Do not abandon the Afghan people

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This text is based on an op-ed written by Arne Strand (Deputy Director, CMI and Director, U4) and Astri Suhrke (Associated Research Professor, CMI), first published in Bistandsaktuelt. This op-ed has been updated by the authors and translated into English. You can access the original Bistandsaktuelt publication in Norwegian here.

A functional Afghan state requires both humanitarian aid and financial support for a considerable time ahead, and previous investments in social service programs should not be wasted, says Arne Strand and Astri Suhrke. Image credit: DVIDSHUB licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Afghanistan is facing a combined political and humanitarian crisis. A new escalation of the conflict will be detrimental to the many Afghans who are still heavily reliant on aid, says Arne Strand and Astri Suhrke.

The Taliban control Kabul and almost all of the country. Western embassies and some humanitarian aid workers have been evacuated. Meanwhile, the UN and the Norwegian Refugee Council, among others, have reminded us of the desperate plight of many Afghans.

The new political situation has produced new challenges for aid organisations, in both the short- and long-term, that call for realism, but also dialogue, commitment and a solid dose of strategic pragmatism.

The political situation changed dramatically from an ongoing discussion regarding a possible solution between the opposing parties when President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul. The Taliban was suddenly in possession of both political and military power; with control on the ground in Kabul they had presumed authority over the state. The situation materialised quicker than anticipated, and much remains uncertain regarding the Taliban’s politics and vision for the state and government.

The first signs from the Taliban political administration are uplifting. They claim they will give amnesty to their enemies and include women in the government. They say that girls have the right to education and women to work, as long as it is consistent with Islam and Sharia. The signals could be tactical; many dare not believe in Taliban promises given their past record. Some choose to join the military and political opposition that had been declared in Panjshir Valley.

Need to strengthen the Afghan state apparatus

It is unclear to what degree the central leadership can control the commanders in the rest of the country. The Taliban is a decentralised organisation where military commanders have relative strong autonomy in their respective territories. Yet they accepted the temporary ceasefire that the leadership declared and did not attack international soldiers during their withdrawal.

The Taliban is an Islamic movement that will rely on a traditional and conservative interpretation of Islam in the execution of the state power they now hold. To run a functional state of Afghanistan, more is needed. There is a need for both internal and external legitimacy, skilled bureaucrats, and professionals in central and local state administrations. There is a need for both the presence of aid organisations and financial support over time.

There are some positive signals. Several governments have indicated they will continue to provide humanitarian support via the UN and major international NGOs. A UN-sponsored conference to secure funding for humanitarian assistance is schedule to be held in Geneva on September 13. The questions is if it will be enough, and if it will be more than a temporary band aid.

Afghanistan is facing a desperate situation on many fronts – humanitarian, development and rights. The difficulties have been compounded by large internal migration, a continuous drought, a pandemic that is out of control, as well as the consequences of the escalating armed conflict earlier this year. Nepotism and corruption in the state apparatus weakened programs to address the human toll. Health workers reportedly had not been paid for several months.

The UN and other organisations have long issued  warnings about of the situation. A large part of the population – approximately 47 percent in 2020 – are living below the poverty line. Without aid, this percentage will drastically increase. It is estimated that 16 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The Norwegian Refugee Council earlier this year stated that there were 3.5 million internally displaced persons; the number is undoubtedly higher today. Many have arrived in Kabul during the last weeks and need acute emergency aid. Although the armed conflict has ended, many will not dare to go home immediately.

To avoid a humanitarian crisis, there is a need for both financial support and people on the ground. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that earlier investments, especially programs built up over the past years in health and education, are maintained. Although many international aid workers have left the country, Afghan aid workers are present. Many have experience that will be essential in negotiating and cooperating with the Taliban locally, especially in matters of conflicting understanding of rights,  principles and program criteria of effectiveness. It is important to note that during the first Taliban emirate – in the late 1990s – the Taliban registered around 250 Afghan NGOs and a large number of educated Afghans went to work for these aid organisations. It is a pattern that may be repeated.

UNICEF-agreement is opening for education

Future aid programs will likely also build on agreements developed over the past decade between international humanitarian and aid actors and the Taliban for work in areas controlled or influenced by the Taliban. In 2007, agreements for running community schools were made, based on multiparty cooperation among the Taliban at the central and local level, the government Ministry of Education, UNICEF, and local traditional authorities. Last year’s agreement between UNICEF and the Taliban on education followed this model. Such arrangements in turn draw on experiences from the 1990’s. Back then, a German NGO supported schools with 10 000 students in Kabul. Half of the students were girls. The Swedish Afghanistan Committee reported agreement with the Taliban’s ministry of education that enabled them to support schools with 200 000 students, of which 37 000 were girls. The Norwegian Church Aid financed a range of local schools, also for girls.  

UNICEF’s agreement and similar arrangements are obviously based on the condition of external financing and a degree of Taliban control over the curriculum and recruitment of teachers. A continuation of such cooperation may be the easiest way to keep rural schools running in the transition period – which could be long.

This model may also be relevant for other sectors, especially within health and higher education. After assuming governmental power, the Taliban have consistently requested foreign assistance and recently stressed they would provide security for humanitarian workers. Their spokesman has already declared in their first press conference in Kabul that they are more than willing to speak with donor countries to boost the economy and rebuild the country. They also said that developments could go through community organisations. This could be an option for countries who are skeptical to channel aid through the Taliban-government.

