Tag Archives: NGOs

Evaluating Ebola: the politics of the military response narrative

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While the humanitarian community is still struggling to help end the Ebola epidemic, talk about lessons learned and the need for critical evaluations have been on the way for some time already. Here, I suggest that humanitarians must pay keen attention to the post-Ebola narrative of military victory that is currently emerging. To see the deployment of military personnel, strategies and tactics as the game changer is unfair, because it invisibilises the resilience of the nationals of Ebola affected countries, as well as the efforts of local health workers and (some) humanitarians to address and control the outbreak. However, this narrative also has important strategic consequences for patterns of funding and intervention in future health emergencies.

Hence, in the midst of the avalanche of self-criticism that humanitarians will probably bury themselves in, they must also find the time to push for a fair and comprehensive assessment of the military component of the Ebola response: what did humanitarians ask the military to do? Who decided on the parameters of the military response and what was the response? What role did the military play in gaining control of the outbreak? How effective was the response compared to the resources spent?

On September 2nd 2014, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) asked for civilian and military medical capacity to be deployed to deal with the growing crisis. Joanne Liu, the International President of MSF, told the UN that that the further spread of the disease ‘will not be prevented without a massive deployment’. Speaking to the British Medical Journal, Liu suggested that ‘the military are the only body that can be deployed in the numbers needed now and that can organize things fast.’ MSF insisted that military personnel should not be used for containment, quarantine or crowd control. AFRICOM’s (the US Armed Forces command for military operations in Africa) response in Liberia involved an estimated 3,000 forces that were mostly withdrawn by late February 2015. In Sierra Leone, the British government deployed 700 military personnel.

While MSF’s call for military aid elicited concern and controversy over ‘the militarisation of humanitarian aid’, the fact that it was MSF’s call rationalised and re-emphasised the global public understanding of Ebola as an existential threat, where a military response had become the last straw after the failure of the international community and civil society. This type of imagery was eagerly embraced by Western politicians but also appears to have been doing some useful work for the military itself, as indicated by how AFRICOM now promotes Ebola as an opportunity for medical innovation.

The pragmatic questions may well be the most sensitive ones: did the military response really save the day, and if so, at which cost? Moreover, was this a reasonable cost compared to what a robust public health response would have amounted to? As noted by commentators back in September 2014, framing the U.S. response to Ebola as a national security issue could make it easier to ‘hide’ information from the public and more difficult to assess the effectiveness of the response. Previous military attempts at doing humanitarian logistics have been criticised for being slow, inappropriate or costly (think Kosovo). As a rule, the military spend significant amounts of resources on force protection. This time around, too, the military came late and left early.

In the case of Ebola, MSF made some assumptions about the ability of the military to deliver logistics and medical expertise in a timely, useful and efficient manner: MSF’s initial assumption was that ‘with the massive investment and knowing how much they are afraid of bioterrorism, they have some knowledge about highly contagious diseases.’ Were these expectations fulfilled, for example with respect to delivering biohazard competence? In short, we need to see some evidence that the military deployment was a game changer.

Yet, beyond a necessary tally of costs and benefits, attention must also be given to the ways in which a military medical response inevitably brings on its own dynamics and imaginaries. For one, I think there are significant problems with deploying a language of warfare (and humanitarians have done it a lot too): it risks turning infected people and their caretakers into objects of fear and stigma. It may also transform the local populations into threat actors and source of infections for our ‘troops’. A militarised language may also help rationalise weaponised responses to violence against health workers, and forceful enforcement of quarantines, particularly of slums and poor people’s dwellings. Tuning into the command and control rhetoric may also just be a way for international actors to look better: WHO now proposes to train staff with ‘military precision’.

In a certain sense, the Ebola response is steeped in historical responses to African health problems. Commentators point out that the idea that militarised medical responses to humanitarian crises are problematic, is a relatively new way of seeing things: historically, charity has always been a military issue in times of war and humanitarian aid today appears to be much less militarised. But while the neat mapping of military deployments upon old colonial territories seems to have been perceived as a significant advantage, we should also remember that colonial military medicine often saw public health as a governing device, and was used as a coercive control measure, for example through quarantining populations. Back in September, the UN declared Ebola to be a threat against international peace and security, just like HIV/AIDS a decade and a half before. But as observed by Alex de Waal, epidemics do not cause security crises and societal collapse.

