Written by Nicki Kindersley (University of Cambridge) & Øystein Rolandsen (PRIO)
This text first appeared on Security Dialogue and is re-posted here.Read the full article this blog post is based on here. The article is an outcome of a larger project supported by the Research Council of Norway: “Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice“. Nicki Kindersley and Øystein Rolandsen are featured in the Security Dialogue Podcast Series where they speak about their article, and the podcast can be accessed here.
Why are local communities so often targeted in South Sudan’s civil wars? How do their attackers justify violence against people defined as civilians in international law? In our article in the current issue of Security Dialogue, we answer these questions by placing recent brutalities within a longer history of conflict logics and practices in South Sudan’s modern history of violent governance. These evolving local norms inform how armed actors engage with residents in today’s conflicts.
State governance has always been violent towards South Sudan’s
populations. Since slave raiders and traders shaped the first colonial
incursions in the mid-1800s, ordinary people have been strategic assets to be
managed and exploited. As such populations are not just legitimate targets in
conflicts, but key resources to capture and control. State power was extended
over Sudan’s peripheries in the 1900-1920s through mass forced displacement and
depopulation of strategic areas (such as Kafia Kingi); through collective
‘punishment’ of defensive populations (for example, the aerial bombardment of
Nuer communities); and violent raiding by proxy fighters from other
communities, turning residents against each other. Sudan’s civil wars in the
South from the 1960s continued these practices. Communities were targeted
collectively based on ethnicity and imputed loyalty, displaced, and forced into
camps for ‘protection’ and control, by both government and rebel forces.
Today’s UN Protection of Civilians
camps, the first UN bases in the world to be turned into protection camps for
local populations, are a part of this long history of violent governance. These
armed groups continue to see the population in contested areas as part of the
war, where everyone is (potentially) part of the collective enemy, and where
controlling desperate poor populations is also a convenient way of gaining
access to external aid and cheap labour. It thus makes more sense that, since
2013, armed groups have targeted populations in forced displacements,
collective ‘punishments’, violent raids and armed control of refugee camps.
The article also shows how this
distinction between armed combatants and those defined as civilians in
international law is further blurred by violent governance tactics since the
colonial period. Successive governments have actively sought to incorporate the
population into their militarised security apparatus. During colonial rule, men
and women were pressed into service as enslaved or otherwise dependent
servants, soldiers, and workers in fortified and militarised garrison towns.
After Sudan’s independence in 1956, the government encouraged or coerced
residents into acting as spies, ‘national guards’, informers and ‘local
protection’ forces. This militarised security state continues, and continues to
blur the South Sudanese definition of civilian.
This analysis does not excuse the
massive and systematic violence against the general population of South Sudan.
But without due consideration of these deeply engraved historical systems and
logics of violent governance, today’s brutal conflicts become incomprehensible.
Any attempt to implement protection measures for populations affected by war
needs to be informed by a proper understanding of these local logics of
conflict. In this logic, the UN in South Sudan is already another
military-political authority managing local populations and controlling their
movements. With the NGOs servicing them and the UN peacekeepers guarding them,
these PoC camps are a strategic political asset to be managed and exploited.
Written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) & Dennis Dijkzeul (Ruhr University Bochum)
This text first appeared on the TheGlobal and is re-posted here. The blog post draws on the introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ‘A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises’ published by Disasters.
Synopsis: While localization is high on the agenda for humanitarian actors, at present, humanitarian governance does not support the localization agenda. To understand better why, we explore three issues underpinning humanitarian governance: the problem construction, consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians. We conclude that the localization agenda is important, but for it to succeed a fundamental change of the humanitarian system is needed.
Humanitarian crises conjure up a specific world of urgency and
emergency populated by a set of ‘doers’: international organisations and
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), heroic humanitarian workers, the
military and the private sector, as well as donors. At the same time, it is
well known that affected populations primarily rescue themselves, with the
assistance of local civil society and host governments. Reflecting that reality,
since the World Humanitarian
2016, ‘localization’ of aid has become a mantra of the sector. Yet, things
appear not to be going so well. In this blog we try to provide conceptual
pointers for explaining why. In line
with Michael Barnett’s insightthat humanitarian
governance voluntarily or involuntarily produces or contributes to some kind of
societal order, we ask in this blog what kind of order is being imagined and
produced through humanitarian governance in relation to the localization
In general, there are two versions of humanitarian governance in
circulation: the narrow version is concerned with the provision of immediate
relief to human suffering. This traditional humanitarianism does not attempt to
politically change the world or take a position on conflicts, but instead uses
the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and
independence to gain access to people in need and alleviate their suffering. In
this sense, it operates as a stopgap measure: it only addresses needs and does
not judge openly the conflict that causes the suffering. The second and more
extensive interpretation signifies a broader concern for human welfare and
incorporates political change to address the root causes of suffering through
human rights, conflict resolution, emancipatory movements, and development
In everyday practice and discourse, both interpretations of
humanitarian governance are used in parallel, which leads to confusion or
disagreement about the goals and roles of humanitarian action. This also means
that what we mean by localization is essentially unclear. To illuminate the
implications of this discrepancy, we consider three critical issues for the
localization agenda, namely: humanitarian problem construction, the
consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians.
The paradoxes of top-down humanitarian problem constructions
Once a humanitarian emergency is declared, it thenshapes not only who is supposed to act but what is supposed to be done.
Humanitarian problem construction involves the conceptualization of social and
political needs, crises, and risks as ‘humanitarian problems’; it also entails
new and/or expanded conceptualizations of humanitarian suffering that call on
humanitarians to be present on the ground with their staff, values, and
toolkits; carrying with it the assumption that humanitarians and their toolkits
are relevant, useful, and welcome. Underpinning and reinforcing this emphasis
on emergency is the invention and promulgation of a technical vocabulary. For
example, while we have now become accustomed to the use of ‘L3’ as a way of
describing the worst emergencies, it is only from the introduction of ‘L’
levels in the UN humanitarian reform
of 2011 that
L3 has worked as a global symbol to designate the most serious level of crisis
and help humanitarians create a globally stratified map of emergencies.
So far, the localization agenda has not substantially altered the conceptualization of social and political needs, nor of crises and risk. To push
the localization agenda forward, humanitarian governance should pay more
attention to local definitions of crises, risks and ‘appropriate’ aid, so that
humanitarian problems are no longer just defined by professionals, who then
control the planning and distribution of resources.