Cooperation will be easier for all parties if the government ministries keep their staff. The WHO early on declared it would cooperate with the ministry of health, which was made easier because the Taliban encouraged the previous minister to continue. If such pragmatic solutions are chosen at the province and district level, as the Taliban did last time they were in control, much activity could start.

Some donor countries will cut aid, or possibly prioritise neighbouring countries that are receiving refugees, as the German Foreign Minister initially declared. The UN’s humanitarian organisations are ready to continue. UNICEF has stated they will remain, and large humanitarian NGO’s such as MSF (Doctors Without Borders) have stated that they are in place. But for more extensive engagements, especially where humanitarianism crosses into development aid, political will is required first and foremost to engage with the new Taliban administration.

Taliban’s promises are met with distrust

A diverse government that includes women and minorities will make international cooperation more feasible, but it is unclear whether this will happen. The general inclination of most political parties to rely primarily on their own cadres or close affiliates when forming a government is in this case reinforced by decades of warfare and deep socio-political divisions in the country, as well as the apparent strong sense among the Taliban of forming a distinct movement.

Both within and outside the country, there is a lot of distrust in the Taliban. The US, IMF and several donor countries reacted initially by suspending financial transactions. Members of the defeated government mobilised the military and asked for help internationally in their fight against “terrorists”. The resistance in the Panjshir Valley was by early September hard pressed militarily by the Taliban and both sides agreed to talk. Demonstrations in the cities continued intermittently, however. There were shootings in Kabul and other cities when people wanted to switch the white emirate-flag with the Afghan flag.

Women’s and human rights activists are skeptical about the rights that women have been promised. By early September, women in three major cities – Kabul, Herat and Mazaar – were demonstrating. Some protest marches were forcefully broken up by the Taliban. A strict enforcement on media coverage or social media could trigger further demonstrations in cities.

More generally, there is a concern that the Taliban will not keep their promise of amnesty to those who worked for the previous regime and will strike back at them or prevent them from leaving the country, as happened to the Taliban after they were forced out in 2001.

The possibilities for sharp disagreements and conflict are numerous. Western countries could well be tempted to respond by tightening political sanctions and refusing all but basic humanitarian aid in order to force the Taliban to change. Experience from the last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan was that such pressures had a counter-productive effect by further isolating the movement and galvanizing its determination not to yield to foreign dictates. Moreover, a new round of escalation and sanctions will not help the many Afghans that are still strongly dependent on foreign aid.

Contingency planning in the Digital Age: Biometric data of Afghans must be reconsidered

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This blog was first published on the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) blog and is available here.

The situation in Afghanistan changes by the minute. In this blog post, we want to call attention to a largely overlooked issue: protection of Afghan refugees or other Afghans who have been registered biometrically by humanitarian or military agencies. Having collected biometrics from various parts of the Afghan population, for different purposes and with different technical approaches, recent events teach us a vital lesson: both the humanitarian and the military approach come with significant risks and unintended consequences.

Image: Cpl. Reece Lodder/United States Marine Corps

Normally, humanitarian biometrics and military biometrics are considered separate spheres. Yet, as we show in this piece, looking at military and humanitarian biometric systems in parallel gives a strong indication that the use of biometrics in intervention contexts calls for reconsideration. Neither anonymized nor identifiable biometric data is a ‘solution’ but rather comes with distinct risks and challenges.

Afghanistan, UNHCR and biometrics: risks of wrongfully denying refugees assistance

As embassies in Afghanistan are being evacuated and employees of international humanitarian agencies wonder how much longer they will be able to work, contingency plans are drawn up: Will there be population movements, will there be camps for IDPs in Afghanistan or for refugees across borders? How will they be registered? How will they be housed? Contingency planning will help save lives.

Future planning must learn from experiences of the past. In the case of Afghanistan those are dire. More than forty years ago, on Christmas Eve in 1979, the Soviet Army invaded the country. Afghans began fleeing and sought refuge across nearby borders. Numbers swelled progressively. A decade later there were more than five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran. The departure of Soviet troops was followed by continued civil war and the reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.

A US-led coalition of Western powers dislodged the Taliban regime after the 9/11 attacks in New York. This was the starting point for the international community to invest in the return of Afghan refugees to their home country. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was tasked with organizing the return and found itself facing several challenges, including limited financial and technical capacities, and problems linked to the sheer number of persons to be repatriated. While UNHCR started to develop and operate large-scale automated registration systems already in the 1990s, these were not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with several million people. At the time, nobody had such systems. Registration was eventually outsourced to Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Refugees were given Proof of Registration (PoR) cards issued by the Pakistani government. Another problem was the integrity of the voluntary return programme. Donors provided funds to UNHCR for the agency to disburse significant cash grants to Afghan refugees as incentives to return. But how could they ensure that nobody would come forward more than once to claim allowance? There was no precedent. UNHCR was charting new territory and testing new approaches.

A ‘solution’ was offered by an American tech company: Biometrics. A stand-alone system was set up. The iris patterns of every returning refugee above the age of 12 – later the age of 6 – was scanned and stored in a biometrics database. Intending to protect the privacy of these individuals, each refugee’s iris image was stored anonymously. The belief was that the novel biometric system would comply with data privacy standards if the iris images were stored anonymously. The system operates ‘one to many matches’, meaning that one iris image is matched against the numerous iris images stored in the database to search for a potential match. This means that a returning refugee would only receive a cash grant if their iris could not be found in UNHCR’s new biometric database. If the iris was found in the database, this was taken to mean that the person had already received a cash grant earlier and repatriation assistance was thus denied. Millions of Afghans received their allowances, and left images of their iris in UNHCR’s biometric database. Today, the total number of images in this database stands at well above four million.

