The Coldest Cold Chain: Chilling Effects of Covid-19 Vaccines

Written by

This post first appeared on the International Health Policies (IHP) blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link.

Woman receiving an influenza vaccination at the Maternal and Child Hospital in Vientiane, Laos. Photo: CDC via Unsplash

After various stretches of lockdowns and the related dire political, social, and economic consequences, the world has welcomed the news that several companies – including ModernaAstraZeneca and Pfizer – are approaching an effective vaccine for Covid-19. Approximately 200 more are in the pipeline, of which 48 in clinical and 164 in pre-clinical stages of development. While there is thus hope on the horizon, for low and lower-middle income countries the roll-out of the vaccine will be enormously expensive, whatever option is eventually selected. As such, the life-saving vaccine may bring ramifications for future prioritization within domestic health budgets as well as allocations in foreign aid budgets.

In terms of ethics considerations, much of the debate so far has either focused on (1) criticizing high-income countries scrambling to secure vaccines for their citizens for lacking in solidarity and for inadequate support of equitable distribution schemes (COVAX) – or (2) on prioritization of population groups (see herehere and here). Contributing to the emergent analysis of the ethics of Covid-19 vaccination schemes while things are still ‘up in the air’ – the coordinated ‘mammoth operation’ led by UNICEF is in the midst of a vaccine tender process (running 6 weeks from November 12) – in this commentary, we suggest that attention must also be paid to the complex ethics challenges arising from the logistical challenges of distributing specific vaccines.

Taking the Pfizer vaccine, with a storage requirement of -70˚C (-94 F) or below, as our case example, we identify a preliminary list of challenges relating to the feasibility and societal impact of a successful roll-out of an ultra-cold chain dependent vaccine. The cost and the probability of logistics failure is extremely high – and even if a program can be successfully implemented, serious ethical issues with chilling effects on global health outcomes will likely arise. We also suggest that laying out some of the issues related to the Pfizer vaccine, if it were to be rolled out globally, can shed some light on medium and long-term ethics challenges for other vaccines as well, even if some probably present fewer challenges in this regard.

Feasibility

With respect to feasibility, ultra-cold chains require special cooling systems in facilities and during transportation. The tradeoffs involved in successful implementation must be carefully considered. Technical challenges greatly increasing risk include time constraints, freezing units, package sizes, and kitting:

  • The vaccine puts significant constraints on time: The proposed active plus passive cooling in containers will enable keeping vaccines in the required temperature range for 72 hours, after which the combination of power cells (active cooling) and dry ice (passive cooling) deteriorates. Such a short delivery time calls for air transportation; yet carrying dry ice on airplanes, especially passenger planes, is regulated as it consumes oxygen. The same solution has been used for ultra-cold chains before (e.g., STRIVE Ebola vaccine), but the scale of any Covid-19 vaccination programme will be constrained by the global availability of such containers, and the regulations constraining their use.
  • The unaffordability of freezing units is a possible spoiler: The estimated time that vaccines will stay usable after opening a package is 24 hours only. At facilities, including storage, customs, cross-docking, materials handling, and vaccination centers, freezing units will be required to store and appropriately handle the vaccines. In a bidding war, rural, small, and underfunded hospitals will lose out.
  • Proposed package sizes are for 5,000 vs 1,000 units. While optimal for transportation, these sizes do not consider usage patterns: the administration of 1,000 vaccines within 24 hours requires huge distribution facilities and massive manpower. Throwing away unused vaccines comes at an exuberant cost. Locations with lower population density may not be able to use such package sizes and de facto be excluded from the distribution of vaccines.
  • Vaccination programs have a host of material needs: syringes, gloves, PPE, tents for locations etc. Kitting will be of the essence; yet the other parts of these health kits will differ in their temperature control requirements. Inter-agency health kits have in the past been developed for vaccination programmes as well as emergencies, and include from cholera kits to entire field hospitals as a kit. They are composed in a way that regardless of the administering unit, any humanitarian organisation or health centre would know what to find in which box, and which items would need special processes (such as temperature control) in handling and storage. In the case of COVAX, UNICEF has started to procure and stock up on e.g. syringes and gloves, as to say, items that will for sure be needed to be able to administer vaccines.

Societal impact

In terms of societal impact, the following chilling effects of getting an effective vaccine program rolled out urgently need ethical consideration:

  • The Covid-19 response focuses on an increasingly narrow range of options for combatting the pandemic. We are now at a point where the solution – in the form of a vaccine (any of the vaccines) – is steering problem framing. However, even if cold chains can successfully be kept intact in hard-to-reach areas, and the vaccine can be distributed successfully, a vaccine program does not solve the structural problems in public health infrastructure that are greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. Food shortages, lack of access to clean water and basic hygiene, domestic violence and drop-outs will not be magically cured through a vaccine.
  • While the Covax Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) scheme will likely be a useful vehicle to secure health outcomes, it should be noted that GAVI explicitly mentions co-payments: “it is likely that the 92 ODA-eligible countries accessing vaccines through the AMC may also be required to share some of the costs of COVID-19 vaccines and delivery, up to US$ 1.60 – US$ 2 per dose – a mirror of the amount paid upfront by self-financing participants.” Taken together, the knock-on effects of the cost of vaccines and ultra-cold chains constrain future decisions about health budget allocations. Already overwhelmed health budgets in poorer regions will be additionally burdened by high-income countries demanding that vaccine coverage is prioritized to combat Covid-19 once and for all. In other words, the countries with the youngest populations and the highest child mortality will be asked to invest their health budgets to rescue the aging West.
  • Whichever vaccine or set of vaccines are procured for distribution through global mechanisms, this decision will likely determine pathways for foreign aid. For example, once effective ultra-cold chains have been financed and established, there is a likelihood that allocations for vaccines will tie up a significant portion of donor budgets for the short-to-medium time. We argue that the funding of vaccine initiatives –in particular the financing of the ACT-Accelerator through ODA budgets– needs to be subjected to careful ethics impact assessments.

In conclusion, while a vaccine requiring an ultra-cold chain may be the most daunting one logistically, all options come with their own requirements on temperature ranges, but also with differences in vaccine efficacy, and regimes to administer. Technically, if we can manage the Pfizer one, the other ones should follow. Regardless, the ethics of every single vaccine candidate, including its likely logistics pathways and distributive impact on public health, needs to be carefully mapped out.

WFP Logistics – Delivering on the promise (WFP Nobel Series, 6)

Written by

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the sixth post in the series. Gyöngyi Kovács is Erkko Professor in Humanitarian Logistics at the HUMLOG Institute, Hanken School of Economics.

Mozambique, Goonda, 24 March 2019 WFP unloading food distributions. Photo: WFP/Marco Frattini

Congratulations to the World Food Programme for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020! Apart from the fundamental yet difficult relationship between hunger and peace, which has been problematised earlier, it is perhaps time to reflect just how WFP sees to it that food is being available, and/or delivered to people who need it.

For a long time already, WFP logistics has had the mantra of “moving the world”. Their logistics and supply chain team is massive, not only in terms of numbers of vehicles and warehouses, but also when it comes to where these are located. Logistically speaking, food is bulky. In other words, it requires volume, capacity, and the related equipment. Given the volumes WFP needs to be able to move anywhere in the world, it is less surprising that they’ve built up their logistics capabilities, and have therefore also become the lead of the Logistics Cluster.

The “Log Cluster”, as it is often referred to, has an important co-ordination role to play if and when large volumes need to be delivered, and many organisations are involved. This is the case in larger sudden-onset disasters, but also after consecutive droughts, when regions and countries have run out of food altogether. The Log Cluster has though also come a long way in co-ordinating other global efforts in logistics and supply chain management, harmonising templates, contributing to global preparedness, writing a logistics operational guide (the “LOG”) to assist other organisations in their logistical efforts, assessing the logistics capacities of various countries etc. The list of initiatives is endless.