In a similar vein, we are witnessing the persistence of a classic
problem of humanitarian action, namely that the humanitarian sector legitimizes
its interventions by producing higher numbers of both individuals in need and
concomitant funding needs to legitimate humanitarian requests and
interventions. This includes, for example, the mortality
surveys in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq; contestations over maternal deaths; the 2005non-faminein Niger;
exaggerated population counts in refugee camps and more recently talk about ‘unprecedented numbers of refugees’. This has a paradoxical effect on the humanitarian sector.
On the one hand, the very limited funding for local NGOs is also
increasingly recognized as a structural impediment to localization. Data
released in the 2017
Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 per
cent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together,
including governments, they still only accounted for two per cent of funding.
On the other hand, the identification of unmet needs led to continuous
expansion among international NGOs, a kind of ongoing mission creep, which is
an inadvertent consequence in line with the expansive nature of risk. These
categories and numbers leave the humanitarian sector in the double bind that it
is not doing enough while simultaneously being too expansive. In both cases, it
is falling short of its own and external normative expectations. The mortality
surveys in the DRC, for instance, showeda degree of suffering that
was unprecedented, but also led to debates about their validity and impact as a
justification for the expansion of humanitarian aid.
Consolidation and growth: where is the local?
In general, multi-mandate organizations follow the broader
interpretation of humanitarian governance and thus address a broader array of
problems, including the prevention of crises and linking relief and
development. The presence of different interpretations of governance has not
stopped and has probably facilitated the humanitarian sector’s growth and rapid
consolidation over the last three decades. Overall, the humanitarian ‘industry’ handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six per
cent increase on 2015. The largest humanitarian NGOs now have thousands of
employees and annual turnover of many millions of dollars. While the
consolidation and growth of the humanitarian enterprise can be seen as a
success story for the humanitarian industry as such, the gap between available
resources and perceived humanitarian needs is portrayed as growing continually wider. Several scholars have pointed out
that this endemic and multi-faceted response ‘gap’—with respect to funding,
technical capacity, material goods, humanitarian access, or political will—is
the product of efforts to construct (and not discover) meaning. For example, it
takes analytical labor to define and construct humanitarians as ‘becoming’ unprepared or ‘unfit
Humanitarian actors are apt at describing and presenting ‘gaps’ as fundamental
threats to addressing needs and/or constructing a more humane world order. Once
again, local perspectives on this issue require more attention.
The sorting of civilians
A final issue which affects the meaning of localization concerns the sorting of civilians, which is currently in large
part shaped by considerations of risk and security as emanating from the global
war on terror and extremism. In qualitative terms, not only the language used
to describe the intended recipients of aid (victims, beneficiaries, communities
in crisis, clients, target groups, people in need, survivors, or customers) but
also the categories of protected civilians and the calculus of suffering
deployed to sort and select protectable civilians are in continuous flux.
Generally, the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and
political victim categories, such as internally displaced person (IDPs), and
this expansion continues with a discursive broadening of sexual violence as
mode of categorizing
‘humanitarian victims’, as it happened in Bosnia and the DRC, for example.
Importantly, a countertrend that is enabled both by the risk politics
of humanitarianism and the turn to technology is the parallel turn to
resilience thinking and the sorting of ‘protectable’ civilians, which
increasingly represents a shrinking of the categories of civilians that receive protection. In particular, resilience thinking puts the onus of
responsibility for being prepared for, or able to cope with, crises more on
local actors than on international ones, which can lead to a shrinking of the
categories of people that receive protection or other forms of aid. Yet, when
the capacities of these local actors need to be strengthened, this nevertheless
leads to an expansion of capacity-building activities by international
organizations involved in humanitarian work.
In sum, the way that humanitarian governance orders the humanitarian
field in terms of problem construction, consolidation and expansion, as well as
with sorting of civilians, does not yet support the localization agenda. The
localization agenda is important but if it is to be taken seriously, it needs
to go hand in hand with a far more fundamental change of the humanitarian
system than has happened so far.
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. Her work focuses on refugee resettlement, legal mobilization, humanitarian technology, innovation and accountability. She currently writes on the 22 July Norwegian terror attacks, humanitarianism and lawfare, and digital bodies in aid.
On October 23, 2019, 39 bodies were found inside a refrigerator lorry on an industrial estate in Essex. The vehicle was registered in Varna, Bulgaria, had entered the UK four days before and was driven by a man from Northern-Ireland. The victims – 38 adults and a teenager – were identified as Vietnamese. This incident is just the latest example of vehicle-induced migrant mass fatalities.
Are these deaths accidental, or a result of lethal
intentionality and if so, who is to blame? To reflect on the violence and
structured immobility practices that lead to these deaths, I take the
colloquial term ‘killer trucks’ as my point of departure. I juxtapose the
concept’s ordinary use –the deployment of trucks for vehicular ramming attacks
– with the regular occurrence of large numbers of individuals being found dead
inside trailers, trucks, lorries and vans. I contrast the concept of ‘vehicular
terror’ with ‘vehicular crypts’, whereby the cargo areas of lorries and trucks
become vaults facilitating stacked burials. I link the notion of a
widespread weaponization– the process through which an object that wasn’t
a weapon becomes one – of trucks to questions of how we estimate and explain
harm and danger. In this post I argue that we must link weaponization, and the
type of lethal intentionality embedded in the weaponization process, to broader
legal and political structures.
In recent years, commercial transport vehicles
have become securitized and reconceived as existential threats through their
use in urban terror attacks. Their presence is perceived
with suspicion and fear, as urban landscapes are remodeled through bollards and
security fencing. In accounts of vehicle ramming attacks in Berlin, London, Nice,
Stockholm and New York, the exterior of vehicles—cars, vans, trucks,
motorbikes—are construed as having innate qualities of mass and speed that make
them inherently dangerous and their presence potentially dangerous. While the
use of trucks as conduits for explosives and driving into crowds with lethal
intent are not new tactics, the lethality of recent attacks has engendered a
narrative focused on the ‘the terrifying
simplicity’ of these
attacks: we ‘now live in an era of
the weaponized truck’ whereby ‘Western audiences are
witnessing a transformation of the objects of everyday life into tools of
I suggest that this narrative of unpredictable
danger is ‘good to think with’ when it comes to critically reflecting on
vehicle-induced deaths and the ethics of the classification of the dead. When
looking at how trucks—by design intended to serve logistical purposes—become
lethal objects, or ‘killer trucks’—attention to context is crucial. When
accounting for the rise of the ‘killer truck’ as a weapon of terror and
destruction, we must do so with a careful view to positionality, materiality
and political context. We must ask: what is a weapon? What is weaponization of
everyday objects such as trucks; and who is harmed through this weaponization?