Fifteen years after its introduction it was discovered that while this novel system was designed with good intentions of providing privacy protection to iris-registered returnees, it had unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box: automated decision-making without any possibility of recourse. If the biometric recognition system would produce a false positive match (i.e., mistakenly matching the iris scan of a new returnee with one already registered in UNHCR’s database) – which statistically is possible, even likely – there was no way this returnee could prove that the machine’s false match was in fact wrong. Since all scans are stored anonymously, a person cannot prove that the iris in UNHCR’s database belongs to someone else, even though that is a likely scenario for a system being tested on an unprecedented scale. Likewise, no UNHCR staff can overturn the decision of the machine. Thus, by default, the machine is always ‘right’. This logic risks turning the intended aim of privacy protection into a problem, namely denying assistance to returnees who rightfully claim repatriation cash grants from UNHCR.

This system has never been replicated elsewhere. UNHCR has modernized its global registration systems in recent years and continues to use iris scanning and other biometric identifiers. In its current system, each image is linked to a person and can be checked in case of doubt. Such system designs are, however, not unproblematic either.

US military and identifiable biometrics in the hands of the Taliban: risk of reprisals

As embassies in Afghanistan are being evacuated, not only are many vulnerable individuals left behind, but also biometric identification devices have been left. Indeed, not only UNHCR but also the US military has been collecting biometrics, though from very different parts of the Afghan population. This includes biometric data (i) from Afghans who have worked with coalition forces and (ii) from individuals encountered ‘in the field’. In both cases biometrics were for example used by the US military to check the identity of these individuals against biometrics stored in the US DoD’s Biometric-Enabled Watchlist containing biometrics from wanted terrorists, among others. As news have circulated about the Taliban getting their hands on biometric collection and identification devices left behind, and on the sensitive biometric data that these devices contain, an assessment of the situation, the risks, and the lessons is called for. What will the Taliban do with this data and with these devices? Will they for example use it to check whether an individual has collaborated with coalition forces?

If that is the case, it could have detrimental repercussions for anyone identified biometrically by the Taliban. The Taliban regime of course cannot check the iris scans and fingerprints of all individuals throughout Afghanistan. Yet, as we have seen in many other contexts, including humanitarian access, biometric checks could be introduced by the Taliban when Afghans for example cross a checkpoint moving from one region to another, or request access to hospitals or other government assistance. Would someone then decide not to go to hospital in fear of being identified by the Taliban as a friend of their coalition enemy? Or, as Welton Chang, chief technology officer at Human Rights First noted, the biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan that the Taliban now likely have access to, could also be used “to create a new class structure – job applicants would have their bio-data compared to the database, and jobs could be denied on the basis of having connections to the former government or security forces.”

There are many worst case-scenarios to think through and to do our utmost to avoid, and there are many actors who should see this as a call to revise their approaches to the collection and storing of biometric data. Besides the two examples above, it can for example also be added that as part of its migration management projects worldwide, IOM has in recent years supported the Population Registration Department within the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA) in the digitalization of paper-based ID cards (“Tazkiras”). The main objective of the project is the acceleration of the identity verification process and to establish an identity verification platform. Once operational, the platform can be accessed by external government entities dependent on identity verification for provision of services. Since 2018, more than two million Afghan citizens were issued a Tazkira smartcard which is linked to a biometric database. The IOM project also supports the Document Examination Laboratory under the Criminal Investigation Department of MoIA in upgrading their systems and knowledge base on document examination.

What should be done? Access denied or data deleted

While this blogpost cannot possibly allude to all the various cases that involve biometrics in Afghanistan, it seems that a diverse range of actors, that all have collected biometric data from Afghans over the past 20 years, need to undertake an urgent risk assessment, ideally in a collective and collaborative manner. On that basis a realistic mitigation plan should be developed. How can access for example be denied or data deleted?

We do not know what will happen next in Afghanistan. Should the situation develop in a way that will see a new wave of refugees into Pakistan, UNHCR’s stand-alone iris system loses its relevance because the new refugees could well be those four million who returned during the past 19 years, and whose biometric data UNHCR has already processed once before and keeps in its database. In such a scenario, the database would serve no purpose and preparations should be made to destroy it in line with the Right to be Forgotten. Indeed, there is consensus among many human and digital rights specialists that individuals have the right to have private information removed from Internet searches and other directories and databases under certain circumstances. The concept of the Right to be Forgotten has been put into practice in several jurisdictions, including the EU. Biometric data is considered a special category of particularly sensitive data whether it is stored anonymously or not. As opposed to ID cards and passports, a biometric identity cannot be erased: you will always carry your fingerprint and iris. In fact, the main legal basis for the processing of sensitive personal data is the explicit informed consent of the concerned individual.

Another lesson for future reference should be the understanding that neither anonymized nor unanonymized biometric data provide easy technological solutions. None of the above approaches can be replicated in future war or interventions without serious reconsideration, including questions about whether and why the data is needed and careful attention to whether it should be deleted? Hence, this is the moment for UNHCR, as the global protection agency, to review and showcase its learnings from this project. It is time to show respect for the digital rights of those who have certainly never consented that their biometric data be maintained in a database beyond the point of usefulness.