In sum, a political and/or popular perception of militarised responses as the only ‘effective’ response to health emergencies will detrimentally impact investment in basic health care and related information systems. It also legitimises preparedness at the expense of prevention, thus deepening the linkage between the Ebola response and the Global War on Terror. It is problematic if funding for ‘bioterrorism preparedness’ is justified by pointing to the Ebola response; potentially with future military medical interventions at the horizon taking place to justify the expense. Furthermore, framing militarised health responses as humanitarian interventions may also confer legitimacy on armed humanitarian interventions.

These are the kind of questions I hope the humanitarian community will discuss. Critical debate must not be quelled by allegations that this is ungrateful or offensive to military sensibilities. Humanitarian actors must understand the consequences of a publically accepted narrative focused on how the Western military degraded and destroyed the Ebola crisis. They must also be able to present a competing narrative that is both sufficiently complex and compelling, and which will enable us to provide a better response to the next public health crisis.

Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), was originally posted on the website of the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF).

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.

 ……

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.

Is it acceptable to lie for a good cause?

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Humanitarian organizations may easily succumb to the temptation to misuse numbers and statistics in order to promote their own causes. Does the end justify the means?

Disasters are most dangerous for moms reported Save the Children’s Carolyn S Miles in Huffington Post when presenting the organization’s State of the World’s Mothers report for 2014. The claim was followed by a number: women and children are ‘14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men’. A sky-high number when one is talking about differences in death rates and a colossal injustice if the information is reliable. But it’s not.

Humanitarian organizations fight for attention for their good causes in a challenging everyday media environment. Attaching a number to a dramatic claim is an effective way of endowing it with trustworthiness. And numbers also form the basis for headlines. As a result there may be a considerable temptation to select the highest and most dramatic numbers, even though the researchers behind the numbers may urge extreme caution. Sometimes organizations use numbers that have no basis in research whatsoever. Often these ‘mythical numbers’ are reproduced from other organizations’ reports and go from strength to strength as they circulate between humanitarian and international organizations, the media, and politicians.

The claim that women and children are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster is a classic example of a ‘mythical number’. It took fewer than five minutes to find and cross-check the source. Save the Children was citing a report published by Plan International in 2013. This report contains a reference that at first glance seems to be to an article published in a research periodical, Natural Hazard Observer, in 1997. The article turns out, however, to be a two-page opinion piece authored by a pastor associated with Church World Service, an American ecumenical organization. Pastor Kristina Peterson does not provide any sources to back up her claim. Interestingly, both Plan International and Save the Children have qualified the original claim by adding the words ‘up to’ in their own reports, even though these words do not appear in the original article ­– apparently suggesting that the original claim went too far.

My target here is not the way in which Save the Children cites its sources, but its uncritical use of numbers that simply should have been checked and rejected. It is difficult to understand how a large, professional humanitarian organization can fail thoroughly to check numbers that it uses so directly for marketing purposes. And although the claim referred to above is the most serious error, it is not an isolated case of a number that has shaky foundations. Another key claim in Save the Children’s press release is that ‘statistically, it is more dangerous to be a woman or a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) than an armed fighter’. This claim is impossible to substantiate. In order to make such a comparison, Save the Children would need to know at the very least how many soldiers there are in the DRC and how many have died both on and off the battlefield. It would also need equivalently reliable figures for mortality among women in the DRC. No such figures exist, and accordingly neither Save the Children nor anyone else can verify this claim. The report also claims that more than 5.4 million people have lost their lives as a result of war in the DRC. This is another ‘mythical number’. While it does indeed originate from extensive surveys conducted by another humanitarian organization, the International Rescue Committee, the methods used by the latter organization to calculate its figures have been strongly criticised. Much of this criticism is summarised in the Human Security Report.

Save the Children is by no means alone, but shares the company of a succession of humanitarian and international organizations when it comes to the use of mythical numbers. One frequently heard claim is that there are 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. This number has been used by a range of children’s rights organizations in order to draw global attention to the suffering of child soldiers. The number was advanced originally by Rachel Brett of the Quaker UN Office. It was promulgated worldwide by a UN report in 1996, but is not supported by any solid evidence. Like many other mythical numbers, it has remained remarkably constant despite changing circumstances. Several wars involving a high number of child soldiers, such as the wars in Angola, Liberia and Nepal, have now ended. This has not, however, caused any reduction in the number. As far as we are aware, no one has made a serious attempt to calculate the actual number of child soldiers. Probably this is impossible.

