimes against’ phrase: as code for not ‘all of’, but specifically only ‘one section of’, humankind. In the nineteenth century a Russian foreign minister sought and found a euphemism – ‘humanity – for the persecuted Christian Armenians in a mostly non-Christian area in the Middle East whom the West wanted to aid. Only the other day much the same wording, for a similar situation, was on the waves again. What may appear purely universalist on first sight is revealed on analysis to be not that, but impurely particularist.

If, as I believe, it would be correct to say that precisely why some – not other – just causes are internationally taken up, say by an INGO, has not been much researched, then that surely is one obvious candidate for our urgent attention. Another is precisely how civil humanitarian intervention (as I wish to name it) being unlike armed operations being scarcely ever conceptualised as intervention, but as aid only, and as if somehow method-less: just ‘helping as one can’. CHI normally seems to get left out of intervention research completely (a recent edited collection of essays is exceptional as well as of itself a brilliant new contribution to humanitarian studies at large) . Further, while ex post humanitarian evaluation concepts and approaches continue to be developed, by comparison ex ante evaluation does not. Indeed it makes scarcely any appearance whatsoever in any of the standard manuals on gathering outcomes-oriented intelligence, evidence. If, again as I believe that is because quite how to do that is publicly anyway pretty much unknown, we have already a third area for urgent research by a humanitarian studies programme – including research to determine whether, if so how, when, and by which humanitarian agencies or divisions, ex ante modelling of likely outcomes are taken into account or not when deciding where to intervene.

What, on the other hand, has become lately only the more and more widely well known, frequently commented on in the media and elsewhere (for example after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), is humanitarian’s dark side: its errance-in-practice. Compassion across borders (or for that matter domestically), carried out whether smartly or otherwise, can kill as well as cure; be directed with care and responsibility or without; be wrongly assumed to work best either in a vacuum or through ‘mechanisms’ only. Moreover, it comes often with nothing but angry disconnects between two of its main sub-cultures (as an anthropologist would call them) of engagement, practice, and alterity: international humanitarian succour through for example emergency relief assistance, and international human solidarity through human rights protection. While even severely critical evaluation studies may not fail to recognise that, while either assistance or protection ‘saves lives’, in other regards or cases there may be little positive effect, or even some matters made worse. Civil, and military, humanitarian intervention, are alike in this regard, anyway as in civil-police-military (CIMPIT) operations often they find themselves combined somehow.

As for assistance people and protection people and their mores and ways, who qualify or do not qualify as ‘humanitarian’, ‘life saving’, can at time be constantly at issue each each denying the other set that encomium.

By the way, when the history of humanitarian assistance comes to be written, there will, I am sure be something to distil and learn from perhaps the first (fragmentarily) recorded instance international humanitarian assistance (ex post) evaluation that – somewhat serendipitly – my own reading has come up with as to outcomes: what has survived of the Roman evaluations of the outcomes (and surrounding issues) of their susciperetur humanitate to the goths as their empire was failing. It is extraordinary how absolutely contemporary what was perceived then, and as perceived then, remain today, two millennia later.

Being still largely institutionalised in part in patterns which are more supply-, than demand-, conditioned, humanitarian assistance and/or protection by itself guarantees nothing other than for some self-righteousness, personal redemption, and the like, not an effective service and its delivery and disribution; is not necessarily a self-evident good to those in whose image, and for whose needs, its funders and providers validate, brand and perhaps deliver it even when in accordance with ICRC protocol . It may even escape serious ex post outcomes-oriented evaluation and accountability altogether, let alone the ex ante kind of anticipatory evaluation the normal absence of which in public has been already noticed. The extent to which big aid charities in the UK know and say – if mainly only in closed meetings? – that they can now raise resources relatively ‘easily’ and ‘regardless’ of any pressures to guarantee proportionate results , is currently another part of the broader picture of the current international humanitarian aid scene. When, belatedly three months or so ago in London, I came to realize that hard fact of the matter, when attending one such closed meeting as kindly invited, I confess I was greatly surprised, and disconcerted. Moreover it followed another – to me – revelation only a week earlier, a finding from some new historical research: some of the presently major UK charities at their very beginnings, while open to charges of being amateur and unprofessional in some regards, were never that in their fund raising.