But what’s the link between food supply chains and peace? Food has been used as a weapon of war, as discussed earlier in this series. Delivering food to people who have been deprived of it, and negotiating humanitarian convoys to get secure passage is an important aspect. It is so important that “negotiation skills with warlords” is frequently noted as an eligibility criterion on job ads for humanitarian logisticians (Kovács and Tatham, 2010). Furthermore, the way the supply chain is configured can reinstate interdependencies between conflicting parties. Creating, or reinstating interdependencies of traders and industries across conflict lines has been used as a peacebuilding mechanism already in the Balkans in the 1990s (Gibbs, 2009). In essence, the way (food) supply chains are designed can indeed contribute or undermine local capacities, but also contribute to conflicts or conversely, to peacebuilding.

Yet come to this, do we always need to move food, or any other in-kind goods for that matter? Food is a basic need, yes, but importing food can also undermine the local industry and economy. WFP engages in all sorts of innovation projects, from trying out new types of vehicles (amphibious vehicles, drones, trucks delivered by helicopters – some of which may be problematic in conflict zones to begin with, see “The good drone”), to fortifying local foods. Perhaps the most important innovation is though the combination of cash-based initiatives (CBI) with making food available through bringing (local) retailers closer, ensuring the availability as well as affordability of food. The main selling proposition for CBI is that recipients can make their own decisions what they prioritise, and vote with their feet, or rather, their money. This is most certainly a very welcome development. From a supply chain perspective, they require a complete rethink, however (Heaslip et al., 2018). WFP and many other organisations have full-heartedly embraced CBI, with increasing percentages of their “deliveries” being ones in cash. The next question will though be, how to ensure that food is in the markets also during the pandemic. At the end of the day, if everything else fails, humanitarian organisations will still need to deliver.

References

Gibbs DN, 2009. First do no harm: Humanitarian intervention and the destruction of Yugoslavia. Vanderbilt University Press.

Heaslip G, Kovács G & Haavisto I, 2018. Innovations in humanitarian supply chains: the case of cash transfer programmes, Production Planning and Control, Vol.29 No.14, pp.1175-1190, doi: 10.1080/09537287.2018.1542172

Kovács G & Tatham P, 2010. What is special about a humanitarian logistician? A survey of logistic skills and performance. Supply Chain Forum: An International Journal, Vol.11 No.3, pp 32-41, doi: 10.1080/16258312.2010.11517238

Close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”. What do you see?

Written by

The imperial past and the humanitarian present

This post first appeared on the CMI webpages, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Salla Turunen is a Doctoral Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

Yemen, Hajjah, Abs, Khudaish Camp, 13 June 2019. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

In the spring of 2017, a shocking piece of news popped on my morning news screen – two UN staff members, Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp, a Swede and an American, had been killed in the central province of Kasai of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were kidnapped along with three Congolese drivers and an interpreter, and two weeks later, Catalán’s and Sharp’s bodies were found. Catalán had been decapitated. 

Out of the horrific news I read daily, this one lived on both in the public eye and within my mind. But why this news in particular? Was it because I was preparing to embark on my first field office location as a UN staff member that spring? Or was it because Catalán was a Swede and I am a Finn, hence this event hit close to home? The broader issue here, obviously, is what enabled something to touch me on a personal level, while other manifestations of violence or misery remains ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Catalán’s and Sharp’s dreadful ends raised waves of media attention.[1] Less is known internationally what happened to their three Congolese drivers and interpreter. Also, few would be able to connect the place and time of Catalán and Sharp’s disappearances with the decapitation of more than 40 Congolese police officers.[2] Further, perhaps even fewer could point out the decades of ongoing atrocious violence and mass graves in the region, tracing back to Rwandan genocide and beyond.

UN Sepical Envoy to the Great Lake Region, Mary Robinson’s convoy make a late trip back to Goma after she met with DRC president, Joseph Kabila in Rutshuru, the 29th of Novembre 2013 © Sylvain Liechti

Attacks against aid workers is increasing alongside the politization of their participation and motives. The most recent Aid Worker Security Report from 2019 states that the reporting year of 2018 was the second worst year on record for aid worker security. In 2018 alone 405 aid workers were affected by major violence: 131 were killed, 144 wounded and 130 kidnapped.[1] Contradictory to the media spotlight, the majority of the victims of these attacks were national staff members of the UN organizations and non-governmental organizations and received little international attention.[2] The Aid Worker Security Report continues:

“National staff, always the majority of victims in absolute numbers, now also experience increased attack rates and fatality rates per capita relative to international staff, reflecting increased localisation of aid in high-risk areas.”[3]

Why is it then fairly easy for me to recall and write about an event affecting international staff members over three years ago in contrast to something more recent with national staff members?

The geographical origins and skin colors of stereotypical humanitarians is one manifestation of its histories. As a researcher in the field of humanitarianism, I see how histories of race, ethnicity, colonialism, imperialism and Global South-Global North relations are ever-present and cross-cutting. These themes are woven into the fabric of what we understand as humanitarianism, wherein humanitarianism does not exist separately from the non-humanitarian world and, rather, is a product of it.

In a traditional understanding,[1] humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality direct towards helping those whose human dignity is being threatened and violated. But, importantly, humanitarian misfortune – and particularly the severity of it – does not emerge from a vacuum. Even in the case of natural disasters, a high-income country is better equipped in rapid and effective response compared to a failing state. It is here where these histories and trajectories play a role, both on the sides of people in humanitarian need and the humanitarians themselves.

In shedding light on the details of ‘how’ these historical roles and trajectories manifest, I turn to Hannah Arendt. As an individual with personal experiences of antisemitism under Nazi Germany and one of the twentieth century’s foremost political philosophers, she is a master in analysis of origins of human cruelty and inequality.[2] Arendt’s ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’ refers to the overlap of racism and imperialism which is elemental in understanding the history of Western humanitarianism and further, the humanitarian world of today.[3]

On the one hand, Arendt considers racism as the totalizing concept and main driver behind systematic and structural inequality and deprivation. It originates from historical developments of race-thinking which captured the fatal conceptualization of race. For Arendt, the European ideology of race signified the worst of Western civilization with the most devastating consequences: “race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death”.[4]

On the other hand, imperialism, as understood in an Arendtian sense, was a child of racism and colonialism originating in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and beginning in the 1880s. Imperialism seeks to expand political powers overseas by interference par excellence in other governance regimes and ways of living. Arendt capsulizes imperialist attempt as dividing “mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men”.[5]

In the on-going era of ‘black lives matter’, a prominent question is why white lives matter already?

The historical trajectory of racism and imperialism provides an understanding to this question, although without making the current situation any more just. One key configuration is that race has married class and its unequal power networks since the beginning. According to Arendt, race-thinking was integrated with the class societies of the nation-state building West of the 18th century. Based on an imperialist political philosophy which incorporated businessmen into politicians[6], the law of the state illustrated not a “question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society”.[7] Whereas race substituted nation as the principle body politic, bureaucracy was the principle for foreign domination,[8] the glue holding overseas expansionism together.

Distribution of famine relief in the Madras Presidency. From the Illustrated London News (May 26,1877) via Wikimedia Commons

Connections can be drawn between the racial and imperial past and the humanitarian present, and also to the events of DRC in 2017 with the dramatic loss of aid workers. Humanitarianism is a product of its surrounding world and its roots lay in the same soil. A known researcher in humanitarianism, Michael Barnett, goes as far as to label the period of 1800–1945 as “the age of imperial humanitarianism”, from which the subsequent ages of humanitarianism followed.[9] The stereotype of a white humanitarian has been around long enough for our minds to associate seamlessly with it:

If you close your eyes and picture “a humanitarian”, what do you see?