My proposition is that these questions enable the
deaths of a different set of victims to come into view: During terror attacks,
it is the exterior capabilities of trucks and lorries that produce deadly
impact. The weaponization of trucks can also be considered through the lens of
interior materiality. Here it’s not a presence of lethal
factors such as mass and speed but a lack –of human
consideration and air but also of legality and mobility rights – that produce
lethality. It also makes visible how it is not only instances of individual
criminality but also legal regimes governing mobility which produce harm and
The Essex case is not exceptional, but part of a
global pattern whereby trucks have become deadly crypts for migrants’ bodies.
Examples abound: In 2003, 17 ‘illegal migrants’ from Mexico, Central
America and the Dominican Republic died through dehydration, hyperthermia and
suffocation inside an airtight container of an eighteen wheeler. In 2008, 54 Burmese migrants suffocated inside a truck in
Thailand. The surviving migrants were charged with illegal entry. In 2015, in an event known as ‘the
Parndorf tragedy’, 71 people were found suffocated at the back of a
Slovenian meat lorry outside the village of Parndorf in Austria. The lorry was
used by a Budapest-based trafficking ring which smuggled thousands of people from Hungary into
Austria and Germany in 2015.
We must pay attention to how the ‘killer’
capabilities of material objects are configured through the regulatory sorting
regimes aimed at people and mobilities. Crypts are ‘an extreme class of the artifacts that form the material culture
of clandestine migration’, they are containers forming units with migrant
bodies, representing ‘frequently nothing more than a transitional space within
a load of cargo.’ Structural factors such as ever stricter and more punitive migration regimes and aggressive
counter-terrorism measures force people into cattle trucks, meat trucks,
refrigerator trucks, moving vans – and produce the dangers these individuals
face inside these crypts.
An important source of danger is time: speed and risk are inherently interlinked and there are
different levels of risk involved in distinct modes of transport. The fastest
modes of transport – airplanes – tend to be the safest, while the slowest are
generally the most dangerous. Trucks and lorries – relatively slow modes of
transport –are part of what Ruben Andersson (2014) calls the ‘illegality industry’. The slowness entails migrants being helplessly
stuck inside trucks following unpredictable itineraries and being parked or
abandoned at remote locations along the routes.
In the Parndorf case, the driver had by
accident sealed the doors, so no air could come in. Police
telephone intercepts –recorded but not analyzed in time – showed that the
Afghan ringleader had later ordered the driver not to open the doors while the
migrants could be heard screaming in the back. The charges in the
Parndorf case included charges of human trafficking, torture and ‘homicide with
particular cruelty’. According to prosecutors, refugees were ‘often carried in closed, dark and
airless van unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman,
excruciating conditions’. In June 2018, four human smugglers from Afghanistan
and Bulgaria were jailed for 25 years in the Kescemet city court in Hungary.
While Parndorf, and other smuggling cases
resulting in mass deaths, relate to intentional killings carried out by
organized crime, the lethal intentionality in these cases is not only that
of not opening doors, checking that there is enough
ventilation and maintaining a temperature adequate for human survival. When we
think about killer trucks, the processes through which they are weaponized and
notions of unprecedented danger, we must also consider that lethal
intentionality is also what creates migrant crypts in the first place, and that it emerges at
the interface of legal regimes governing offenses related to smuggling,
trafficking, crime, terror – and mobility.
Written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/University of Oslo) & Dennis Dijkzeul (Ruhr University Bochum)
This text first appeared on Global Policy and is re-posted here. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Dennis Dijkzeul reflect on some of the new directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the principal techniques.
According to an influential conception, humanitarian governance entails ‘the
increasingly organized and internationalized attempt to save the lives, enhance
the welfare, and reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable
populations.’ The actors involved in humanitarian governance include affected
populations, civil society, host governments, the military, the private sector,
international organisations and NGOs, and donors. Much of this governance is
associated with the intended as well as the unintended consequences of
In particular, these unintended consequences
have brought about a quest for institutional or moral improvement of
humanitarian action. Presented as progress narratives, these initiatives – or
techniques – range from efforts to enhance accountability, for example through
legalization, to offering better technological solutions. However, in recent
years, the techniques of humanitarian governance are increasingly also
incorporated into narratives of decline, where attempts to govern
humanitarianism is also seen to hinder humanitarian access, hamper aid delivery
and undermine the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality,
neutrality, and independence. This blog post reflects on some of the new
directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the
principal techniques of such governance.
The Governance Techniques
Accountability to improve behavior. Starting from the mid-1990s, a number of
sector-wide transparency and accountability initiatives (e.g., SPHERE, the Humanitarian
Accountability Partnership (HAP) International, People in Aid, Groupe URD’s
Compass, and more recently the Core Humanitarian Standard) have influenced
humanitarian organisations. Criticism has been directed at ‘the accountability
industry’ for emphasizing standardization and technocratization, which hide the
actual politics, and for prioritizing upwards accountability to donors at the
expense of true, participatory accountability processes with communities in
crisis. Still, the quest for accountability remains a core normative ambition
and shapes attempts to govern in the humanitarian arena.
As part of this, humanitarians are
increasingly ‘code of conducted up’, in particular with respect to intimate
personal relationships and financial transparency. What would previously be
deemed either private behavior – such as substance abuse – or individual moral
and personal failure – such as buying sex – is increasingly construed as a risk-generating activity threatening
specific operations, organisational reputations, and the legitimacy of the
sector itself. Despite the Oxfam sex scandal, there is not sufficient evidence – or a
concerted push to establish such evidence – on whether the humanitarian sector
is currently doing better in terms of its accountability.
The technological turn. Moreover, the ongoing digitization and
datafication of humanitarian action have become central techniques of
humanitarian governance, and increasingly shape our understanding of and response to
emergencies. Digitization is dramatically changing the way aid agencies provide
assistance, from blockchain technology to provide cash transfers to the
use of biometrics with iris scans and fingerprinting to
register and track beneficiary assistance. This has led to faster information
exchanges and greater transparency about what is happening on the ground. At
the same time, the integration of information technology has enabled an
increasing degree of remote management, which has changed the dynamic between
communities in crisis, responders, regional offices, and headquarters.