The same applies to the much-cited claim that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. The number originates back to a report written in the mid-1990s by Norman Myers, a British environmentalist. Myers has no research expertise in the field of human migration and provides no documentation to demonstrate how he arrived at this number. Nevertheless it is frequently referred to both by humanitarian organizations and by international governmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and took on a new lease of life when it was reproduced in the highly influential Stern Review in 2006. Thus endowed with renewed authority, the number has been presented repeatedly by the media as a ‘new finding’ from a ‘research report’. This is despite the fact that all references to it can be traced back – via just a few detours – to Myers’ 1995 report. In reality there is no clear definition of the term ‘climate refugee’. And few people ask whether this undocumented number is really as dramatic as the reports indirectly suggest. The answer is no, not necessarily. Many ‘climate refugees’ are very likely among the people who relocate from increasingly difficult living conditions in rural areas in order to try their luck in cities, which in the vast majority of cases will be within their own countries. Even though estimates for human migration in general are uncertain, as many as 200 million people worldwide may have relocated from rural areas to cities in the course of just 10 years, between 2005 and 2015, according to the UN’s Population Division.

Why do humanitarian organizations choose to use numbers that they know – or ought to know – are wrong? I would hazard to suggest that this has nothing to do with the competence of the organizations’ analytical departments. Rather, the temptation not to discard an attention-grabbing number is sometimes simply too great, even though one may doubt its reliability. Specialist expertise or knowledge of advanced statistical methods is seldom required in order to ascertain whether a number is mythical. What one does need is a fundamentally critical approach to sources and some understanding of what constitutes proper research evidence.

When organizations choose to put forward numbers that they know – or ought to know – are undocumented, this may create an impression that they believe that it is justifiable to lie when they consider the circumstances to be in any event precarious and the objective to be sufficiently important and good; that it is not so important for all the details to be accurate so long as the overall message gets through. There are three main reasons why this conclusion is troubling. Firstly, global humanitarian and international organizations are important contributors to the policymaking of governments worldwide. Their aim is to get governments and others to act. If the evidentiary basis for their arguments is weak or distorted, this will reduce their effectiveness. Secondly, the use of exaggeratedly large numbers may cause the general public to become jaded. This may contribute to a vicious circle where dramatic numbers and spectacular campaigns become increasingly necessary in order to attract attention and justify action. Thirdly, this is a problem for the organizations themselves. Humanitarian organizations generally enjoy special trust as the providers of international aid. They should not take this trust for granted.

Humanitarian organizations can themselves take steps to cultivate a critical approach to numbers within their own analytical and informational departments. A process of quality assurance for numbers that are used aggressively for marketing should be a minimum requirement. There is never a good reason not to check one’s facts one last time, but it does require the inclination to change.

Henrik Urdal is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and is directing a research project on conflict trends in collaboration with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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.

Female Empowerment in DR Congo

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In January 2014 PRIO researchers Gudrun Østby and Ragnhild Nordås went on a two-week fieldtrip to Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, DRC. The main purpose of the visit was to launch the new collaborative project, “Female Empowerment in Eastern DRC”, funded by the Research Council of Norway. This project is based on a partnership between PRIO and the International Centre for Advanced Research and Training (ICART), which is a collaborative initiative between researchers from the Panzi Hospital, Panzi Foundation DRC, and the Université Evangelique en Afrique in Bukavu, DRC.

The project focuses on how survivors of SGBV can be empowered and reintegrated into society through socioeconomic support programs, and explores the link between armed conflict and intimate partner sexual violence. Our methodological approach combines surveys and in-debth interviews. In addition to the thematic research, there is a separate work package devoted to research capacity building.

In Bukavu, the PRIO researchers and the local research team met with representatives from five support programmes that are all linked to socioeconomic reintegration and empowerment of survivors of SGBV. Also, they visited “City of Joy”, a center for healing and training for survivors of gender-based violence. After six months in City of Joy, women are reintegrated into their communities and by returning home they commit to fight for self-sufficiency, financial independence and freedom.

The gate of City of Joy, a center for healing, and training for survivors of gender-based violence.