These connections continue further. On a conceptual level, imperialism was, and political expansionism is, often paved with alleged humanitarian intent. Further, both humanitarian intervention and imperialism are located in the spectrum of international interventionism. On a practical level, and borrowing Arendt’s words, interventionism is primed with Western riches, not only monetarily, but also “in education, technical know-how, and general competence” (often applicable among humanitarians), which then also “has plagued international relations ever since the beginning of genuine world politics”.[10] An illustrative example is that consequentially to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and many other related developments, the following humanitarian interventions found geopolitical ground in Africa and many of the biggest humanitarian aid receivers can still be found on the continent today. This dance between the imperial past and the humanitarian present can, of course, be found also in other places.

When racism and imperialism combined, human lives got different price tags based on geographical origins and skin color. While this was also true under colonialism, imperial ideology continues to travel by ideas. Talal Asad captures one of these fatal ideas:

“the death of poor people in the world does not matter as much as the death of people in affluent societies. In saying this and acting on this belief, the patterns of living and dying in the world come to be affected by it.”[11]

Prior their deaths, the patterns of Catalán’s and Sharp’s living varied from that of their Congolese drivers and interpreters. After all, they were the “UN experts” on their mission.[12] Is it, then, only following the unjust logic that difference also marked the pattern of their deaths?

The events of DRC are illustrative in the humanitarian context, particularly of the attention being paid to national and international humanitarian workers. Transcending from imperialism, the idea of human worth becomes a subjective estimate based on racial origins in which Western whiteness is the social norm.[13] This, of course, does not equate to whiteness becoming a safe haven for peace and prosperity. Whiteness can transcend further into specificities, divided by religious differences, nationalities and minority-majority politics. Turning to the example of Nazi Germany, certain categories of whiteness were prioritized over others.

But to conclude where I started, in Congo. In a humanitarian sense, what we pay attention to and what resonates with us on a personal level is a complex myriad of conscious and unconscious ideas of human worth. Were Catalán’s and Sharp’s lives worth more than that of their driver and interpreter companions? If measured in terms of public outcry, the answer seems to be yes. If measured in terms of grief caused by a loss of a family member, my estimate would be to say no. Perhaps it is trivial to even talk about measurements on a such horrific occasion. Rather, and on a personal note, why did I get shaken by the decapitation of one white woman, but miss the news of decapitation of over 40 Congolese police officers, when the context was the same? My best bet is to turn to the racial and imperial history from which our present conceptualizations and understanding of the world stems, and start to unlearn from there.

[1] See, for example, the statement by the United Nations Secretary-General at https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2017-03-28/statement-secretary-general-death-two-members-group-experts, the Human Rights Watch at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/dr-congo-bodies-two-un-experts-found, the New York Times at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/africa/congo-zaida-catalan-michael-j-sharp-united-nations-democratic-republic-of-congo.html, Foreign Policy at https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/27/congolese-cover-up-un-congo-murder-zaida-catalan-michael-sharp/ and the Amnesty International at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/drc-un-must-investigate-disturbing-cover-up-claims-over-murders-of-experts/.

[2] See the Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/26/congolese-militia-decapitates-more-than-40-policemen-as-violence-grows.

[3] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, available at https://www.humanitarianoutcomes.org/sites/default/files/publications/awsr_2019_0.pdf

[4] Foreword by Egeland, J. in Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism contested: Where angels fear to tread. Routledge.

[5] Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2019, p. 2.

[6] With this concept I refer to the mode of humanitarianism represented by its classical actors, such as the IFRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who defend the ethical terms and neutrality of their practice. Comparatively, new forms of humanitarianism can be seen strictly instrumental toward desired outcomes, such as introducing democracy and overthrowing oppressive groups, see for example Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New humanitarianism and the crisis of charity: Good intentions on the road to help: Indiana University Press.

[7] In the field of humanitarian studies, I am not, by any means, the first or the last to affiliate to Arendt. Some contemporary examples include Owens, P. “Hannah Arendt, Violence, and the Inescapable Fact of Humanity”, in Anthony F. Lang Jr and Williams, J. (eds). Hannah Arendt and International Relations: Readings Across the Lines, Palgrave, London, 2005; Young, I. M. “Power, Violence, and Legitimacy: A Reading of Hannah Arendt in an Age of Police Brutality and Humanitarian Intervention”, in Minow, M. (ed.) Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair, (2002): 260-287, and Weizman, E. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso Books, 2011.

[8] Arendt herself addresses this issue only on rare occasions, rather, numerous similar references to human rights can be found in the publication.

[9] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 209.

[10] Ibid, p. 202.

[11] Ibid, p. 185.

[12] Ibid, p. 189.

[13] Ibid, p. 242.

[14] Barnett, M. (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[15] Arendt, H. (2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, p. 163.

[16] Asad, T. (2007). On Suicide bombing. New York: Columbia University Press.

[17] See for example Human Rights Watch, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/dr-congo-bodies-two-un-experts-found.

[18] I claim that here an intersectional connection to gender can be found; similar to male gender in the spectrum of genders, whiteness in the spectrum of races is “not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything”. Haywood, C. and Mac an Ghaill, M. 2003. Men and masculinities: Theory, research and social practice. Buckingham: Open University Press, p. 103.

The World Food Program won the Nobel Peace Prize. Does food aid boost peace? (WFP Nobel Series, 5)

Written by

This text first appeared in the Washington Post, and is re-posted here. Ida Rudolfsen is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIO, and Halvard Buhaug is a Senior Researcher at PRIOThe 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the fifth post in the series.

Photo: heb@Wikimedia Commons

The Norwegian Nobel Committee named this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, recognizing the World Food Program (WFP) for “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

With the World Health Organization under pressure and countries such as the United States emphasizing isolationism over international collaboration, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a push for “international solidarity and multilateral cooperation,” the head of the Norwegian committee said. It is not surprising, therefore, that last week’s announcement was met with near-universal praise, with commentators describing the award as “highly deserved” and “badly needed.”

But is there a direct relationship between combating hunger and building peace? Our research helps explain why these linkages are so complicated.

Global hunger is on the rise

After a steady decline in the prevalence of global undernourishment, the trend has deteriorated in recent years. The covid-19 pandemic is making things worse. WFP estimates that without international assistance, the number of acutely food-insecure people in high-risk countries may nearly double (from 149 million to 270 million) before the end of the year.

Prevalence of undernourishment in 2018. Red dots indicate locations of armed conflicts from 2015 to 2019. Countries in gray lack reliable nourishment information. (Data from World Bank. Map courtesy of Andreas Foro Tollefsen/PRIO)

From conflict to food insecurity …

The Nobel committee’s announcement describes the link between hunger and armed conflict as a “vicious circle,” where conflict can cause food insecurity and food insecurity may trigger violence.

The first part of this link is clear — almost all of today’s major food crises are in countries experiencing endemic conflict and violence. The WFP spends over 80 percent of its operational budget on humanitarian operations in conflict zones. In September, WFP Executive Director David Beasley wrote, “we can’t end hunger unless we put an end to conflict.”

Experts sometimes describe war as development in reverse. Wars often trigger displacement of agricultural livelihoods, or can lead to armed groups looting or destroying crops. And wars can set back progress toward food security for decades.

Add in a global pandemic and extreme weather events and it’s easy to see why the United Nations is now warning of the potential for famines of “biblical proportions.”

… And food insecurity to conflict

But the link from hunger to conflict is less obvious. True, persistent or increasing levels of food insecurity can produce widespread grievances that can motivate people to form groups and engage in violent behavior. Likewise, there is a robust statistical relationship between increasing food prices and social unrest.

These insights reveal less about the role of food insecurity or hunger specifically, as opposed to economic hardships more generally. Widespread hunger and mass starvation are outcomes of political failures that simultaneously produce a host of social ills — underdevelopment, inequality, exclusion — that increase conflict risk. Assessing the independent role of hunger in causing such events is not easy.

People at the brink of starvation are rarely found fighting at the battle front and social movements protesting against high food prices usually originate among members of the relatively better-off urban middle class. “Food riots” usually concern broader and more complex societal challenges than the cost of bread, similarly to collective responses to peaks in the price of other basic commodities like electricity and fuel.