The technologization of humanitarian space
have also brought on a much closer relationship with the private sector: big
tech outfits as well as small startups. These actors also have limited
experience with and knowledge of the ends and objectives of the humanitarian
sector, while pursuing their own financial objectives with respect to
commodification and use of data. In addition, the attendant security challenges are slowly receiving more attention.
Spyware is being deployed by governments and warlords to provide surveillance
of humanitarian officials and civilians. Data collected by
humanitarian organizations may be stolen and misused by the same actors. Indifference,
incompetence and bad planning might result in data breaches.
Juridification. Humanitarian governance is increasingly
undertaken through law and law-like language as actors are held
accountable through legal or quasi-legal mechanisms. One important trend is
the evolving body of international disaster response law (IDRL) aiming to eliminate bureaucratic barriers
to the entry of relief personnel, goods and equipment, and the operation of
relief programmes, as well as addressing regulatory failures to monitor and
correct problems of quality and coordination in disasters.
A different kind of legalisation is taking
place through the evolution and institutionalization of a legal standard for a
‘duty of care’ for humanitarian staff. The 2015 Steve
Dennis versus the Norwegian Refugee Council case from the Oslo District court,
have shifted the conceptualisation of the duty of care standard for
humanitarian staff from being a good practice standard in human resource
management to becoming a standard considered from and articulated through the
language of law and liability. Although it is positive the humanitarian
organizations need to work out the operational details of their duty of care,
it can also lead to risk-avoidance or an increase in
There is also an increasingly frequent
assertion that ‘humanitarianism is being criminalized’ (here, here, here or here). According to the humanitarian narrative
of ‘the criminalization of humanitarian space’, such criminalization can hamper
access to affected communities and compromises the ability of humanitarian actors
to deliver principled aid to fulfill the humanitarian imperative of assisting
according to need. This includes the prohibition of material support for
terrorism, that was extended to include humanitarian advocacy in the 2010 US
Supreme Court decision Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project and the use of
the US False Claims Act to go after humanitarian NGOs operating in the occupied
Palestinian territories. Based on complaints from a private individual In 2017
and 2018, the American University in Beirut (AUB) and the Norwegian People’s
Aid (NPA) have
reached costly settlements with the US government. Oxfam is currently facing a
$ 160 million legal threat under the False Claims Act. Several more
cases are under seal.
In parallel, there has been a broad trend
towards to criminal prosecution of volunteer workers who have offered material
support or protection – such as housing, transportation, food, education or
rescue – to asylum seekers and refugees (here, here or here). Humanitarian work is here being construed as human smuggling or trafficking. At the same
time, some types of criminalization are viewed as beneficial to ensure that
humanitarians do no harm to beneficiaries or each other, for example with respect to sexual harassment and
This blog post draws on our introduction to a 2019 special issue on
humanitarian governance “A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order
in humanitarian crises” published by Disasters. As discussed in the
introduction and further analyzed in this blog post, it is ironic that the
quest to deal with the unintended consequences of humanitarian action, has
unintended effects as well. First, the initiatives listed above are often
difficult to implement. Second, they also bear the risk of technocratization:
these techniques are not neutral; they may hamper participation and obscure
power politics. As illustrated by criminalization, some governance attempts can
even contribute to a shrinking of humanitarian space. Third, they can lead to a
lack of respect for the humanitarian principles, so that the protection of
people in need is not well ensured.
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is a socio-legal scholar with a particular interest in the politics of innovation and technology in the humanitarian space. She is a research professor in humanitarian studies at PRIO, and a professor in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.
Children are becoming the objects of a multitude of monitoring devices—what are the possible negative ramifications in low resource contexts and fragile settings?
The recent incident of a UNHCR official tweeting a photo of an Iraqi refugee girl holding a piece of paper with all her personal data, including family composition and location, is remarkable for two reasons. First, because of the stunning indifference and perhaps also ignorance displayed by a high-ranking UN communications official with respect to a child’s personal data. However, the more notable aspect of this incident has been the widespread condemnation of the tweet (since deleted) and its sender, and her explanation that it was “six years old”. While public criticism has focused on the power gap between humanitarians and refugees and the precarious situation of Iraqi refugees, this incident is noteworthy because it marks the descent of a new figure in international aid and global governance: that of children’s digital bodies.
children are dependent, what technology promises most of all is almost
unlimited care and control: directly by parents but indirectly by marketing
agencies and tech companies building consumer profiles. As explained by the Deborah Lupton, in the political economy of
the global North (and, I would add, the global East), children are becoming the objects of a
multitude of monitoring devices that generate detailed data about them. What
are the possible negative ramifications in low resources contexts and fragile
settings characterized by deep-seated oversight and accountability deficits?
The rise of
experimental practices: Ed. Tech, babies and biometrics
a long history of problematic educational transplants in aid context, from dumping used text books to culturally or
linguistically inappropriate material. The history of tech-dumping in disasters is much more recent,
but also problematically involves large-scale testing of educational technology
platforms. While practitioners complain about relevance, lack of participatory
engagement and questionable operability in the emergency context, ethical
aspects of educational technology (Ed. Tech), data extraction—and how the
collection of data from children and youth constitute part of the merging of
aid and surveillance capitalism—are little discussed.
recent trend concerns infant biometric identification to help boost
vaccination rates. Hundreds of thousands of children die annually due to
preventable diseases, many because of inconsistencies in the provision of
vaccine programs. Biometric identification is thus intended to link children
with their medical records and overcome the logistical challenges of
paper-based systems. Trials are now ongoing or planned for India, Bangladesh
and Tanzania. While there are still technical challenges in accurately
capturing the biometric data of infants, new biometric techniques capture
fingers, eyes, faces, ears and feet. In addition to vaccines, uses for child
biometrics include combatting aid fraud, identifying missing children and
combatting identity theft.
data is increasingly extracted from children through the
miniaturization and personalization of ICT technology. Infant and child
biometrics are often coupled with tracking devices in the form of wristbands,
necklaces, earpieces, and other devices which the users carry for extended
periods of time.
the board, technology initiatives directed at children are usually presented as
progress narratives, with little concern for unintended consequences. In the
economy of suffering, children and infants are always the most deserving
individuals, and life-saving interventions are hard to argue against.