The gate of City of Joy, a center for healing, and training for survivors of gender-based violence. (Photo: Gudrun Østby)

Several meetings were held between the PRIO researchers and the principal investigators from Congolese project team to discuss the focus and design of the project and develop a detailed plan of action for the thematic work packages. On 24 January Gudrun Østby and Ragnhild Nordås held a one-day workshop on academic writing, publishing in academic journals and grants proposal writing at the Université Evangelique en Afrique (UEA). This was the first of a series of trainings planned for building local research capacity.

At the end of the stay the PRIO researchers went on a field visit to Kavumu, some 30 km north of Bukavu to visit one of the branches of the Socioeconomic Strengthening Program. Here we met with one of ten women’s networks where female survivors of SGBV receive vocational training, educational training of network leaders, skills training, such as basket making, as well as microcredit and training in various income-generating activities.

The PRIO team and associated experts from Norway and abroad will return to Bukavu later this year to follow up on the project development as well as conduct more specialized research trainings.

For more information about this project, please click here.

Impunity and the conflation of rape and adultery in Sudan’s Criminal Act

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Under Sudan’s Criminal Act (1991), rape is defined as zina (adultery and fornication) without consent. This constitutes a serious legal obstacle for rape victims in the country.

Hudud (singular, hadd, meaning limit, restriction, or prohibition) are regarded as the ordinances of Allah, and they have fixed punishments derived from Islam. Among the offenses for which hudud penalties are prescribed is zina which is defined as sexual intercourse between a man and woman outside a valid marriage contract and must be proved by confession before the court, the testimony of four adult men, and pregnancy if the woman is unmarried. The punishment is stoning to death for married offenders and 100 lashes for unmarried offenders.

The evidentiary rules applying to zina are historically based on the rationale in classical Islamic law that there should be indisputable evidence for the severe punishment. When applied to rape, however, it contributes to impunity for rape as a conviction can realistically only be secured where the perpetrator confesses to the crime. As the evidence is virtually impossible to obtain, a rapist can only be incriminated if he voluntarily decides to confess. Even in situations where the rape is not reported to the police and no court case is initiated, an unmarried woman who becomes pregnant because of rape is at risk for charges of zina. The consequence, in the words of an activist, is that if you cannot prove rape, you become the perpetrator.” According to the Sudanese scholar Abdel Salam Sidahmed in an article from 2001

“The categorization of rape as a form of zina […]does not just result in a rapist walking free from the court room or receiving a very light sentence, but may even lead to incrimination of the victim of rape”.

In Sudan, the introduction of hudud was embedded in a larger call for Islamization: first under President Nimeiri, who enacted the so-called September Laws in 1983, and later under the Islamists, who came to power in a military coup in 1989. President Omar al-Bashir and his circle of supporters introduced what they called the “civilization project” (al-Mashru al-Hadari). An intrinsic part of this project was the Islamization of Sudanese law, with the hudud penalties incorporated in the Criminal Act. Greater control of women’s bodies and movements and the protection of their morality and honor were central to the Islamization project.

Over the last several years, the reform of criminal law on rape/zina has become a priority for Sudanese women activists, despite government repression of those advocating extensive reforms. The Interim National Constitution of 2005 following the peace agreement sparked a review of Sudan’s laws codified by the current Islamist regime during their 23 years in power, including the Criminal Act.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of armed conflict in the western province of Darfur, with rampant sexual violence, put rape on the agenda of women activists. They highlighted the conflation of rape and zina in the current Criminal Act and the impact of this on rape victims in the Darfur conflict. In the words of a Sudanese activist, “We never thought of sexual violence as an issue. Darfur changed that”. The recent attention by Sudanese activists to sexual violence and the advocacy for reform of Sudan’s laws on rape has coincided with growing international awareness of rape in armed conflict over the last 15 years. Sexual violence has been recognized as a “weapon in war” and as a threat to international peace and security in numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

The ICC’s indictment of Sudan’s president in connection with the systematic practice of rape in Darfur further politicized the debate and the work on criminal law reform. The indictment has proved to be a double-edged sword. It made it possible to put sexual violence, beyond the Darfur conflict, on the political agenda and stirred public debate on the issue for the first time in Sudanese history. At the same time it made activism within this area more difficult because calls for reform are framed as a direct threat to the current government. The room for maneuver is small, and activists operate under severe constraints.

This blog is based on Liv Tønnessen’s  article in Women’s Studies International Forum.

Access the full article here.