Food aid can have unwanted effects

Even if hunger rarely causes violent conflict, can humanitarian efforts to strengthen food security increase the likelihood of peace? Aid provided by WFP and other humanitarian efforts can be crucial in alleviating acute food crises. But aid delivery isn’t always effective, and food doesn’t always reach those for whom it is intended. Research shows that those trapped in high-intensity conflict areas receive less assistance than those less exposed to the violence.

Why? Often it’s because ongoing armed conflict makes areas of acute malnutrition inaccessible, which means that humanitarian organizations may have to rely on local armed groups for aid delivery. In Yemen, for example, WFP had to make agreements with local militias in an effort to get food to vulnerable populations, all while worrying that donations could be captured and distributed to the warring parties instead of those most in need.

A related concern is the potential effect of humanitarian assistance on conflict dynamics. An inflow of food and other lootable commodities can attract armed groups. These armed groups may want to secure access to valuable resources, to use food as a weapon in war or as tactical behavior to use as leverage in bargaining. Food relief organizations face a dilemma: They must assist those hardest hit by hunger, but must also be aware of the significant risk that corruption — or violent seizure of food aid — may inadvertently contribute to aggravating or prolonging the conflict.

An influx of food aid to vulnerable areas can also undermine local markets. When cheap or free food is brought in from outside, local farmers risk losing their income. For this reason, WFP has shifted toward a food assistance approach, giving recipients cash directly instead of food aid. This development is likely to stabilize communities’ food production capacity without disrupting local markets.

Of course, food aid doesn’t solve everything. Violent conflict and food insecurity are products of ineffective and discriminatory governments. Achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030 is impossible without ending armed conflict and strengthening political institutions conducive to peaceful political rule.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is important because it sheds light on one of humanity’s greatest challenges, one that cannot be tackled without the international community’s coordinated efforts. Nonetheless, it’s not an award free from controversies or politics; provision of food aid will not cure violence and instability, and won’t replace conventional peacebuilding efforts. In some cases, food aid may even unintentionally prolong the suffering for those most affected by armed conflict.

Peace continues to elude the Nobel Prize (WFP Nobel Series, 4)

Written by

This text first appeared on Flesh & Blood: The Blog of Mukesh Kapila, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Mukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health & Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the fourth post in the series.

From the Norwegian Nobel Institute, 7 October 2011. Photo: Erik F. Brandsborg/Aktiv i Oslo

The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) triggered mixed reactions. WFP’s humanitarian efforts certainly deserve applause. At the same time, questions arise. Do already privileged organisations doing their mandated jobs need such affirmation?  More fundamentally, should humanitarian and peace efforts be confounded?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognised WFP for its efforts against hunger, bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and preventing the use of hunger as a weapon of war.  This is great work but largely about mitigating the consequences of conflicts and not tackling their root causes.

Yes, hunger is often used as a weapon of war and WFP’s food pipeline succours desperate civilians. Whether that prevents the weaponisation of food or contributes to peace is debatable.  It could also, unintentionally, free belligerents of responsibility for populations under their control and just keep on fighting.

The good deeds of WFP and other humanitarian organisations require no justification beyond their intrinsic merit in preserving humanity.  In contrast, peace-making, peace-keeping, and peace-building are fundamentally partisan – and hence political – especially when there are contentious perceptions of  “good” and “bad” sides. 

Co-opting  the supposedly impartial humanitarian endeavour into the peace cause compromises the precious trust that is essential to reach all sides.  In anointing WFP, the Committee has sent perverse signals especially when it’s pronouncement hitched this year’s  Prize to the defence of multilateralism that has been so damaged by COVID-19 politics.

What is the ‘peace’  that the Committee wants the Prize to signify?  “Blessed are the peacemakers…” proclaimed Matthew 5:9 in the Christian Bible.  The Muslim Quran talks at 5:16 about the “ways of peace”. Other theologies have their own constructs.  Millennia later, the nuances of these hallowed words are still puzzled -or even fought – over.

The same is true about Alfred Nobel’s will of 1895. He established his Peace Prize for persons (not organisations!) who have done “the most or best to advance fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.  While his instructions are clear, how are they to be interpreted in our ever-changing world?  

Perhaps that is why the Committee’s decisions have elicited both approbation and bewilderment during the 120 years of the Peace Prize that, ironically enough, coincided with the bloodiest phase of recent human history.  The 135 peace laureates include 28 organisations and 107 individuals, of which 77 are European/American and 17 women. 

Humanitarians are well-recognised:  the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) won three times, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) twice, as well as the League of Red Cross  (now  International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières and individual humanitarians such as Henry Dunant (the first laureate in 1901 and Red Cross founder), Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Teresa.  

Human rights bodies are there too, notably Amnesty International and human rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr, Andrei Sakharov, Elie Wiesel, and Liu Xiaobo. All of them are great, though they illustrate a wider paradox. The stand they – and others inspired by them – take for human rights often generate conflict. That is not surprising. After all, no fundamental human right that we take as a universal norm nowadays was ever won without someone somewhere having first struggled – and usually fought – for it. In many cases, the same human right had to be fought for again and again to preserve or regain it. Human rights and peace make uneasy bedfellows.

Less controversially, several conflict mediators  and treaty negotiators such as Ralph Bunche and Dag Hammarskjold are represented among the Nobel Peace laureates but actual pro-peace bodies are relatively rare. Frederic Passey is acknowledged for the first Universal Peace Conference. There followed a few others including Nobel’s friend, Bertha von Suttner, and the International Peace Bureau, Quakers and the Dalai Lama.  

By all accounts, even by his adoring admirers, Alfred Nobel’s peace philosophy was not profound. His family enterprise benefited from armaments for the Crimean War and he made his fortune from dynamite and other explosive materials, albeit for civilian use. He said that it was not his responsibility if people used his inventions for wholescale killing. Nevertheless, a prematurely-released obituary described Dr. Nobel as having become rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before. Perhaps that stimulated his desire to be remembered in a better way. His soul will be comforted that his Prize has gone subsequently to campaigners against weapons of mass destruction such as the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the greatest known peace apostle whose birthday (2nd October) is the UN -designated International Day of Non-Violence. He was turned down five times for the Prize and the narrow-minded Norwegian Committee accused of not appreciating the struggles of non-European people or of being cowardly for fearing damage to Norway’s relations with the powerful British Empire. The missing laureate’s supporters asserted that Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize but whether the Nobel Committee could do without Gandhi was the question. This question was answered by a succeeding Committee expressing deep regret that Gandhi had not got the Prize.

Of course, all reputations are shaky. Gandhi is nowadays accused of racism with his statues at risk of been toppled.  Similarly, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticised for connivance with crimes against humanity inflicted on the Rohingya­­­. The Nobel Committee have taken convenient refuge behind their self-created procedures that the Prize cannot be awarded posthumously (Gandhi) and neither can it be recalled (Suu Kyi).

Meanwhile, the annual Peace laureate announcements are as full of drama as the Hollywood Oscars but the selections are about as transparent as the Papal elections.  To be fair, this is bound to be a precarious affair as all peace is provisional. A classic example was the 1973 Prize for the Paris peace accord.  The United States’ Henry Kissinger accepted the Prize but did not attend the ceremony, while  North Vietnam’s Lê Đức Thọ refused it. In any case, neither of them were convincing role models for peace: the war continued until Vietnam was forcibly united after considerable further bloodshed. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is also accused of politicisation. That is ironic as peace is very much a political business and is the reason why the majority of peace laureates are political personalities. They include no less than 26 heads of state and government (including four American Presidents) and political entities such as the United Nations and the European Union.  Why not? Even if many of the Prizes are for unfulfilled aspirations rather than real accomplishments, perhaps they are still useful pour encourager les autres. 