Similarly, the urgency of saving children functions as a call to action that
affords aid and private sector actors room to maneuver with respect to testing
and experimentation. At the same time, the mix of
gadget distribution and data harvesting inevitably become part of a global data
economy, where patterns of structural inequality are reproduced and
the massive technologization of aid targeting children, so far, no critical
thinking has gone into considering the production of children’s digital bodies
in aid. The use of digital technologies creates corresponding “digital bodies”—images, information,
biometrics, and other data stored in digital space—that represent the physical
bodies of populations affected by conflict and natural hazards, but over which
these populations have little say or control. These “digital bodies”
co-constitute our personalities, relationships, legal and social personas—and
today they have immense bearing on our rights and privileges as individuals and
citizens. What is really different about children’s digital bodies? What is the
specific nature of risk and harm these bodies might incur?
non-aid context, critical data researchers and privacy advocates are only just
beginning to direct attention to these practices, in particular to the array of
specific harms they may encounter, including but not limited to the erosion of
question of testing unfinished products on children is deeply contentious: the
possibility that unsafe products may be trialed in fragile and low resource
settings under different requirements than those posed by rich countries is
highly problematic. On the other hand, parachuting and transplanting
digital devices from the global North and East to the global South without any
understanding of local needs, context and adaption practices is—based on the
history of technological imperialism—ineffective, disempowering, a misuse of
resources and, at worst, could further destabilize fragile school systems.
often, in aid tech targeting children, the potential for digital risk and harm
for children is ignored or made invisible. Risk is phrased as an issue of data
security and malfunction and human manipulation of data. Children—especially in
low-resource settings—have few opportunities to challenge the knowledge
generated through algorithms. They also have scant techno-legal consciousness
with respect to how their personal data is being exploited, commodified and
used for decisions about their future access to resources, such as healthcare,
education, insurance, welfare, employment, and so on. There is the obvious risk
of armed actors and other malicious actors accessing and exploiting data; but
there are also issues connected to wearables, tablets and phones being used as
listening devices useful for surveilling the child’s relatives and careers. It
is incumbent on aid actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new
technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during
the response, but long after the emergency ends.
Conclusion: time to
turn to the CRC!
mainstreaming of a combination of surveillance and data extraction from
children now taking place in aid, ranging from education technology to infant
biometrics means that critical discussions of the ethical and legal
implications for children’s digital bodies are becoming a burning issue.
The do no
harm principle is a key ethical guidance post across fields of development,
humanitarianism and global health. The examples above illustrate the need for
investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application
of new technologies in low resource and fragile settings. Practitioners
and academics need to be alert to how the framing of structural problems shifts
to problematizations being amenable to technological innovation and
intervention and the interests of technology stakeholders. But is that
Children’s Rights Convention of 1989 represented a watershed moment in thinking
children’s right to integrity, to be heard and to protection of their physical
bodies. Article 3.1 demands that “In all actions concerning children, whether
undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law,
administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the
child shall be a primary consideration.” Time has now come to articulate and
integrate an understanding of children’s digital bodies in international aid
within this normative framework.
A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on 7
October, took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago
Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on 3
October 2013, when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean
waters when the fishing boat transporting around 500 people sunk a few
hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the
Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in an attempt to reach Europe. What
happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made,
According to the latest figures,
at least 30 people, including an infant, lost their lives on 7 October. Many
are still missing. All the 13 bodies that were initially pulled out of the sea
were women. The survivors have only identified four of them.
Raised anchor in Sfax, the boat got into
trouble a few miles from the coast of Lampedusa. The engine stopped working
properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group
of Sub-Saharan women were sitting with their children. The boat capsized when
approached by the coast guard, pouring all the Sub-Saharans and
Tunisians onboard in the water. Two Tunisian guys told me that, right before
the boat capsized, they have been able to through a pregnant woman on the coast
guard vessel. In the dark water, they said, it was chaos. “People who could not
swim tried to grab us. They can pull you down, they make you drown,” one of
them said. “The only thing you can do is to swim away and reach the
A sense of loss
pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also
for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it.
Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes
humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every
discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by
pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to
welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are
protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is
legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the
Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core
issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought
of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is
right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others
don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the
international mobility) and are denied this basic right.
Open borders is the
only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and,
more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open
borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent
on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and
political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of
political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of
socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European
level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor.
“Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first”
(tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These
discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local
populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in
the past years, often against the will of national governments. But
anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in
history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular
migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations.
Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility
becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and
It is always
illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to
explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that
some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and
care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you
do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we
have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have
deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.
The Norwegian-registered vessel Ocean Viking, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, has recently been at the centre of a debate that has become dominated by one assumption: that search-and-rescue (SAR) operations are encouraging people to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
The logic is problematic for
several reasons, and I will try to address some of them: 1) the statistics
suggest otherwise; 2) it ignores the wider picture – that a range of complex
factors drive people to flee their homes, with some heading towards the
Mediterranean; and 3) the theory is being used to legitimize non-rescue of
boats in distress.
A temptingly simple explanation
The logic has a name, the pull
factor – in other words, that SAR operations contribute to “pull” more people
to attempt the crossing. The power of this idea lies partly in how it provides
a simple and apparently clear-cut explanation for a complex problem — a problem
that we otherwise have a hard time understanding, and even harder time
addressing. It is also powerful because it is difficult to refute: it is hard
to know exactly what makes people decide to embark on this dangerous sea
crossing, and there are probably as many reasons as there are refugees and
In 2004, Erna Solberg, then
Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, argued against a local initiative in Trondheim, which sought
to provide food and accommodation to asylum seekers lacking refugee status.
Solberg claimed that the initiative would “in practice mean unfettered
immigration by people from the Horn of Africa”. Today the idea that any measure
intended to ensure a minimum level of subsistence for refugees or other
migrants will help “pull” more people in the same direction pervades European
policy on migration, from Greece and France to Norway.
The pull factor and SAR operations
particular, the legacy of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum has served to boost
the pull-factor theory about SAR missions in the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum
was established in response to a major shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013,
which was described by high-ranking EU politicians and the Italian president as
a “shame” for Europe. Mare Nostrum was run by the Italian navy as a
“military-humanitarian” operation. The number of refugees and other migrants
who attempted to make the crossing had already begun to rise before the
operation started, and even while Mare Nostrum was saving tens of thousands of
lives at sea, the numbers continued to rise.
quickly concluded that the increase was linked to the presence of the SAR
operation, and that Mare Nostrum was directly and indirectly encouraging more
people to make the crossing. This allegation, which was seen at the time as
controversial, has nonetheless become almost conventional wisdom in today’s
What do the numbers tell us?
researchers have examined the statistical relationship between the numbers of
migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and SAR capacity. One study, conducted by Elias Steinhilper and Rob Gruitjers,
looks at the period between late 2013 and 2017. They divide this period into
three periods: an initial period with high SAR capacity (October 2013 – October
2014); a subsequent period with low SAR capacity following the launch of the
Frontex-led Operation Triton (November 2014 – May 2015); and a third period
with high SAR capacity (Triton II with increased SAR capacity, plus more
vessels operated by NGOs). The numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean
began to increase before Mare Nostrum was implemented, and continued to
increase after it was shut down and throughout the period of low SAR capacity.