To research the humanitarian morality of various kinds of material and immaterial action taken – or threatened or withheld or denied – across borders in the name of humanity, continues therefore to have a number of difficult challenges to contend with, starting with the concept ‘morality’ itself, and ‘humanity’ [followed then by that of ‘intervention’ – whether military or civil – as to be worked through in my last seminar in this series of four, to be given as was the first at Bjorknes: the second, tomorrow, is what a couple of months of ‘small print’ qualitative anthropological interviews and observations (by Luigi Achilli and myself assisted greatly by Alice Massari) earlier this year among the UNHCR-defined Syrian refugees in Jordan, while specifically as commissioned on nutrition, threw up that if followed up by further, quantitative research this time, might potentially feed a different wider picture than appears to be generally accepted at present].

Among much else, what for the research proposed is required for present purposes is recourse to not an abstract, academic, moral philosophy, and merely a dictionary, etymological, type of definition of what morally (and otherwise) it means to be humanitarian, so much as an ethnographically- grounded approach to humanitarian morality-in-practice. Humanitarian justice as for example actually delivered by the Hague court is as much – or more – an output of its (divided) operational culture, as of any single best theory of international law. Humanitarian reason, far from being a matter of cognition and the intellect alone, goes beyond ordinary logic. Humanitarian praxis is much more than just effective practice, and project operations, only.

Present purposes then will be best served then by relationally dimensionalizing, rather than to seeking to come up with any single, trumping, best defining of, what humanitarian ought to be, or is, or does. Hence ‘the humanitarian triad’ of the present remarks. Humanitarian praxis, whether under fire or not, is normally as highly emotionally charged and fraught as at the same time from case to case, and context to context, is logically and practically demanding, necessarily as pragmatic as again at the same time principled. Aswellas-ism reigns.

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Note by Professor Apthorpe:

An anthropologist of sorts, I have the honour currently of being currently a Vice President of Council at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and likely from next month also awarded a visiting, teaching, professorship in humanitarian studies at the LSE in that city. I confess to not yet having given up on wanting to bring between covers something based on my 2005-2009 classes on international humanitarian assistance that were devised for an optional (but hugely subscribed) course in an ANU graduate programme in international affairs (that originally was co-sponsored by PRIO and boasted a number of Norwegian civil, and sometimes also military, participants each year, indeed my present kind host at Bjorknes was one – of the former). Given in an international relations department, those classes reflected that setting, and critical theory. Much else remains to be added to the mix. Whether they were the first such university graduate level classes or not, last year under the title now of ‘Post-pieties?’ a souvenir I wrote of them made it to raymondapthorpe.com at least.

Mali: Humanitarian Challenges and Fragile Security, What Role for the UN?

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Despite heavy August rain, Gunhilde Utsogn (Special Assistant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Mali) and John Karlsrud’s (NUPI) discussion on the humanitarian challenges facing Mail drew a large audience of academics, NGO workers, representatives from international organizations, embassies and the Norwegian armed forces to PRIO. Co-hosted by PRIO and NCHS, the seminar aimed to take stock of current developments in Mali and their ramifications for humanitarian action, as the war-torn country holds elections and welcomes the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission.

The events occurring in Mali are often presented as a fall-out from the Libya conflict: Northern Malians, who had for decades resided in Libya, returned to Mali well-trained and well-armed after the fall of Qadhafi. Northern Mali has a long history of Tuareg-rebellion against the Southern elite located in the capital Bamako, and has over the years seen a smuggler economy develop in the region, as it serves as a transit route for drug trafficking from South America to Europe as well as for weapons trafficking. Frustrated by the presidents’ handling of the rebellion, and by the rebels’ easy defeat of the Malian army; a faction of young officers seized power in a coup in March 2012. The Tuaregs took over control over the North of Mali in the power vacuum that followed, only to lose this control to the well-armed Islamists shortly after. The transitional president subsequently invited France to come to the rescue. In January 2013, French troops intervened militarily to stop the advance of the Islamists, following their capture of key towns in the North. Yet despite the military successes of the French troops breaking the Islamists’ control of this part of the country, the security situation remains volatile. In April, the UN Security Council agreed to send troops to take over from the French and African forces. This peacekeeping force, to which Norway has committed to contribute, began arriving last month. Meanwhile, an accord was signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebellion at the end of June in Ouagadougou. Despite some irregularities, the first round of presidential elections on July 28 saw a record turn-out of voters and the second round was conducted successfully on 11 August, leading to the victory of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