That brings us back to the Peace Prize – the only one of the Nobel Prizes that can – for unclear reasons – be bestowed upon institutions. Does WFP as the UN’s largest humanitarian body with an approx US$8 billion budget really need the medal, diploma, and modest US$1 million money? Will it make any difference to countering the record levels of world hunger or progressing peace anywhere?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee may wish to rethink its future approach to recognising real peacemakers who certainly need all the encouragement they can get. Meanwhile, it is also time to value humanitarian work for its own sake: perhaps a Nobel Humanitarian Prize for doing simple good that is unencumbered by calculations of peace or the sending of obscure or contentious political signals.  It should be given to otherwise unrecognised humanitarian workers – not huge organisations – as a powerful affirmation of the power of ordinary humanity. 

Dr. Nobel could then truly rest in peace.

The Humanitarian Antaeus: Overcoming the Power Asymmetry between Humanitarians and Armed Groups in Frontline Negotiations

Written by

Salla Turunen is a PhD Fellow with a research focus on humanitarian diplomacy and the United Nations. This blogpost stems from the combined in-person seminar and Zoom webinar “The Frontlines of Diplomacy: Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups”, held on 1 October 2020 at Bergen Global in Bergen, Norway. The event featured a presentation by Ashley Jonathan Clements and comments by Marte Nilsen (PRIO) and Salla Turunen (CMI). A recording of the event is available here.

Photo: Juan Arredondo, Getty Images/ICRC

In Greek mythology the giant Antaeus, a son of the gods, was known for his invincible skills in wrestling, which enabled him to collect the skulls of those he overthrew to build a temple for his father. His remarkable strength derived from his physical contact with the Earth. Antaeus remained undefeated until he encountered Hercules, who discovered the source of Antaeus’ power and vanquished him by disconnecting him from the Earth.

Such stories, in which wit and tactics overcome strength and supremacy, seem as old as the hills. However, in reality they reveal some of the qualities required by humanitarians operating on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts. When faced with armed groups, humanitarians often negotiate from a position of weakness. What kinds of challenges do humanitarians face as they try to achieve operational aims such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians? What tactics and strategies are available to them in negotiating with the humanitarian Antaeus – non-state armed groups? This blogpost discusses these questions in the light of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’, a new term for an old practice.

Humanitarian diplomacy – the praxis between the apolitical and political

Diplomacy is traditionally understood from a state-centric perspective, regarded as a practice undertaken between bilateral states or occurring on multilateral platforms such as the United Nations. However, today’s diplomacy and its practices have expanded beyond the confines of a realm limited to states, thanks to developments such as globalization, multilateralism and technological advance. A number of new and descriptive terms have emerged to describe the diplomatic practices relevant to these new developments. Accordingly, humanitarian diplomacy has entered the stage to illustrate a form of diplomacy that is used to achieve and advance humanitarian interests.   

One characteristic of humanitarian diplomacy is its engagement with all stakeholders involved in the humanitarian context, whether official or non-official actors. Among the latter are non-state armed groups, which are increasingly central for humanitarian action on the ground. As the conflicts of today that lead to humanitarian needs are frequently localized and involve civilians, perhaps the most common counterparts that humanitarians operating on these frontlines encounter in negotiations are representatives of armed groups.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of such a humanitarian official: if you represent the traditional humanitarianism stance, your goal is to deliver aid where it is needed in a manner that is impartial, neutral, independent and serving humanity. In order to reach the people in humanitarian need, you have to deal with the armed group that is in charge of the territory where the needs are located. Upon your encounter with the group you might try to justify your request for access by calling on humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. But such a strategy often proves useless since you are demanding respect for your stance where there is none. What can you do?

Such humanitarian negotiations are threatening the very existence of humanitarian identity. When humanitarian identity is built on the principles of full, independent, impartial and neutral respect for humanity, what leeway is there for compromise? Particularly with armed groups uninterested in the protection of civilians and with numerous human rights violations under their belts, the rationale of protecting human life is a weak bargaining chip. In order for humanitarians to reach their goals, engaging with the political seems inevitable in the politics of life in which humanitarians are inherently invested. Navigating this political humanitarian arena is where humanitarian diplomacy serves as instrument– to use diplomatic means and tools to achieve humanitarian aims.

Tactics for overcoming the power asymmetry

Humanitarians have very few negotiation tools to offer in terms of carrots and sticks. Yet they can negotiate access to and delivery of aid more efficiently than the odds against them would suggest. In overcoming the imbalances humanitarians face on the frontlines of today’s armed conflicts, humanitarians have a number of tactics and strategies available to them.

But before we explore these tactics we need to understand the challenges. At the humanitarian field level, the palette of humanitarian actors operating on the ground is more colourful than ever before. Multiparty agreements, various operational priorities and different understandings of the nature of humanitarianism, among other factors, place humanitarians in a complex framework, and that’s even before we bring other stakeholders into the equation. Moreover, the question of what and who constitutes an armed group is relevant for any context-specific interpretation, as, for example, the case of Myanmar and the country’s military forces showcases. Of course, negotiation counterparts, such as armed groups, recognize humanitarians’ complex dynamics and may use them for their own interests. Humanitarian actors may be played off against each other and set in competition within a given sector. And all this takes place in a race against time where humanitarian needs are dire and the obstacles for meeting them get harder and higher.

This complex humanitarian system is highly decentralized and, despite its tendency to morph, it tends to be consensus-driven. It is difficult for an individual to represent the entirety of a cause or system, and this inevitably fragmented approach can only be an impediment for an effective negotiator. Even if a green light is given, physical access difficulties or potential dangers to humanitarians themselves may torpedo the endeavour in the subsequent stage. Moreover not all armed groups are open for negotiation – and humanitarians cannot or will not negotiate with terrorist groups, in particular.

Despite these challenges, and sometimes because of them, humanitarians have a range of tactics available. Enhanced capacity at individual and institutional levels in dealing with armed groups have proven effective, as well as stronger policies and research related to them. As in any other diplomatic endeavour, building trust is a key component which humanitarians can engage in by demonstrating their impartiality and neutrality. Overall, humanitarians should not undermine their non-intimidating nature – sometimes that is precisely where the dialogue for trust and relationship-building begins. Another crucial tool is to demonstrate contextual awareness, and to try to foster the interests of the negotiation counterparts. Humanitarians should ask themselves what the armed group is aiming for. Often these include goals such as maintaining and increasing legitimacy and reputation and substituting the provision of a certain service that the armed group provides with something else.

Another humanitarian strength lies in the interconnectedness of our world. At times, the opportunity to be brought to the negotiation table with a prominent, international humanitarian actor gives an armed group a sense of legitimacy, and may even lead to the signing of a cease fire or peace agreement. Leveraging third party pressures such as lobbying the UN Security Council is another route. Alternative methodologies is also an avenue to explore – we should ask what can be done remotely (a particularly timely conversation at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic) or through local partners. Sometimes the question is what should not be done – withdrawal and conditionality can be viable tactics in certain conditions.

Politics of humanitarianism

Humanitarians help to set the international political agenda whether they agree with it or not. Humanitarian negotiations are of central importance to world affairs, not peripheral, as they might once have been perceived. These negotiations are inherently political: the frontlines of diplomacy are at the frontlines of ongoing conflicts. Humanitarians’ unprecedented level of engagement is shaping the political reality in which other sectors, such as traditional state diplomats with their respective foreign and security interests, operate.

Yet humanitarians are reluctant diplomats. The Dunantian school of thought, in particular, aims to steer clear from political labels of any kind, as they see these as hampering operational realities. However, more often than not humanitarians are faced with ethical dilemmas arising from their principle-driven system. In terms of impartiality, can aid be delivered to some but not all? In terms of neutrality, how feasible it is in practice not to address the root causes of a conflict if this leads to the risk that the conflict will last longer? In terms of independence, can humanitarians operate without the permission and collaboration of de facto rulers, be they governments or armed groups?