One advantage of seeing this humanitarian biometric system in parallel with US military use, and other uses of biometrics in Afghanistan, is that together these examples powerfully illustrate some of the many challenges confronting the at times stubborn belief in biometrics as a solution, making challenges visible from many different ’user’ perspectives. Anonymous data is not a solution (as per the UNHCR example), nor is unanonymized data (as per the US military example). What should we do then? What do both ‘failures’ mean for how to think about the use of biometrics in future interventions, humanitarian and military.

Having stored this data for almost two decades, and now concluding that this effort was potentially not just useless, but more seriously risked producing additional insecurity – e.g. to Afghans wrongfully denied humanitarian assistance – should signpost the need to reconsider the taken-for-granted assumption that the more biometrics are collected from refugees the better. This should be a starting point to review the risks of identification of data traceable to individuals and that of anonymous data. So far we have paid attention to refugee digital bodies and digital dead bodies – but what about abandoned digital bodies?

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen holds a PhD in International Relations from Lancaster University. She is a Senior Researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. Her research focuses on security and intervention. 

Karl Steinacker is an expert on issues relating to forced migration, humanitarian aid and digital identity and trust. He has worked in the aid and development industry for more than 30 years, including four different UN agencies and the German Humanitarian Aid. As a manager and diplomat of the UNHCR, he was for several years in charge of registration, biometrics, and the digital identity of refugees. He currently works as Digital Advisor for the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC).

The chants of “Allahu Akbar” in the streets of Afghanistan

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Life in Afghanistan, as in Thomas Hobbes’ memorable description, can be poor, nasty, brutish and short – especially nowadays. The Taliban’s relentless military campaign in just the last two months have resulted in the capture of more than half of the country’s roughly four hundred rural districts. Although, the Afghan government has been able to recapture a few lost districts, the dynamic of the conflict has changed dramatically, possibly irrevocably.

Civilians in rural areas have been frequently subjected to military and police violence in the last twenty years in the context of US-NATO-Afghan government counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. At the time, foreign forces relied on a variety of paramilitary groups, including Afghan Local Police (ALP), government-backed local militias and Counter-Terrorism Pursuit Teams (also known as Afghan Strike Forces), Afghan auxiliaries secretly funded and supported by the CIA and US Special Forces and used in search operations and night raids to kill or capture Taliban insurgents and members of Al Qaeda or Islamic State, actions which often resulted in harm to civilians.

The current phase of conflict, however, has shifted the dynamics of militarised violence from rural areas, where the seesaw nature of the battle, involving fighting between government forces and Taliban insurgents over the control of rural districts, to populated urban areas, to the towns and cities of the northwest, northeast, south and southwest, where the most unfortunate ones ended up living in internally displaced camps while those with family connections found shelter with friends and relatives.

The plight of civilians in heavily populated urban areas is especially worrying given the recent Taliban onslaught on cities and provincial centres. Civilians in provincial towns like Lashkargah in southern Helmand province are bearing the brunt as the fighting has worsened. Media reports show that local residents are trapped inside their homes while fighting between government forces and Taliban insurgents rages on in the streets. Dead bodies, including of young children litter the streets as people are too afraid to venture out and collect the dead.

With thousands already displaced, the government has urged the residents of Lashkargah to evacuate their homes as security forces prepare to launch a clearance operation against insurgents holed up inside the city. Taliban and government ground offensives and especially airstrikes by the Afghan National Army – and in the last couple of days by the US Air Force using the much feared long-range B-52 bombers and C-130 gunships – are causing the most harm to civilians but also damage vital infrastructure including homes, shops and health facilities. The intensification of violence in urban areas, and greater reliance on air power, as the last twenty years of conflict have shown, is likely to result in increased civilian casualties.

The logic of the law of armed conflict or International Humanitarian Law is also being lost in the intensity of the many battles being fought between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents. Senior Afghan army commanders, politicians and their army of Twitter trolls are openly calling for no quarter to be given to Taliban fighters. The Taliban have been accused of carrying out summary executions of Afghan soldiers who chose to surrender to the group. There have also been reports of forced disappearances and revenge killings by the Taliban in Kandahar and Ghazni.

The West’s Humanitarian Diplomacy in action

The so-called international community, unable or unwilling to do more, have resorted to issuing frantic declarations urging the warring parties to stop fighting, respect human rights and protect the civilian population. Confronted with Taliban unwillingness to heed such warnings, US and European diplomats have resorted to publicly shaming the Taliban into respect for human rights. In a moral travesty fast becoming the norm, the British Embassy in Kabul in a Twitter message condemned the Taliban’s disregard for Afghan lives in recent bouts of fighting and chastised the group that ‘this was not how legitimate powers or governments behave’.

Such statements, prematurely confirming diplomatic recognition on the Taliban, were preceded by public statements by some Western politicians indicating that their governments will be willing to work with the Taliban in the event of capturing governmental power. There has also been a flurry of diplomatic activities in the region as Afghanistan’s neighbours, near and far, hosted Taliban delegations urging the group to not allow terrorists groups of concern to these powers to operate from Afghanistan against their interests (for example, the anti-China East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM).

Statements and actions of this sort demonstrates to Afghans that most Western governments who until recently were heavily invested in Afghanistan, both militarily and in the form of civilian aid, have already written off the beleaguered Afghan government as talk of Afghanistan collapsing into more violence and civil war take centre stage.

Re-bordering Afghanistan

The UN estimated that 40 people were killed and more than one hundred were injured in a single day of recent fighting in Lashkargah in Helmand province. UN pleas to the warring parties to stop the fighting and negotiate peace have so far fallen on deaf ears. To the northwest, the Taliban already control most of the rural districts in Herat province as well as the two key border crossing points to Iran and Turkmenistan. Having cut off the provincial centre, the insurgents have amassed their forces for a final push to capture Herat city. It has an estimated population of half a million people and is considered one of Afghanistan’s five key political and economic regional hubs.