However, the humanitarian situation in the region remains highly precarious. For many observers, the challenge in Mali is not so much an emergency as a development crisis, where long term strategies are needed. Even before the 2012-events, food insecurity was chronic, with hundreds of thousands of malnourished children. The rainy season frequently brings cholera outbreaks. Yet, the conflict has undoubtedly exacerbated the problems: 800,000 children have already missed a school year. Despite the generosity of neighboring countries in opening their borders, the high number of Malian refugees in the region and the displaced population inside the country makes the situation even more fragile.

The key issue emerging from the debate between the speakers and the audience is whether the current UN mission, with its ambitious but highly aggressive mandate, is what Mali needs?

MINUSMA will be a fairly standard large multidimensional peacekeeping mission, with about 11200 troops, 1440 police and probably more than 1000 international and national civilian staff. The mandate authorizes MINUSMA to stabilize key population centers and to “deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas”. It should also create a secure environment and secure the main roads. The French troops in Serval will operate alongside MINUSMA “to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA”. MINUSMA is also given a broad range of substantive tasks including security sector reform, demobilization and reintegration of armed rebels, including children, good offices, supporting an inclusive dialogue, and supporting the presidential and legislative elections.

Although the mandate is fairly aggressive if one reads between the lines, it is not as explicit as the mandate that recently was given to MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the trend of increasingly assertive mandates given to peace operations, effectively turning these operations into peace enforcement operations is worrying. None of the traditional principles for UN peacekeeping will in effect apply – including consent of all the parties, the non-use of force and impartiality. MINUSMA is also tasked with supporting the new government in re-establishing or extending state authority and few if any will be in doubt about the fact that the mission will be partial. The human rights record of the national army is weak at best, and although the mandate includes a task in training the national army, human rights violations can be expected to continue, in turn also tainting MINUSMA.

It is also paradoxes that while the mandates for UN peacekeeping operations are becoming increasingly aggressive; the tolerance for losses of UN troops is going down. Since the bombings of the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003, in Algeria in 2007, and other more recent attacks in Nigeria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the UN has been criticized for its ‘bunkerisation’ – imposing increasingly strict security measures that in effect closes the UN off from contact with the local population. This is especially the case for the UN’s humanitarian agencies but also its civilian peacekeepers. Although the UN argues that this is not the case so far in Mali, only one successful terrorist attack can and will change this situation overnight. The increasing likelihood of “terrorist” attacks against aggressive UN peace “enforcement”, also means that attacks against other UN agencies operating in the same volatile area, or humanitarians for that matter, may increase.

Internally, the aggressive mandate of MINUSMA also deepens the schisms between the military, political and development components of the UN on the one hand, and the humanitarians on the other. From the humanitarian perspective, there is considerable concern that the peacekeeping mission will infringe on the humanitarian space (humanitarian agencies to operate safely and effectively on the ground) and compromise humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and universality, understood by humanitarians themselves as preconditions for gaining access to civilians in war-torn areas. UN humanitarian actors may soon find themselves imposed with escorts due to a tightening of security rules and the mandate to secure roads in the North. In what is still effectively a war zone, the different parts of the UN may very quickly come at odds with each other.

These concerns are well-known from debates on the costs of stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last two decades, peacebuilding and stabilization programs have incorporated humanitarian aspects into their mandates, contributing to serious problems in the field for humanitarian actors.

Over the last decade a division of labor has developed between international organizations engaged in conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa. Regional and sub-regional organizations have engaged in the sharper end of conflicts with peace enforcement missions, e.g. in Somalia, while the UN has focused on the following phase of peacekeeping. Naturally, many cases blur this distinction, but in principle this has been a mutually good division of work. However, with the recent mandates for MONUSCO in DRC and MINUSMA in Mali, a worrying trend of a more aggressive UN is emerging. To sum up the discussion, a central question is if this aggressive peacekeeping is what Mali needs and which long-term consequences for humanitarian action can be expected?