With its focus on negotiation, pragmatism and compromise, humanitarian diplomacy is an instrument for navigating these complexities. It is often understood as humanitarian action, and surrounds the seemingly ever-expanding field of humanitarian negotiation, and indeed there is a close symbiosis: humanitarian diplomacy cannot, in reality, be separated from humanitarian negotiations as otherwise it risks becoming nonmeaningful without close encounter with operational realities. Similarly, humanitarian negotiations without humanitarian diplomacy will have only a limited impact and the quality of the agreements achieved is likely to be poor.

The humanitarian Antaeus, armed groups, gain strength from their comfort zone – their territory, power over civilians and the upper hand in access negotiations. Humanitarian diplomacy is a magnifying glass for examining the comfort zone and an extended toolkit for operating around it. In humanitarian diplomacy, humanitarian principles are a route map but not the final destination, as Ashley Jonathan Clements states:

‘Failure to make some level of ethical compromise through negotiation risks fetishizing humanitarian principles at the expense of addressing humanitarian needs. These principles – fundamental and foundational though they are – are a means to an end and not an end in themselves’ (Clements, 2020, p. 183).

Source

Clements, A., J. (2020). Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups: The Frontlines of Diplomacy (1 ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

WFP wins the Nobel! Is this an opportunity to enhance protection? (WFP Nobel Series, 3)

Written by

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the third post in the series. Norah Niland is a long time aid worker and human rights defender. She is co-founder and member of the Executive Committee of United Against Inhumanity.

A Sea-king helicopter onboard of HMCS St John’s, takes off for Chardonniere, in Haiti, with her load of 1000 kilograms of corn soya blend, on September 15, 2008. Photo: Cplc Eduardo Mora Pineda via Flickr

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee signaled the critical importance of food when it announced that the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), was this year’s winner for its role in combating hunger and, by extension, “bettering conditions for peace.”  This is encouraging news but is it the full story? 

Instrumentalization of food aid

The prize brings to the fore the relationship between food – or lack thereof – and military strategies in contemporary armed conflict.  The use of food as a weapon of war does not feature much in the discourse surrounding humanitarian action.  At a time of diminishing multilateralism, the 2020 Peace Prize provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the growing need for humanitarian action given, in no small part, the flagrant disregard of fundamental humanitarian norms.  Trucking in food tends to be the easy part. Helping ensure that hunger is not weaponized and that food aid is not used to advance political or military agendas is the real challenge.  WFP now has a unique responsibility to invest in efforts that demonstrate that it is a worthy Nobel Laureate.

The recognition and acclaim inherent in the Nobel Peace prize is of particular importance in a time of frayed and failing multilateralism. The crossed vetoes of the Permanent Five (P5) in the UN Security Council (UNSC) effectively ensure that those in favor of war and the arms trade that sustains it – the P5 are among the world’s biggest arms dealers – effectively green-light atrocities.  These include the deliberate starvation of civilians by blocking or bombing life-saving humanitarian food and other supplies, medieval-style sieges and embargoes that restrict or destroy the use of essential infrastructure such as ports and other means of transport.   Inaction in the UNSC is tantamount to complicity in a trend where the weapons of choice on to-day’s battlefields include not just aerial bombardments and other explosive weapons but intentional starvation that disproportionately affects children, women and those who are already vulnerable. A study on Yemen, for example, found that “civilian areas and food supplies are being intentionally targeted.”[i]

Few will dispute that WFP, and other agencies involved in tackling hunger in to-day’s war zones, other disaster settings and in situations of chronic malnutrition, poverty and deprivation, deserve the plaudits and the support needed to continue their vital work.  

While the rationale for the Nobel prize acknowledges the significance of the relationship between hunger, armed conflict and peace, it is important to acknowledge the extent to which food insecurity, and efforts to address it, are weaponized in contemporary war settings. Although WFP is often at the forefront in negotiating access for food convoys, experience from Afghanistan to Yemen, including settings such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Myanmar, shows that food assistance is routinely instrumentalized at great cost to those who are hungry.

A Prize with moral responsibility

Denying food to war-affected communities – deliberate starvation – as a method of warfare has, for this past century, been recognized as a war crime. The politics of such situations are, invariably, complex and complicated but it is incumbent on all stakeholders, including humanitarian entities such as the WFP that enjoys significant leverage, to challenge such practices and to do so in a meaningful and robust manner.

Similarly, WFP, in common with other relief actors, has a significant moral and institutional responsibility to address the deep-seated problem of transactional sex-for-food, an abomination that is routinely denounced but is a frequent reality in situations of humanitarian concern. WFP, like others, is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to the painful reality of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the workplace, including in field operations, but this problem has persisted notwithstanding various reviews and the introduction of new policies and mechanisms.

The Nobel Peace prize should incentivize WFP to examine and strengthen its overall approach to the right to food including the protection dimension of humanitarian action. This necessitates going beyond the logistics of food convoys at which WFP excels. Otherwise, more instances of the “well fed dead” will occur. Priority attention must be given to the instrumentalization and weaponization  of food. WFP should strengthen its capacity to conduct conflict and contextual analysis that enables the development of strategies geared to avoiding harm to civilians and enhancing their protection.  It must work collaboratively with others to head-off or address dangerous policies and practices that are antagonistic to food security and the safety and dignity of people in need.   

Equally importantly, WFP should capitalize on its status as a Nobel Laureate to give meaningful effect to its declared zero-tolerance stance on sexual exploitation and abuse. This requires senior-level accountability and the establishment of an independent, external monitoring and investigative mechanism to put an end to a shameful history that is at odds with humanitarian values and the distinction of being a Nobel Peace prize holder.

Let the Nobel be an opportunity for everyone to re-affirm our faith in our collective humanity; this means challenging the inhumanity of armed conflict where deliberate starvation and other cruelties entail terrible human suffering, high death rates and growing numbers of people obliged to flee their homes to seek refuge and safety elsewhere.


[i] Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?
by Jane Ferguson, The New Yorker, 11 Jul 2018

http://www.npwj.org/content/Intentional-Starvation-Future-War.html

TikTok and the War on Data: Great Power Rivalry and Digital Body Counts

Written by

This post first appeared on Global Policy, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (SJD Harvard Law School) is a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo and a Research Professor in humanitarian studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. In this post, the authors explore how a tech-reliant humanitarian sector increasingly finds itself implicated in a global War on Data.

“Personal data” by Natana Elginting via Freepik

In 1971, the US declared a War on Drugs. In 2001, it began a still ongoing War on Terror. In 2020, the country has initiated a global War on Data to ‘combat’ the malicious collection of US citizens’ personal data. It is the first time that America is going to war for its population’s digital bodies. While this represents a further shift of the battlefield to the domains of cyberspace and trade, there is a likelihood that this war too will entail significant human suffering. This blog post thinks through the consequences for humanitarian aid, problematizing the notion of ‘digital body counts’.

In 1971, US President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs (WoD) to eradicate the sup­ply and demand for illegal narcotics. This global campaign consisted of drug prohibition, military aid and military interventions. The toll of this war – both human and financial – has been enormous, costing billions of dollars and taking thousands of lives annually.  

In 2001, US President Bush began a War on Terror (WoT) in response to the 9/11 attacks.  This global military campaign has led to between 480,000 and 507,000 deaths in major theatres of war (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq) alone. As the security and reliability of data links improved, the WoT evolved into an increasingly remote form of warfare, using armed drones. This also entailed an extension of the battlefield, illustrated by the rising number of US drone strikes in Somalia. Adding to the violence was the merger of the WoD and WoT, as illustrated by the Colombian example.

Almost 20 years on, in 2020, President Trump is now launching a ‘War on Data’ (WoDa). “At the president’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data”, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated in September 2020. The rationale he gave is familiar, namely that the US wants to promote “our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of US laws and regulations.” While the other wars have depended on military tools from the outset, at present the WoDa ostensibly relies on a weaponization of trade policy, commerce and regulation – and the expansion of military logic to these domains.