In fact, the numbers increased most sharply during the period of low SAR
capacity, rather than during the two periods with high SAR capacity. This same
period also saw the sharpest increase in the number of drownings, compared with
the periods before and after.
still ongoing, study conducted by Matteo
Villa at ISPI in Milan, is examining the number of migrants leaving
Libya in 2019 compared with the availability of SAR vessels on the actual dates
the migrants’ boats left shore. The findings show that the likelihood of boats
leaving Libya is not affected by the availability of SAR vessels, but rather by
wind and weather conditions. Figures from the IOM and UNHCR show that so far
this year, on average, 31 migrants leave shore on days when SAR vessels are
operating, against 41 migrants on days with no SAR vessels.
A narrow perspective
while these figures sow doubt about the existence of any direct link, it is
important to point out that the theory itself, assuming that the availability
of x number of SAR vessels affects the number of people attempting the sea
crossing, is built on a problematic premise. The thinking is based on a very
narrow perspective, which views SAR vessels as a unique factor in a world where
the availability of more or fewer SAR vessels is the sole factor influencing an
apparently inexhaustible number of migrants ready to attempt the crossing. The
wider picture, with its multiple factors that either hinder migration or make
it possible or necessary for people to leave their homes, is too complex to
understand and too difficult to do anything about. This line of thinking posits
NGOs’ activities as the simple explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible
situation, and thereby also the factor that needs to be addressed in order to
resolve the situation.
Humanitarian rhetoric used to legitimize not saving
problem with this hypothesis however is not only that it appears to be
unfounded and based on a narrow perspective, but that it is being used to
legitimize both the closed ports and an active policy of not coming to the
rescue of vessels in distress. There is in fact a duty, enshrined in the
international law of the sea, to provide assistance to vessels in distress and
take the rescued to a safe harbour.
of one’s political standing, it is no easy matter to argue against saving lives
at sea. That is also why many of those advancing this argument. are trying to
prove that SAR operations will “entice” more people to attempt the crossing,
and thereby putting more migrants at greater risk. As such, the policy of
non-rescue is presented as a policy that protects more people from drowning.
hindering the operations of SAR vessels will not save the lives of more
migrants, and it will also not address the complex causes of displacement and
Written by Sean Martin McDonald (Digital Public, FrontlineSMS, Duke Center on Law & Technology, Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab)
Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry, and explores the relationship between the two. This article first appeared on Centre for International Governance Innovation, and is reposted here.
About the author: Sean Martin McDonald is the co-founder of Digital Public, which builds legal trusts to protect and govern digital assets. Sean’s research focuses on civic data trusts as vehicles that embed public interest governance into digital relationships and markets.
summer, the World Food Programme (WFP) — the world’s largest humanitarian
organization — got into a pitched standoff with Yemen’s Houthi government over,
on the surface, data governance. That standoff stopped food aid to 850,000
people for more than two months during the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Essentially, the WFP accused the Houthi government of redirecting aid to fund
the war and insisted that aid recipients participate in a biometric
identity-tracking system. The government responded by accusing the WFP of being
a front for intelligence operations; this was opportune, given the recent controversy over their relationship with Palantir. In the end, the parties agreed to use
the WFP’s fingerprint-based biometric identity system, despite reported flaws. The dispute, of course, wasn’t just
about data — it was about power, trust and the licence to operate.
While they may
seem worlds apart, the humanitarian sector has much to offer to the technology
industry. One of the things humanitarians and technologists have in common is
an extraordinary power to operate. For humanitarians, power takes the form of
an internationally agreed-upon right to intervene in conflicts – for some, with
legal immunity. And technology companies have the ability to project themselves
into global markets without the need for traditional government approval.
In one sense,
they’re opposites. Humanitarians have had to meticulously negotiate the
conditions of their access to conflict zones, based on non-intervention
principles, the terms of host country agreements with governments and,
increasingly, data-sharing agreements. In contrast, technology companies have
mostly enjoyed the freedom to operate globally without much negotiation,
taxation or regulation of any type. But, in recent years (as illustrated by the
WFP example) humanitarian organizations are starting to face the political and
regulatory implications of collecting, using, storing, sharing and deleting
data. Technology companies, it seems, are following the same path; they face
significant public pushback from nearly every corner of the world, from
international standards bodies and antitrust investigations to privacy fines
and class action lawsuits.
organizations have considerable history and experience negotiating for the
licence to operate in political and unstable contexts – which should inform the
people and companies designing data governance systems. Here are five places to
Licence to Operate
and technology companies can, and sometimes do, operate in places where the
government is actively resistant to their presence. While the stakes are often
lower for technology companies, the costs involved in negotiating licence to
operate country-by-country, and the technical complexity of maintaining product
offerings compatible with divergent political contexts, are high. As a result,
most technology companies launch offerings, and then react to, or defend
against governmental and public concerns. That approach is decidedly
opportunist, sacrificing long-term goodwill for short-term gains. Humanitarian
organizations have extensive debates around their right to access affected
populations, and under what conditions they earn that mandate. One thing
humanitarians can teach technology companies is the importance of contextual
negotiations and compromise to improve medium-term sustainability and long-term
The Political Complexity of Neutrality
The technology industry has become a popular political
scapegoat, often coming under fire for all kinds of bias. Technology companies
arbitrate complex social, commercial and political processes, some without any
dedicated operational infrastructure. The larger companies have built trust and
safety teams, content moderation units of varying types, and online dispute
resolution systems — all of which are designed to help users solve problems
related to platforms’ core functions. Each of these approaches has grown
significantly in recent years, but largely to mitigate damage created by the
technology sector itself – and often without transparency or the ability to
organizations, in contrast, are defined by their commitment to several core,
apolitical principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence and to
do no harm. The major humanitarian organizations have built organizations and
reputations for upholding those values, often amid violent conflict, that scale
globally. The technology industry, and in particular those seeking the licence
to provide public digital services or to govern public data — has a significant
amount to learn from the organizational structure of complex humanitarian
an organizational structure that manages common infrastructure and operational
hierarchies. Federation is second nature to technology companies when it comes
to code, but they are just learning how to federate and devolve their
organizational structures. Humanitarian organizations have been working through
devolved, federated organizational structures for decades — the International
Federation of the Red Cross, for example. There is a natural, and well-documented tension between independence and upholding
common standards across networks – especially in technology systems. Yet,
humanitarian organizations have built federated organizations that enable them
to operate globally, while availing themselves of the two most important
aspects of building trust: investment in local capacity and accountability.