ICCM – The Annual Gathering of a Global Digital Village

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Guro Åsveen is a master student at the University of Stavanger, department of Societal Safety Science. In the spring of 2014 she will be writing her thesis on humanitarian technology and emergency management in Kenya.

 


On November 8 this year, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck the Philippines in a mass of rain, wind and destruction. Reflecting on this on-going crisis and on the role of technology in humanitarian response situations, crisis mappers from across the world recently gathered in Nairobi for the annual International Conference of Crisis Mapping (ICCM)[1].

The ICCM 2013 was the fifth conference since the start-up in 2009. Patrick Meier, co-funder of the Crisis Mappers network, held the opening speech. Commenting on the value of partnerships, Meier cited an old African saying, “It takes a village”, implying that when people work together they can make anything happen. He asked: How can the crisis mapping community best contribute to help save lives in a crisis situation?

 Towards a more digitalized response

In the Philippines and elsewhere, the affected communities are undoubtedly the most important part of the response village. When disaster strikes, members of the local communities immediately start to organize help for their friends and neighbours, using the resources already in place. In the crisis literature, this acute phase is known as “the golden hour” which is when the chances of saving lives are the greatest. The long-standing myths that portray victims of disasters as dysfunctional and helpless are thus proven to be incorrect. In fact, one study found that nine out of ten lives saved in a crisis are due to local and non-professional helpers[2].

Nonetheless, even if there is no replacement for the crucial peer-to-peer assistance during crisis, the offering of help should and do not stop at the local or even national level. As for the crisis mappers, they have a dual approach: While at the one hand seeking to engage with other NGOs and traditional humanitarians, they are also speaking directly to locals on the ground. With the use of technology and crisis mapping, the volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) are offering tools for crisis-affected populations through which the populations can communicate their needs. In practice this means monitoring social media and reading SMS and e-mails from victims during crisis.

Serving as an example of a formal partnership between a mapping community and the traditional humanitarian sector, the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) was requested to make a map for UN-OCHA as part of the preparations for the Yolanda response operation[3]. For OCHA, who holds the difficult task of coordinating international efforts, digital mapping has meant getting access to real-time data and needs assessments without themselves having to be physically present in the affected communities. Although it might be debatable whether or not this off-site positioning is in fact profitable when dealing with information and disaster management, many nevertheless highlight the potential for new technology to bring about alternative solutions to logistical challenges, thereby enabling a more rapid disaster response.

Technology in and out of Africa

When looking at the history of crisis mapping on the African continent, one of the most influential platforms for sharing digital information had its starting point in the aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan presidential election and is named “Ushahidi”, meaning “testimony”. The name reflects the role of the citizens and the volunteers who gave their testimony of post-electoral violence through sending SMS and posting on-line what they saw and experienced during that time. It further developed into an innovative and influential digital community where people can turn either for receiving or for sharing information. Another platform, “Uchaguzi”, was launched in the preparation for a new election in the spring of 2013, and through excessive mapping of the situation in different parts of Kenya, history was successfully prevented from repeating itself[4].

Another Kenyan mapping project worth mentioning is the MapKibera. Kibera is the largest slum in Eastern Africa, located in Nairobi. With a population of approximately one million inhabitants, the Kibera slum is a prominent part of the city. Mapping is utilized in search for hotspots of crime and also as a strategy to empower and build resilience among those most vulnerable. MapKibera is in many ways a great example of how making maps can help bring change to a community. Before this project, Kibera was undetectable on any maps and therefore invisible to anyone outside the slum[5].

 10 per cent technology, 90 per cent human

One thing we tend to forget when talking about mapping and humanitarian technology is that although these may serve as effective tools, all is useless without someone to gather the information, verify it and visualize it for the public or the intended user. The Crisis Mappers network has over 6,000 members from 169 different countries and the Standby Task Force (SBTF) has approximately a thousand members from 70 different countries. With a variety of nationalities and professional backgrounds, these members are to be counted as a human resource. Crisis mapping, as it was stated several times throughout the conference, is only ten per cent about the technology; the rest is dependent on human effort and judgement.

Concerning human partaking in technology, one of the main challenges discussed at the ICCM was how to deal with Big Data. Some challenged the terminology, arguing that there are too many myths and unnecessary concerns related to the concept, “Big Data”. They argued: For most people working with information technology on a daily basis, data is still data; every bits and pieces of information speaks to their original sources which will not change just because more data is shared in a larger format. In conclusion, if the format is too large for us to handle, then the problem is not data but format.