While tensions around global technology hegemony has been budding for years, we suggest that the official ‘launch’ of this campaign was the US extradition request for and subsequent detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver December 2018 on the basis of fraud and conspiracy to circumvent US sanctions on Iran. In 2020, this campaign – also labelled a “Tech Cold War” or a new “World War over technology”  has been ramped up, focusing on restricting technology flows to China, revamping global technology supply chains, barring certain industry actors from infrastructure projects (such as Huawei’s 5G network) and attempting to curtail US users access to Chinese digital goods and platforms like TikTok and WeChat.

This is also the first time that America is going to war for its population’s digital bodies. ‘Digital bodies’ are images, information, biometrics, and other digitalized data that represent the physical bodies of populations, but over which they have little control or say. Issues of control and say are particularly pertinent where such data is stored in databases to which access may be granted (e.g. via more or less public data sharing agreements), forced (e.g. hacking), or occur as a byproduct of accidental leaks.

While WoDa at this point in time has a clearly designated enemy – China – its impact is likely to significantly impact civilian populations – and their digital bodies – globally, though likely with particular significance for populations already affected by WoD and WoT.  This is because of how digital data gathering has been particularly intense as a counterterror technology, collecting enormous amounts of digital footprints on terror suspects including where the grounds for suspicion may be weak at best (we get back to this). This requires us to think through the notion of digital body counts – not as a measure of disappeared US platform users and dead accounts, but as a critical human security issue. Crucially, we are concerned that the new WoDa is also likely to lead to bad humanitarian outcomes and real body counts. In the following, we identify three humanitarian aspects of the WoDa.

The first concerns sovereignty and data colonization of war-affected civilians. Protecting sovereignty is increasingly about protecting the sovereignty of digital bodies – though through this is a type of protection principle the US systematically ‘violates’ the to ‘digital bodies’ of other states’ populations. Arguably, a precursor to the emergent WoDa is the extent to which the US is collecting enormous amounts of biometric data on civilian populations in war zones, because the digital registration-net is cast as widely as possible, and how this data is kept by the US even after its ‘wars’ in foreign places officially ends (the case of Iraq). According to Spencer Ackerman, the US military compiled biometric data from “3 Million Iraqis,”, which the US holds onto even though troops have come home and the War in Iraq officially ended.  Similarly, UNHCR is an example of an important humanitarian actor that increasingly collects biometric data on subjects that it assists. In view of that, and related to the point about military biometrics moving beyond and maintained beyond the battlefield, it is for example noteworthy how UNHCR has an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to provide biometric data on all candidates for resettlement – data which is kept even when no resettlement is taking place.

The second concerns Great power rivalry spilling over into humanitarian technology. Proxy wars are a staple of US global military campaigns. Humanitarians often deal with their consequences. In the WoDa, the risk is that humanitarian space itself becomes the site of a proxy war. The issue of control over data and digital bodies and the US’ aim of preventing China from collecting digital data on its citizens could have implications for humanitarian operations that increasingly rely on the collection of digital data. From a humanitarian perspective, biometric registration of beneficiaries helps agencies overcome ‘double registration’ challenges, as well as challenges related to providing donors with reliable numbers. Now, on the one hand, we have seen institutions like ICRC publish a Biometric Policy that limits data storing. Yet, on the other hand, other humanitarian actors keep adding to the list of challenges that biometrics can help overcome. Contactless biometrics as a response to “the risk of COVID-19” being but one example. The latter development calls for attention to questions about whose technology (US? Chinese? Other?) should be used for these data-gathering and storage purposes in an increasingly technology-reliant and data-enthusiastic humanitarian domain? What will be the consequences (credibility, funding, acceptance, neutrality) of the increasing tension with respect to the trustworthiness of the sectors digital infrastructure?

The third concerns a broadening of the lawfare paradigm and its negative effects. The humanitarian sector is increasingly being embedded in a lawfare paradigm, where US counter-terrorism measures and ‘material support to terror’ provisions are being globalized through strategic litigation against humanitarian actors in domestic courts coupled with blacklisting of the same humanitarian actors in global banking systems. What we now see on the horizon is the possible extension of a type of lawfare to incorporate civil society digital procurement of Chinese-produced commercial off-the-shelf solutions of hardware, platforms and networks as a US national security issue. This would greatly up the stakes for humanitarian actors, and significantly impact their ability to provide aid.  

Our initial takeaway is as follows: For people in war zones, the onset of a WoDa has potentially serious security implications for communities and aid actors. This is not about abstract notions of digital bodies and virtual body counts, nor is it a question of risks to privacy and data protection only. This is about life and death. As a tech-reliant humanitarian sector inevitably finds itself implicated in WoDa, it risks becoming more than involuntarily entangled: for example the digital bodies that humanitarian practice produce may increasingly become targets in this war; because the concept and moral imperative of humanitarian aid is put into play, and finally because access to humanitarian assistance might be compromised as the sector gets further enmeshed in these great power rivalries.   

Nobel peace prize: hunger is a weapon of war but the World Food Programme can’t build peace on its own (WFP Nobel Series, 2)

Written by

This text first appeared on the Conversation, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the second post in the series. Susanne Jaspars is Research Associate at LSE’s Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, and Food Studies Centre, SOAS, University of London.

Launch of the UNICEF/WFP Joint Nutrition Response Plan for South Sudan in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal State. Photo: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine via Flickr

By awarding the 2020 Nobel peace prize to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), the Nobel committee said that it wanted to “turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger”. Among its reasons for awarding the prize were WFP’s “efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”.

These issues don’t apply just to people living in areas of acute conflict, but also to the many people around the world who have experienced high levels of malnutrition for decades – usually in countries affected by multiple and long-term political crises such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The focus that the Nobel committee has brought to hunger and conflict is welcome and very much needed. It must be addressed as a matter of urgency – but not by WFP alone.

Hunger as a weapon

Hunger has been used as a weapon of war for many years, but the issue has recently risen to prominence because of the increased risk of mass starvation in today’s conflicts.

The political acts which cause hunger and starvation can be divided into acts of commission, omission and provision. Acts of commission are attacks on food production, markets and the restriction of people’s movement. Omission is the failure to act, such as when food relief is blocked, while provision is the selective provision of aid to one side of a conflict.

Similar tactics are used in protracted crises but with more subtle manipulation of markets, trade and aid than direct attacks. The war on terror, a rise in authoritarian governments, and geopolitical manoeuvring have magnified these issues and increased the risk of starvation.

The link between war and hunger was recognised explicitly with the passing of a UN security council resolution in 2018 which prohibited the use of hunger as a weapon of war. Since then, WFP has been working more actively to understand the link between food security and conflict and how it can contribute to building peace.

The power of food aid

Since its establishment in 1961, WFP has set up an expansive food logistics system and a wealth of tools to assess needs and vulnerability. In the past decade, it has also become involved in cash transfers.

It is now one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, but also a business which dominates all aspects of general food distribution and humanitarian assistance. It involves a whole range of people, institutions and practices which can have political and economic consequences well beyond meeting the needs of hungry people.

One of most intractable issues is the manipulation of food aid during conflict and its incorporation into the political economy of famine and war. Food aid has been stolen or taxed by warring parties or local authorities, providing not only a source of finance but boosting their political status.

In Somalia, food aid has been big business and its contractors key political actors. Elsewhere, governments increasingly deny access for food distribution in opposition-held areas, with Syria, and Sudan under its previous regime, being a case in point.

The denial of food aid can also benefit traders as it increases food prices and it benefits business because as people become displaced they are potential sources of cheap labour. The vulnerable are frequently excluded or marginalised, because they are the politically weaker members of society.

Spotlight on political inaction

As part of its role in improving conditions for peace, WFP can analyse these wider political and economic effects, and include them in the way it makes decisions. However, WFP cannot address the political causes of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition with food aid – or in fact with any technical intervention.

Conflicts need political solutions and crimes of mass starvation need to be prosecuted. Even one of WFP’s most successful operations, the massive food distribution in Darfur in 2005 which effectively reduced malnutrition and mortality, required diplomatic efforts to negotiate the necessary access.

