Tag Archives: innovation

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.

Humanitarian innovation, humanitarian renewal?

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The continued evolution of the humanitarian innovation concept needs a critical engagement with how this agenda interacts with previous and contemporary attempts to improve humanitarian action.

Accountability and transparency have been central to discussions of humanitarian action over the past two decades. Yet these issues appear generally to be given scant attention in the discourse around humanitarian innovation. The humanitarian innovation agenda is becoming a self-contained field with its own discourse and its own set of experts, institutions and projects – and even a definitive founding moment, namely 2009, when the ALNAP study on innovation in humanitarian action was published.[1] While attempts to develop a critical humanitarian innovation discourse have borrowed extensively from critical discussions on innovation in development studies, humanitarianism is not development done in a hurry but has its own distinct challenges, objectives and methodologies.

I will focus here on concrete material innovations, most commonly referred to as ‘humanitarian technology’. Discussions on such humanitarian innovations regularly acknowledge the need to avoid both fetishising novelty in itself and attributing inherently transformative qualities to technology rather than seeing how technology may fit into and build upon refugees’ existing resources.

Renewing humanitarianism

While it is obvious that internal and external reflections on a humanitarian industry and a humanitarian ethos in need of improvement are much older pursuits, I will start – as most scholars in humanitarian studies do today – with the mid-1990s and the ‘Goma-moment’. To recover from the moral and operational failures of the response to the Rwanda genocide and the ensuing crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa, humanitarianism turned to human rights based approaches (HRBA) to become more ethical, to move from charitable action to social contract. Yet HRBA always suffered from an intrinsic lack of clarity of meaning as well as the problem of states being the obliged parties under international human rights, a particular problem in the context of displacement, whether internal or across borders.

A decade or so later, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and in the face of accusations about poor governance, insufficient coordination, incompetence and waste, the humanitarian enterprise embarked on institutional reform to become better. Responses were to be maximised through Humanitarian Coordinators, funding was to become more efficient through Central Emergency Response Funds and, most importantly in the everyday life of humanitarian practitioners, the Cluster approach allocated areas of responsibility to the largest humanitarian actors.

The need for greater accountability and transparency were drivers for both HRBA (with its moral intricacies) and humantiarian reform (with its bureaucratic complexities). What is now happening with accountability and transparency within the technological-innovation-as-renewal paradigm?

If Rwanda and the Indian Ocean tsunami were the events ushering in HRBA and humanitarian reform, Haiti was the much heralded game-changer for technology whose use there (despite many practical problems and malfunctioning solutions) is generally assessed as positive.[2] In the years since, a host of new technology actors, initiatives, technical platforms and methodologies has emerged. New communications technology, biometrics, cash cards, drones and 3D printing have all captured the humanitarian imagination.

Thinking about problems and difficulties is often framed in terms of finding technical solutions, obtaining sufficient funding to move from pilot phases to scale, etc. However, as ideas about progress and inevitability dominate the field, the technology is seen not as something we use to get closer to a better humanitarianism but something which, once deployed, is itself a better, more accountable and transparent humanitarianism.

So institutionalised have transparency and accountability become that they have now vanished off the critical radar and become part of the taken-for-granted discursive and institutional framework. Accountability and transparency are assumed to be automatically produced simply by the act of adopting and deploying new technology. (Interestingly, the third tenet usually listed with accountability and transparency, efficiency, is also a basic assumption of this agenda.)

Accountability, participation and transparency

A 2013 report published by UN OCHA, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, argues that “everyone agrees that technology has changed how people interact and how power is distributed”.[3] While technology has undoubtedly altered human interaction, an assumption that proliferating innovative humanitarian technology unveils power, redistributes power or empowers needs to be subjected to scrutiny.

The classic issues in humanitarian accountability – to whom it is owed and by whom, how it can be achieved and, most crucially, what would count as substantively meaningful accountability – remain acutely difficult to answer. These issues also remain political issues which cannot be solved only with new technical solutions emphasising functionality and affordability; we cannot innovate ourselves out of the accountability problem, in the same way as technology cannot be seen as an empty shell waiting to be filled with (humanitarian) meaning.

This speaks particularly to the quest for participation of those in need of humanitarian protection and assistance, “helping people find innovative ways to help themselves”. In practice, we know that humanitarians arrive late in the field – they are not (at least not outside their own communications) the first responders. Affected individuals, their neighbours and communities are. Yet we should be concerned if the engagement with technological innovation also becomes a way of pushing the resilience agenda further in the direction of making those in need more responsible than well-paid humanitarian actors for providing humanitarian aid.

The arrival of the private sector as fully respectable partners in humanitarian action is in principle a necessary and desirable development. Nevertheless, while expressing distaste for the involvement of the private sector in humanitarian response is passé, talk of the importance of local markets and of ‘local innovation’, ‘indigenous innovation’ or ‘bottom-up innovation’ inevitable begs the questions: is the private sector one of the local participants as well as those in humanitarian need, and what do they want out of the partnership?

The current drive towards open data – and the belief in the emancipatory potential of open data access – means that transparency is a highly relevant theme on the humanitarian innovation agenda. Yet, on a pragmatic level, in an avalanche of information, it is difficult to see what is not there, particularly for individuals in crisis with limited access to information technology or with limited (computer) literacy.

Accountability and transparency thus seem to be missing in the implementation of the humanitarian innovation agenda, although innovation should be a means to enhance these objectives (among others) to produce a better humanitarianism.

Conclusions

First, we must beware of the assumption of automatic progress. We may be able to innovate ourselves out of a few traditional challenges and difficulties but most will remain, and additionally there will be new challenges resulting from the new technology.

Second, innovation looked at as a process appears suspiciously like the reforms of yesteryear. What, for example, is the difference between ‘bottom-up innovation’ and the ‘local knowledge’ valued in previous efforts to ensure participation? And are the paradigm shifts of innovation really much different from the moral improvement agenda of approaches such as the human-rights-based humanitarian aid?

Third, the increasingly self-referential humanitarian innovation discourse itself warrants scrutiny. With almost no talk of justice, social transformation or redistribution of power, we are left with a humanitarianism where inclusion is about access to markets, and empowerment is about making beneficiaries more self-reliant and about putting the label ‘humanitarian’ onto the customer concept in innovation theory.

 

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[1] www.alnap.org/resource/9207
[2] See the IFRC World Disasters Report 2013 on Technology and Humanitarian Innovation.
www.ifrc.org/publications-and-reports/world-disasters-report/world-disasters-report-2013/
[3] www.unocha.org/hina

 


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This blog is based on Kristin B. Sandvik’s article, ‘Humanitarian innovation, humanitarian renewal?’, published in a special Forced Migration Review supplement on ‘Innovation and refugees’.