The beleaguered government forces with the aid of local militias and former mujahideen fighters have so far managed to prevent the Taliban’s takeover of this key provincial capital in the northwest. The fall of Herat, if it happens, will be a major blow to both public trust in the government and the morale of the Afghan security forces. The situation in Kandahar is even worse. There, the Taliban managed to capture Spin Boldak, the border district with Pakistan (and the border crossing). They have also breached the city defences and are currently fighting government forces inside the city. The fall of Kandahar, where the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s and which they consider as their spiritual capital, will be a huge loss for the government which will further embolden the Taliban to push for the capture of the capital Kabul. 

While until recently civilians displaced by conflict in rural villages and districts typically sought safety by relocating to big cities like Kandahar (south), Mazar-i-Sharif (north), Herat (west), Jalalabad (east) and Kabul (central), the recent expansion of fighting to the proximity and sometimes inside major population centres such as Kandahar city and Herat city have further eroded the safety mechanisms open to Afghan civilians caught in the throes of conflict. With border crossings to neighbouring countries either under Taliban control or the scene of frequent fighting between government and insurgents, Afghanistan’s neighbours have thrown a security cordon around the country, involving fencing of borders and deployment of additional border guards, making it almost impossible for civilians to flee conflict and seek refuge outside their country.

Everyday existence for Afghan civilians, already battered by decades of conflict, has become even more brutal in recent weeks. The current upsurge in violence and the spread of fighting to major urban population centres such as Herat, Kandahar, Helmand and Kunduz – have turned these urban oases, where previously those fleeing the war in their villages sought refuge and safety, into death traps. With the adjoining districts and border crossings now in insurgent hands, Afghan civilians are trapped inside the cities while the Taliban push forward. The dramatic upsurge in violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians inside the country, men like my friend Habib from the northern Kunduz province. As the fighting got closer to his family home, he had to abandon it and now lives with relatives in Kabul. Besieged for months, Kunduz city finally fell to the Taliban on Sunday.

With the siege of cities and closing of borders, Afghanistan is literally being turned into an open-air prison for civilians while different armed groups continue to intensify the violence threatening their lives and livelihoods. Unwelcome by neighbours, Afghans in urban areas may very well be forced to repeat the displacement dynamics seen in the early 1990s when fighting among rival mujahideen factions forced civilians to abandon their homes in cities and seek refuge with relatives in their ancestral villages and rural districts, where they were often unwelcomed as their arrival put pressure on limited resources such as shelter, food, jobs, land and water. 

Orientalising Afghanistan

While the reality is grim enough, there has been much alarmist reporting from Afghanistan to the effect that now that foreign forces are withdrawing, Afghans are fleeing their country fearing Taliban violence. In some ways this kind of orientalist ‘representation’ of Afghanistan has fed into self-serving official narratives in the US, especially the US military in its earlier reluctance to fully withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The anticipated doomsday scenario following US troops withdrawal – a repeat of the early 1990s when factional militias viciously fought each other for the control of Kabul and other parts of the country or the possibility of Taliban military takeover of power and the flight of Afghans from cities – has generated highly problematic imaginaries that portray US and NATO forces as agents of civilised order whose presence was desired to save Afghanistan from Taliban ‘barbarians’ or gangs of ethnic warlord militias.

For these reasons it was less than comforting for me to watch so many enlightened Afghans opposing the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, as if Afghan voices or desires really mattered to the Americans. Granted, many were doing it because of legitimate concerns about the future of their country and their own safety. For example, there has been a vicious campaign of violence targeting Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community, which has been described in terms of a genocide. However, the irony of this discourse is that it wrongly portrays American troops as liberators and protectors of Afghans, or to paraphrase it in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s terms, the withdrawal narrative can be understood as a case of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. This is of course deeply disconcerting given the role of American forces in the war, in militarising Afghan society, and especially its diplomatic efforts in the context of the botched peace process which many Afghans see as indirectly facilitating the return of the Taliban to power.

Abandoned by the world, Afghans turn to Allah

As fears of more violence grip Afghanistan and hopes of a political settlement gradually disappear, and with the rest of the world silently watching Afghans kill and maim one another, Afghans in Herat poured into the streets chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’, God is Great. A few days later the same cries were heard in the streets and alleys of Kabul, Khost, Nangarhar, Bamyan and Daikundi – it is quickly turning into a national phenomenon. With fighting entering the cities, Afghans are coming to the realisation that they are truly on their own now. The world seems to have washed its hands of Afghanistan and its problems. It is now up to Afghans themselves to ‘save’ their own country. In a sense, it represents a moment of hope for those of us who viewed the country’s military and economic dependence on NATO countries as morally and politically problematic. Yet, it is extremely difficult to ignore the severity of the military and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan right now.

The chants of Allahu Akbar have been associated with popular rejection of the Taliban and support for Afghan security forces who are fighting the Taliban to prevent the fall of key provincial centres to the insurgents – in the last three days four such provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. However, there is another, more humble, human side to these religious chants. To my mind, they symbolise the pain of a population battered by four decades of military violence. They speak to the utter loss of hope for peace and fears of an impending disaster among ordinary Afghans.