There is a danger that WFP becomes a substitute for political action to address the causes of conflict or for prosecuting crimes of mass starvation. This would actually perpetuate the problem, as structural causes of hunger and malnutrition remain unaddressed.

In turn, this keeps vulnerable people in a state of protracted crisis or precarity and persistent malnutrition. An over-reliance on WFP can also absolve politicians of the blame for creating famine or, alternatively, the international community’s responsibility to protect.

With the spotlight of the Nobel peace prize, WFP can do much by making the political causes of hunger in conflict visible, helping to identify famine crimes, promoting effective assistance that is specific to particular contexts, and using its power to bring about political action.

A Nobel for the WFP: A non-political Peace Prize for humanitarian multilateralism? (WFP Nobel Series, 1)

Written by

This text first appeared on the PRIO blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the first post in the series.

A World Food Programme ship with workers unloading pallets of high energy biscuits during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. By 26th MEU(SOC) PAO (U.S. Marines) via Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the World Food Program for its “efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. The announcement emphasizes the importance of supporting – and funding – international solidarity and multilateralism in a world in crisis. The WFP is praised for its work in extremely difficult conditions and for gaining access to populations in war zones like Syria and closed dictatorships like North Korea.

Together with the struggle against slavery and the provision of medical assistance to wounded soldiers, the fight against famine is the original humanitarian cause. Images of starving victims in Biafra in the late 1960s and then again in Ethiopia in the 1980s mobilized TV audiences and humanitarian efforts to ensure food delivery. Today, as the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic devastate the livelihoods of communities globally, the WFP estimates that an unprecedented 138 million people are in need of food aid.

In her announcement, the chairman of the committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, described food as “the best vaccine against chaos”. Asked if she expected that this year’s prize would be uncontroversial, Reiss-Andersen hoped that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization helping to end starvation would not be provocative, indicating that food-aid was non-political. Whatever the reception, we argue this is nevertheless a deeply political choice, due to the assumptions it makes about food as an instrument of peace, about the linkages between humanitarianism and peace and finally about the World Food Program as an international organization.

This contribution first puts the opening quote in context, showing how food is currently framed as an instrument of peace. It then focuses on the very political nature of the WFP as a multilateral humanitarian organization within the global environment, even as the emphasis of the Nobel Peace Prize is on its role in “saving lives”. Finally, it discusses one example of the WFP at the operational level: the politics of humanitarian technology.

Food as an instrument of peace

In 2015, hunger eradication became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As Reiss-Andersen indicated in the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the WFP is the “UN’s primary instrument for realizing this goal”. In 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417, recognizing the link between famine and conflict, and reasserting the importance of international humanitarian law in addressing hunger in armed conflict. Echoing this, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize is presented first and foremost through the lens of the insecurity that is created when food supply is insufficient, or controlled by warring parties, and thereby praising the WFP’s contributions to making “food security an instrument of peace”.

This peace-humanitarian nexus, however, is problematic. The prize recognizes the existential threat that a lack of food causes for human life and the importance of preventing the use of food as a weapon of war. The struggles against the Irish and Russian famines were foundational moments in modern humanitarianism. Yet throughout history, mass starvation has been miscategorized as a natural phenomenon, or as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and political oppression. Scholars have disputed this narrative, focusing instead on the infrastructures of food distribution and the political underpinnings of famine and mass starvation. The politics of famine are fierce, as exemplified by the heated discussion of whether the food shortages in Niger in 2005 amounted to a famine at all – and whether that mattered. While the focus on early warning systems and increasingly fine-grained measurements of access to nutrition in real time has provided the international community with increasingly accurate tools for predicting and addressing food-shortages, these mechanisms remain prone to interference. And as the Nobel committee notes, the WFP (and other humanitarian actors) can do little in the face of endemic funding shortages.

Thus, defining what constitutes a famine, and thereby who should respond to it, with which means and requirements, are deeply political questions. Just as hunger can be a weapon of war, so can food aid be instrumentalized in conflict settings. Improving the conditions for peace requires much more than providing food; it necessitates political commitment to promote and preserve peace.

WFP and the political nature of humanitarian multilateralism

The prize – given to an agency headed by David Beasley, a Trump nominee – is seen by some commentators as a criticism of the US for turning its back on multilateralism and withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic. Founded in 1963, the WFP has historically been criticized as a front for American agricultural interests. American executive directors have led the agency since 1992. The US has always been the largest donor of the WFP, which remains relatively popular in the US.

The WFP is no stranger to political controversy. Given the emergency focus of its work, with short time horizons and the potential costs to human life, the agency continually makes difficult tradeoffs. The WFP has historically struggled with corruption and food diversion, facing accusations of half of the food aid disappearing in Somalia in the 2000s. Operations in North Korea have, over time, proved challenging in relation to the quest for humanitarian accountability. Occasionally the agency has closed operation in response to donor concerns about local diversions of funding and food items, including staff corruption, such as in Yemen in 2010. Its partnerships with private companies likewise raise protection concerns, such as when its biometric ‘data lake’ (comprising sensitive data such as beneficiary biometrics) was potentially at risk of becoming accessible to Palantir and to security actors whose notions of protection refer foremost to national security rather than to the security of its humanitarian beneficiaries.

The organization has also been in the spotlight for its ongoing struggles with a problematic working environment, with reports cataloguing discrimination, abuse of authority, sexual harassment and retaliation; so far ineffectively dealt with by a poor management culture. As late as in September, there were reports of allegations of sexual misconduct in relation to a WFP compound in Northern Uganda.

The politics of the WFP at an operational level: the example of technology

In recent years, the WFP has won praise and criticism for its approach to innovation and digitization. From initial pilot projects to gauge the advantages of using biometrics to its use of blockchain, the WFP has now become a forerunner in using new technology to think differently about assistance, such as the move from ‘food’ to ‘cash’, a significant innovation in effectively meeting the needs of those affected by crisis. The use of new digital technology, however, has significant challenges.

Harnessing “data and tech to save lives” has indeed helped the WFP in various ways. Yet, acknowledging that “data and tech” can have advantages should not preclude debate about potential flipsides and critical dimensions of these developments. As mentioned above, the WFP announced last year that the agency had decided to enter into a “five-year partnership” between the WFP with Palantir, a “controversial US-based data analytics company with deep links to US intelligence agencies,” criticized for being a human rights violator.

As a more specific example of how this partnership spilled over into the WFP’s programmes the case of Yemen is worth mentioning as the issue of biometric data collection became the subject of “a pitched standoff” between the WFP and Yemen’s Houthi government. Referring to the controversial Palantir-partnership, Houthis accused the WFP of being “a front for intelligence operations,” i.e. not a politically neutral humanitarian actor. Commentators have observed that  this dispute was not just about data but essentially about “power, trust and the licence to operate”. Crucially, the tech-related confrontation has ‘real’ consequences, putting food aid to 850,000 people caught in a dire humanitarian crisis at a standstill.

Although debates about this partnership waned rather quickly, it is important to contemplate the broader relevance for the humanitarian community in a time where humanitarian governance increasingly revolves around data governance. Critical discussions – and more transparency –about the collection and sharing of digital data from people in extremely volatile contexts and about emergent humanitarian data-infrastructures are crucial for the integrity of humanitarian protection mandates. Here, the WFP, which remains a curiously under-studied international organization, could also do much more to facilitate academic engagement with the organization.

Concluding thoughts

The work of UN agencies like the WFP, are examples of multilateralism as an essentially deeply political endeavor. In the years to come, climate change may return famines to the core of humanitarian action. The kind of versatile World Food Programme we have seen emerge over the last decade will likely become an even more important actor on the multilateral scene. At the same time, as discussed in this blog, while this Nobel Peace Prize is undoubtedly a prize for humanitarian multilateralism it is not unproblematic to read this as being in praise of the humanitarian enterprise as such.