In addition to
negotiating a licence to operate with governments, humanitarian organizations
often invest in domestic response capacity, and in recent years, localization
has become a driving strategic imperative. Humanitarians increasingly realize
they need to offer value beyond direct emergency aid, in order to foster more
durable solutions and earn the trust of communities. Technology companies often
make their products available internationally — and they often invest in
countries where they maintain a physical presence, but they rarely set up a
presence for the purposes of investing in local communities or in ways that
extend beyond their business interests. Technology organizations looking to
build trust and public approval in the ways they govern data could learn from
the humanitarian sector’s investments in local capacity, resilience and
humanitarian sector faces a lot of controversy over accountability, their
typical operating practice is to engage in direct negotiations with local
parties, which is different than technology companies, who generally start with
one set of terms they apply globally. The default terms of the technology
industry’s cardinal data governance contracts — terms of service agreements and
privacy policies — enable them to unilaterally change the terms of the
agreement. It’s impossible to rely on the terms of a contract that can change
at the whim of one party – or when the underlying goes bankrupt or gets
acquired. The actors within the technology industry seeking public trust in the
way they manage data can learn from the humanitarian sector about the need for
credible parity between negotiating parties and distributed accountability.
The good news
is that the humanitarian sector and the technology industry are well on their
way to forming deep alliances; the heads of several major humanitarian organizations have placed private sector coordination and co-creation at the centre of their
strategies. The World Economic Forum is laying the foundation for private companies to participate
in international governance bodies. And, private foundations and investors
increasingly play a role in shaping response efforts.
Unfortunately, these relationships may be a double-edged
sword. Technology companies can take advantage of humanitarian organizations’
unique licence to operate to work in regulated spaces, test new products
without repercussions and even justify the creation of invasive surveillance.
This new generation of relationships between the humanitarian organizations and
technology companies offer opportunities for each group to learn from the
other’s structural solutions on problems relating to shared issues of trust,
neutrality and global scale. Let’s hope that the technology industry chooses to
learn from the organizations that have spent the last century building, testing
and scaling organizational structures to deliver the best of humanity.
Gunnar M. Sørbø is a social anthropologist, former director of the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and former Chair of the Board of the NCHS.
This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende, 5 May 2019: Europas nye grensevakter.
Are we supporting a development which ultimately sends even more refugees towards Europe?
More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe during the 2015 refugee crisis, the vast majority arriving either in Greece or Italy. The following year the European Union entered the so-called “EU-Turkey Deal”, a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. The agreement was meant to ensure that migrants and refugees arriving in Turkey, most of whom were fleeing Syria, would remain there, and that migrants making it to Greece would be returned to Turkey.
From a European
perspective, the agreement with Turkey has been successful. Only about 360.000
migrants and refugees arrived by sea in 2016. The arrivals were distributed
quite evenly between Greece and Italy, the two European countries that received
most of the migrants leaving Northern Africa. To ensure that the flow of people
would be further reduced, the EU as well as several singular European countries
made similar bilateral agreements with Libya, and later with countries in the
Sahel region south of Libya: Sudan, Niger and Chad.
Norway is among the
European countries which has intensified its focus on the region over the past
few years. As with other countries, the motivation behind the increased support
has not been limited to stopping large-scale migration, but also to stop the
spread of Islamic terrorism. This type of terrorism affected Norwegians
directly in 2013 when an attack on the Norwegian energy company Statoil’s gas
facility in Algeria resulted in the loss of Norwegian lives.
In Libya, the EU made an agreement with the government in Tripoli. At the time, the
Libyan authorities had limited territorial control and depended on various
militias for survival. Presently, they are fighting the forces of General
Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the eastern part of Libya and is supported by
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Libya has faced political destabilization
since the former head of state Gaddafi lost power and was killed in 2011.
Thus, Italy suggested
to create checkpoints along the border in southern Libya, an area controlled by
militias often in conflict with each other. The countries south of Libya also
tend to have problems controlling their border regions, yet authoritarian heads
of state have promised to exercise migration control in exchange for much
needed financial support from Europe.
This type of “outsourcing”
means that Europe has become entangled with some unusual border guards that are
difficult to control.
In Sudan, the task of controlling migration has to a large extent been
handed to militias allied with the regime in Khartoum. These are the same armed
groups that were responsible for excessive use of force displacing large groups
of people from their homes during the Darfur crisis of 2003-2004. They patrol
the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from travelling north, while
simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the
other side of the border.
The same armed forces (Rapid Support Forces – RSF) have also been active at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. Studies conducted through a joint effort by universities in Sudan and the Chr. Michelsen’s Institute/The University of Bergen show that migrants from Eritrea, Syria and other countries continue to journey through Sudan. However, the migrants are paying a higher price than before, taking new routes, and doing so at a greater risk.
While Sudan has
received support from the EU for “managing” migration, the regime’s brutal
policies and the country’s wrecked economy are contributing to a steady flow of
Sudanese people wanting to leave their own country. In 2014-2016, 9,300
Sudanese arrived in Italy, and in 2017, twenty per cent of those granted political
asylum in France came from Sudan.
A report from the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands (“Multilateral Damage”, 2018) confirms some of the
tendencies we have observed in Sudan. Firstly, new migration routes have
emerged, more dangerous and secretive than before, and therefore also more
expensive and criminalized. The total number of migrants making the journey has
decreased, but evidence suggests that the number of migrant deaths has
Secondly, the overall stability in these countries is threatened as the
number of ungovernable militia groups grow. Some of these armed groups profit
from stopping migrants, others from smuggling migrants northwards, and a
considerable number practice both. In Niger, the ban on migration has disturbed
the fragile balance that was established when the Tuareg and Tubu rebels in the
northern part of the country entered a peace accord with the government.
The local economy has deteriorated,
and new militias have emerged in the border regions. A common denominator for
all these countries is that armed groups outside of the state’s control are
becoming more powerful and constituting a security threat.