It is only all too human to seek refuge in God when the human capacity to cope with adversity is overwhelmed. When something is beyond our human ability to manage, we call for divine intervention in human affairs. Sceptical minds will continue to ask if God is even listening. The faithful among us will blame human wickedness and our own depravity for the current state to justify God’s abandonment of his creation – and His wrath as a deserving punishment for our collective failures.

Aziz Hakimi is an Associated Senior Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute.

What is killing humanitarian aid workers?

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Late into a stifling Khartoum night, I sat glued to my phone. I was tracking the desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt to rescue my friend and counterpart as head of the United Nations mission in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello. I knew many of the 22 who were killed by an Al-Qaeda bomb on that August 19th, 2003. This is now commemorated as World Humanitarian Day, honouring all aid workers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of humanity.

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An MSF health worker examines a malnourished child. Image credit: UK Department for International Development/CC BY 2.0

Last month, three Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff in Tigray joined a lengthening list of deaths. The Aid Worker Security Database records over 6,000 casualties since 1997. This is no doubt an underestimate as many assaults are not notified.

Over the past decade, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the most dangerous locations. But relief work can be risky anywhere. In 2020, there were 276 major attacks across 40 countries, 108 frontline workers were killed, 242 wounded and 125 kidnapped.

The means of killing reflect contemporary forms of fighting. Humanitarian workers have been beaten, stabbed and shot. They’ve also faced shelling, explosives and aerial bombardment. Survivors often carry the long-term burden of post-traumatic psychosocial dysfunction.

In the pandemic age, an extra twist has been added. Disgruntlement with social restrictions, financial burdens and fears around COVID-19 and Ebola have put humanitarian health workers in the cross-hairs.

Has the humanitarian enterprise got more dangerous?

Armed conflicts have shifted from fewer set-piece confrontations between states to numerous and confused confrontations among many types of state and non-state armed groups. These extract more casualties among civilians because they are increasingly targetted. In contrast, today’s soldiers are better protected in their armour. Or they sit behind computer screens, launching missiles and drones from a safe distance.

In contrast, there are more and more aid workers at chaotic frontlines. They are pushed by social expectations to ensure that all suffering is relieved. They face a number of other challenges too. These include fierce funding competition among humanitarian organisations, a sceptical public seeking hard evidence of suffering, and a jaded media that needs more reality reporting.

As more aid workers tread in places previous ones did not dare, it is unsurprising if some come to harm.

The impact of protection provisions?

In theory, this is a manageable risk, as the sanctity of humanitarians is recognised by customary norms in all cultures. These are further codified into specific provisions to protect aid workers. For instance, in the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, UN Security Council Resolutions, and national criminal laws.

Additionally, the humanitarian business is more professionalised nowadays through risk assessments, special equipment, security protocols and training.

Unfortunately, the perverse effect is not to reduce risk but to transfer it. That happens when ultra-cautious employers keep back expatriates and push local staff to take their place. Between 80% and 90% of those killed or injured are nationals. They are less well protected, paid and insured, and their families are compensated less generously. At a time of much debate on “decolonising aid”, this raises uncomfortable ethical questions.

Is eroding trust placing humanitarians in danger?

In any case, neither laws nor tools guarantee safety if the basis of trust which underpins the humanitarian endeavour is eroded. Research indicates widespread suspicion of the motives and practices of international humanitarianism. This is not helped by disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theorists.

Unfortunately, there is occasional substance behind the smoke that poisons the public mind. For example, security operatives under cover of a fake humanitarian vaccination programme managed to kill Osama bin Laden. According to the Guardian investigation, the vaccination was a cover for obtaining the DNA of his family during the gathering of intelligence to establish whether Bin Laden was indeed living in that compound. It was not used to get soldiers into the compound during the actual kill mission.

But this endangered normal vaccinators and undermined polio eradication in Pakistan. In neighbouring Afghanistan, joint military-civilian “hearts and minds” operations have exposed humanitarian workers and their beneficiaries to Taliban attacks. There is a polarised debate among humanitarians on the appropriateness of armed escorts for relief convoys and operations.

The humanitarian mission depends on free access anywhere to anybody in desperate need. But this consensus is undermined when there are perceived double standards that betray the bedrock humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

For example, the UN Security Council has been clashing over cross-border access to Syria while Tigray’s 5.2 million hungry, hurt and displaced have yet to receive formal attention by either the UN Security Council or the African Union.

Global humanitarian assistance appeals are often skewed in favour of crises that achieve political or public prominence and not on the objective basis of need. Under such circumstances – when humanitarian aid is used by world powers for political leverage – and the hard-pressed victims of brutalities can’t be assured of fair treatment, why should aid workers be especially respected and protected?

Meanwhile, amid a growing culture of impunity, combatants are emboldened to behave badly because there are rarely any prosecutions and sanctions for violations of humanitarian laws. This a direct risk to aid workers who happen to be in the wrong place.

Of course, every aid worker lost in the crossfire of a conflict is a tragedy. When they are deliberately targeted, it is an outrage. But, considering the inconsistencies and discontent around modern humanitarian policies and practices, what is noteworthy is not the numbers killed but their relative rarity.

It appears that the protection of genuine humanitarians ultimately rests on the integrity of their actions, underpinned by a universal instinctive belief in the sanctity of humanitarian work. Undermining that through manipulating the humanitarian enterprise for other ends is the most important risk faced by all Good Samaritans.

A version of this blog also appeared on The Conversation and can be accessed here. This blog is published here with the permission of the author.