Others find the biggest challenge to be the gathering of data and how we choose between relevant and irrelevant information. If we do not qualify what type of questions are absolutely necessary to ask in a crisis situation and if we cannot agree on any standards, we may face an escalating problem with information overload and owner-ship issues related to extra sensitive and/or unverified information in the future.

Many questions stand unanswered: Is there a need to professionalize the crisis mapping community? Should it be acting as a fully independent actor, or instead work to fulfil the needs of the traditional humanitarian sector? Should the main focus be on entering into formal relationships with already established partners, or more directly on supporting disaster-prone communities and peer-to-peer engagement? Is it possible to make the technology available to a broader audience and thereby decrease the digital divide? Will we be able to use the technology in prevention and disaster risk reduction? How can crisis map technologists balance the support for open data and at the same time respect information that is private or confidential? Should unverified data be published and on whose command? Can contributors of information give or withhold consent on their own behalf or are they simply left with having to trust others to do the picking for them?

These are all high-priority questions in the “new age” of humanitarianism. Considering that crisis mapping is still an emerging field, it may take a while for it to find its role and place in the world of humanitarian affairs. The value of partnerships may be key when coming to terms with both the professionalized and traditional response organizations, as well as with the slum-inhabitants of Nairobi. In either case, technology, people and collaboration remain equally central to humanitarian efforts.

 


[1] To read more about the conference and the Crisis Mappers network, visit http://crisismappers.net

[2] Cited in IFRCs World Disaster Report, 2013. The full report can be downloaded from http://worlddisastersreport.org

[3] Study the map and read more about the Yolanda response on-line: http://digitalhumanitarians.com/profiles/blogs/yolanda

[4] Omeneya, R. (2013): Uchaguzi Monitoring and Evaluation Report. Nairobi: iHub Research

[5] For visiting the MapKibera website, go to http://mapkibera.org

Somali Repatriation Pact: Insufficient Progress

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On 10 November 2013 the Kenyan and Somali governments signed a tripartite agreement with the UNHCR on the fate of Somali refugees following months of negotiations. The agreement is to allow for the ‘voluntary’ repatriation of more than half a million refugees from Kenya to Somalia over a three-year period. While this is a sign of positive collaboration between Kenya, Somalia, and the UNHCR, and emphasis placed on the ‘voluntary’ nature of repatriation is encouraging, the agreement insufficiently address the issue of protection for refugees.

The Somali government does not have the absorption capacity needed to receive and resettle significant numbers of refugees from Kenya safely and humanely. The institutions responsible for a task of this scale are either chronically weak or nonexistent. Many of the factors that led hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee Somalia remain. A high proportion of the refugees are from regions that remain under the control of Al-Shabaab. Recent security gains are fragile and punctured by repeated terrorist attacks.

Economic recovery is slow and barely reaching the most vulnerable communities in Somalia. The cost of living is soaring. Infrastructure is in shambles. Land disputes are common and often violent. The Somali government and private landlords are now forcefully evicting IDPs in Mogadishu, many of whom recently arrived and have nowhere else to go. The IDP population in and around the city continues to swell as the government and International NGOs renege on commitments to establish new, safe, and sanitary camps outside of the city. The conditions within Somalia are not adequate to commence large scale repatriation of refugees. Vulnerable refugees must be returned to secure settlements where they can reestablish their lives.

Kenya has legitimate security concerns, particularly following the appalling attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi. Rhetoric concerning the culprits of the attack, however, has endangered both the refugee and non-refugee Somali community in Kenya. The recent short-sighted statement by the Kenyan vice president, suggesting that refugees ‘have become a shield’ for terrorism, has further endangered an already vulnerable community.

The welfare of innocent Somali refugees must be factored into Kenyan domestic security concerns. Repatriation efforts must be carried out in phases. Conditions must first permit for a voluntary return of refugees with guarantees of full protection. Adequate housing should be made available to the returning refugees. Without sufficient planning refugees will simply become IDPs in their own country lacking the meager support they are entitled to in Kenyan camps. A comprehensive arrangement, taking into account the welfare of the refugees, the security of the region, and the ability of the Somali government to absorb them into the society, is the only viable and humane solution. We warned of a “hasty repatriation” in our report back in March, you can read the full report here.

 

Note: This blog was originally posted on the website of The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies.

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).