Political developments in Sudan during April and May 2019 have led the RSFleader Hemetti to power as second-in-command in the Transitional Military Council (TMC), now participating in talks with the protesters about a new government. In Libya, both parties in the war for the capital Tripoli are depending on alliances with militias. Many of them are keeping migrants and refugees in custody and subjecting them to torture and extortion, before a small number – barely 500 in the first three months of this year – gets transported en route to Europe.
In a desperate plea
for help from the EU, the Libyan Prime Minister is threatening that up to 800,000
people will cross the Mediterranean if Libya were to face political collapse.
This is most likely an overstatement, as there are probably not that many
refugees and migrants wishing to reach Europe from Libya right now, and because
transportation by sea is arranged by mafia-like organizations that may be
dissolved if the political chaos in the country is amplified. Nevertheless, the
prime minister’s statement speaks volumes about the vulnerability of the
agreements that have been made.
Most European countries are aware of the risks associated with
“externalizing” border control, but across Europe the field of migration is
characterized by realpolitik. Lowering the number of migrants and asylum
seekers reaching Europe has become the overarching objective.
We are seemingly becoming
less concerned with the policies’ unintended consequences. This is probably
caused by European migration policies claiming to answer all our concerns: not
just migration, but also security, political stability and terrorism – based on
the assumption that human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms dealings and
terrorism are driven by a conglomerate of mafia-like organizations and that
these are hurting local communities in the affected regions.
However, most people
involved in migrant smuggling do not view themselves as criminals, and their
activities may also create positive ripple effects in many local communities across
Before the overthrow of Gaddafi, when many migrants from other African countries went to work in Libya, assisting migrants was part of the formal economy. Now, the practice is considered criminal. This may result in participants formerly engaged with assisting migrants moving their affairs elsewhere, for instance into activities eroding the state’s control such as revolt and terrorism.
Many European politicians probably recognize that the agreements
that are being made strengthen forces we would rather not be associated with,
whether this is an increasingly authoritarian president in Turkey or militia
groups in the Sahel region.
Yet, the question we must ask ourselves is whether this policy is
sustainable in the long run. I am here thinking not only of the immense human
suffering caused by such policies, but also whether we are supporting a
development which will ultimately push even more people in the direction of
Flying is an important contributor to global warming, and by far
one of the most complicated. There are no signs that flying will be reduced and
technical solutions to reduce carbon emissions are a long way off and not very
feasible. Unlike cars, electric planes are not an option—flying a plane would
require its entire space to be filled with batteries.
The IPCC report that came
out last week is absolutely terrifying. The possibility of retaining global
heating within 1.5 degrees is rapidly disappearing and we are facing global
warming of 2 or even 3 degrees. The report contains convincing evidence of the
devastation of that extra degree on biodiversity, sea level rise, disaster
events, the economy, coral reefs, and so on.
With regards to flying, governments should get their acts
together and start taxing air travel, while investing in alternatives,
especially a huge expansion of fast train networks. But in the meantime, I
think organisations and their employees should also take some level of
The IPCC report comes out in the midst of a scandal over the irresponsible
‘flying behaviour’ of Erik Solheim, the director of the United
Nations Environment Programme, who travels 80% of his time. In the coverage of
the scandal, most attention centred on his flying for private purposes. This
reflects a general view that private flying is a luxury, but business-related
travel is just what needs to be done. But is that really true? I’m pretty sure
that huge cuts could easily be made in business-related air travel.
There is now a call for
environmental guidelines within the UN. What, only now?
Shocking, right? But let’s be honest, the whole aid and development world—the
UN, NGOs, and my own world of academic departments and development
studies—is shamefully late in taking responsibility. For decades, I have not
given my flying behaviour much thought either, and found it normal or at best a
necessary evil to hop on a plane for every piece of research, conference or
I will not go into name-shaming, but I know for a fact that some
of the front runner developmental institutes and think tanks are not using
carbon offsetting for their flights, and have no policy on reducing air travel.
Since a few years back, I have tried to reduce my own air travel. I still have
an oversized ecological footprint, but I fly significantly less than I used to.
I also—cautiously—try to bring up the topic in conversations
with people I work with. Here some experiences:
1) When preparing a lecture at a development institute in the
UK: “Sorry, we are short on budget this year, would you mind taking the
plane rather than the train?”
2) A director of a development department in the Netherlands:
“Sorry, we are too busy. We will consider introducing a policy next year”.
3) A consultant coming over for an assignment: “Really,
is there now a train connecting London to Amsterdam in less than four hours? I
Two further defences are that people start laughing when I raise
this issue, because they consider air travel to be at the core of who we are;
or that they point at real polluters, usually big business or an American
president. Good points, but my reading of the IPCC report is that all of us
need to step up the effort: governments, business, institutions, employees and
I also know many people that refuse to carbon offset because some offset programmes
are open to criticism, or because they find this tokenistic. However,
offsetting is a first step. While the IPCC focuses on the devastation of future
temperature rises, it is absolutely clear that climate change is already
wreaking havoc, especially for poor people in poor countries.
More droughts, floods, fires. More hunger, poverty, and distress
migration. It is a core principle in environmental politics that polluters
should pay. There are a number of offset schemes that take this into account
and use the money they generate for programs that combine livelihoods with
mitigation of carbon emission, for example by protecting the vast peat areas in
the world that contain huge levels of carbon. If only for this reason, a simple
measure such as offsetting every flight you take should not be too much to ask.
But compensation programmes can only ever be a first small step.
Next comes sharply reducing the number of flights we take.
Of course, there are already signs of these changes, and best
practices are rapidly evolving. I have the feeling that NGOs may be ahead of
the game compared to universities and research institutes. We academics may
even be worse than the United Nations or some companies. Some obvious things we
Some NGOs (like Oxfam – see below) have ruled that travel below xx
hours cannot use air travel. I have not yet heard of a single university that
sets such rules.
No more face-to-face job interviews, where applicants are
invited to fly in so that the personal chemistry can be tested.
Organise international conferences of study associations every
three or four years rather than every year.
Get used to teaching and seminars through Skype.
Introduce a rule that planes must be booked well in advance to
avoid that the only available or affordable ticket comes with three stops and
Invest more in identifying and fostering local experts to avoid
I’m sure there are plenty more examples, and would love to hear
suggestions. Taxing carbon use and investing in green transport systems like
fast trains will definitely help to reduce air travel. What we really need,
though, is a change of mentality. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Let’s get ready
for an era where flying is the new smoking. It won’t be long before people who
fly have some awkward explaining to do over the Friday afternoon drinks after