The time of the humanitarian diplomat

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Image: CDC Global Health. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Many humanitarians cringe at the thought of being categorised as diplomats. After all, isn’t being a diplomat something political that humanitarians are not supposed to be?  Whereas some humanitarian workers remain skeptical or at least prudent, others believe there is an intrinsic added value in seeing their work through the lens of humanitarian diplomatic thinking and practices.

Humanitarian diplomacy can be described, in short, as advancing humanitarian interests and aims by diplomatic means. A commonly used definition is that of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC): persuading decision makers and opinion leaders to act, at all times, in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles. These humanitarian principles, namely humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, form a common ideological framework for many international humanitarians, particularly for those working in a traditional, sometimes referred to as Dunantist (after the Red Cross founder Henry Dunant), paradigm.

Given that diplomacy is most commonly understood as a state-initiated activity, it is seen as inherently political. Indeed, state diplomacies represent a wide variety of competing national, security, economic and foreign policy interests, among others. How, then, does humanitarianism fit in? First of all, diplomacy is a plural set of experiences that goes beyond the state dimension. The phenomenon of diplomacy has significantly expanded in recent history concomitantly with other trends, such as globalisation, multilateralism and technological advancement. State-related diplomacy is not able to tackle all of today’s multifaceted issues – such as climate change, refugee flows or Covid-19. Given this current need for a multidimensional and plural understanding of diplomacy, it could be helpful to trace the definition of diplomacy back to its original meaning: representing one polity to another polity.

Humanitarian actors are among such polities. In a world of disasters, emergencies and crises, humanitarianism is not a given, but exists in a context. Within its context, humanitarianism’s main purpose is to regenerate its claims and aims, which traditionally are alleviating unnecessary human suffering and safeguarding bare life. The humanitarian polity stands against other polities, such as those that are driving armed conflicts, which are estimated to create about 80 percent of the world’s humanitarian needs.

Humanitarians negotiate access to aid at various levels. Among other humanitarian activities they try to obtain ceasefires and to build humanitarian corridors; they lobby for respect of international humanitarian laws and pursue actions that protect civilians. By doing so, they simultaneously represent the humanitarian polity, which means, in practice, that they create and engage in humanitarian diplomacy. These humanitarian diplomatic engagements occur at all levels and they are inherently interconnected: frontline negotiations play a role in local dynamics which affect high-level humanitarian diplomatic engagement, which then traces back to and reflects operational field interventions.

At the core of all this are the practitioners themselves, the humanitarian diplomats. Whereas several reluctantly adhere to the label or recognise it as a professional category, their opinion might not matter in the action itself: at times other stakeholders, such as national governments and armed groups, force humanitarians to engage in diplomacy in a traditional manner in order to fulfil humanitarian operational aims. Given that humanitarians are expected to represent the humanitarian polity as the main reason for their existence, and they are forced to use traditional diplomatic means such as dialogue, negotiation and compromise, it is important to recognise more explicitly the role of the humanitarian diplomat.

Humanitarian diplomacy aligns in particular with the professionalisation of the international humanitarian field against other forms of humanitarianism that are more directly linked to grassroots initiatives and volunteering (although negotiations are always a component of humanitarian work in these areas too). International humanitarianism is an increasingly structured field with educational paths and professional careers, guidelines and manuals, and standard operating procedures. Humanitarian diplomacy goes in parallel with and is often acknowledged in humanitarian organisations’ strategies and policies. Therefore, knowing how to use diplomatic approaches is an essential professional skill for contemporary humanitarians. However, at its current stage humanitarian diplomacy and its practices remain under-explored in terms of transferrable skills and they lack related knowledge-management. Unlocking this potential may translate into increased organisational efficiency and effectiveness, something that no humanitarian organisation can afford not to tap into.

Clearly, seeing humanitarians as diplomats rather than advocates, promoters or supporters changes the tactics and perspectives necessary in current operational contexts. Ongoing humanitarian emergencies such as those in Syria or Yemen are prolonged and complex. Understanding such situations, with all their inherent political dimensions, implies recognising the situated, interconnected and multilayered nature of conflict and crisis. Humanitarian diplomacy can be seen as a crucial component of such political scenarios wherein humanitarians as diplomats might be well positioned for meaningful interventions. As one of several political actors in a context of conflict, regional competition and social disruption, the humanitarian diplomat is in direct connection with the causes behind humanitarian needs and the politics of life and death.

To be sure, humanitarians have long engaged in practices of diplomacy but often without adopting an open, public approach, or even without properly understanding in what ways they are doing diplomatic work. Donor relations, resource mobilisation, gaining political support, securing stakeholder partnerships and inter-organisational collaboration are, in their essence, diplomacy. Considering the nature of today’s humanitarian crises, many humanitarians aim for recognised acknowledgement and, relatedly, continuous development of diplomatic skills. Without this, some believe there is a risk that they may be left navigating between irrelevancy and non-transparency. For instance, clearly acknowledging the diplomatic (and thus political) dimension of humanitarian work contributes to create more space for accountability and responsibility (especially for the consequences of humanitarian interventions).

With different actors in the humanitarian arena operating in prominent positions, such as tech-giants and the military, “traditional” humanitarians find that riding the humanitarian wave is nowadays crowded. Whereas these other actors are able to engage in a wide range of diplomacies, such as military diplomacy and business diplomacy, humanitarian diplomacy remains a domain that international humanitarians should learn to maneuver with efficiency and transparency.

Humanitarian biometrics in Yemen: The complex politics of humanitarian technology

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The introduction of biometrics in Yemen is a prime example of challenges related to the use of biometric solutions in humanitarian contexts. The complexity of the situation in Yemen needs to be acknowledged by policy makers and other stakeholders involved in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country.

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Yemen is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe. Currently, a majority of Yemeni, more than 24 million people – 80 percent of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance to cover their basic needs. According to the UN, more than 16 million of those face crises levels of food insecurity and, of those, 3.5 million women and children require acute treatment for malnutrition. A child dies every 10 minutes from diseases, such as measles and diphtheria, that could easily be prevented, leading UN Secretary-General António Guterres to describe childhood in Yemen as a special kind of hell.

This humanitarian catastrophe is man-made. The truism that reality is complex should not be used to detract from this simple but unpleasant fact. The catastrophe in Yemen has developed to its current unfathomable level because of choices that have allowed it to continue and deteriorate. Some of these have been deliberate whereas others have been accidental or the result of decisions with seemingly unintended side effects.

Cutting aid is a death sentence

The international community has struggled to find effective strategies for alleviating the suffering of ordinary Yemeni. Simultaneously, belligerents on the ground repeatedly demonstrate blatant disregard for the lives of the people they purport to defend and represent. The lack of trustworthy data and the absence of simple solutions can lead to resignation. The most recent UN donor conference had an aid goal of $3.85 billion but only $1.7 billion was pledged, meaning that as of April 2021 aid agencies are only reaching half of the 16 million people targeted for food assistance every month. Clearly, a lack of engagement with Yemen has direct implications for the thousands of men, women and children that suffer the consequences of this conflict every day.

Challenging context for humanitarian work

Humanitarian aid agencies point to Yemen as a complex and challenging context for humanitarian work. They face bureaucratic and political obstacles and restrictions on movement that limit access to beneficiaries, as well as difficulties in reaching parts of Yemen due to the dispersion of settlements, and weak infrastructure that has deteriorated further during the conflict. Further, the highly unstable security situation impedes effective humanitarian assistance delivery. Finally, there is a lack of reliable data, making it difficult for aid agencies to properly track and document both needs and effects of aid. This is only exacerbated by the conflicting parties lack of transparency and accountability. In Yemen, humanitarian aid is big business.

Biometric-based humanitarian responses

As explored in the policy brief Piloting Humanitarian Biometrics in Yemen: Aid Transparency versus Violation of Privacy?, the World Food Programme (WFP) has developed a digital assistance platform, SCOPE, to manage the registration of and provision of humanitarian assistance and entitlements for over 50 million beneficiaries worldwide. In Yemen, the WFP has applied a mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping approach to conduct remote phone-based data collection and food-security monitoring and has implemented a Commodity Voucher system as a transfer mechanism for beneficiaries. In the government-controlled areas in the south of Yemen, the WFP has registered more than 1.6 million beneficiaries to date, but the Houthi authorities in the north of Yemen have been slow to accept the roll-out of biometric registration.

The WFP has argued that the introduction of a biometric registration system would help prevent diversion and ensure that food reaches those who need it most. Biometrics is envisioned to simplify registration and identification of beneficiaries as many Yemenis do not have identification documents. In any case, as explored further in the aforementioned policy brief, biometric data is more reliable than paper documents that can be stolen or manipulated. The WFP also accentuates that biometric registration has the potential to reduce fraud by increasing the traceability of assistance. If beneficiaries are biometrically registered, it supports a high degree of versatility and the ability to quickly adjust relevant services in a volatile environment where conflict might force families to relocate on short notice.

Humanitarian biometrics in Yemen: A complex case

The use of biometrics in Yemen is a prime example of the challenges related to the use of biometric solutions in humanitarian contexts. These challenges are inherently political and highlight the potential clash between values and objectives. The WFP maintains that biometric registration is necessary to prevent fraud and ensure effective aid distribution, whereas the Houthis accuse the WFP of violating Yemeni law by demanding control over biometric data. The Houthis allege that WFP is not neutral and a potential front for intelligence operations. The Houthis allegations were given credence by the recent controversy surrounding WFP’s  partnership with the algorithm intelligence firm Palantir, and underscores the need for greater attention to responsible data management in the humanitarian sector. Distressed civilian Yemenis, in dire need for humanitarian assistance, are caught in the middle.

What is this “middle”? The use of a biometric system, while having commendable intentions, creates new problems beyond the political disputes on the ground. The use of personal data of vulnerable people in a highly contested conflict further exposes local communities to risks. The problems raised by the expansive collection of personal data include theft, interception, or unintended/non-accountable exchange of private data where, in the contentious Yemeni context, such as a breach of privacy may potentially be a matter of life and death. Yet, the scale of the humanitarian crisis means that effective distribution of humanitarian aid is, quite literally, also a matter of life and death. In a situation where the humanitarian effort is underfunded, it is paramount to ensure effective, transparent, and accountable aid distribution.   

The Yemeni case analysed in the policy brief points to the broader problems associated with reliance on new technology-based solutions to complex problems. The complexity of the situation illustrated in this case needs to be acknowledged by policy makers and other stakeholders involved in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country. While the potential for digital and new technology-based innovation to contribute to alleviating human suffering should be explored, the wider societal and political implications need to be considered by the ones involved in these processes.

When the storm subsides: What happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

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This blog was originally published on BlISS, the blog of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and is re-posted here. Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert is a Senior Researcher and Research Director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Co-director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

Image: The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and other migrants arriving en masse in Europe at the time. Citizen-led initiatives staffed by volunteers mushroomed, providing crucial assistance to refugees when humanitarian organisations were surprised and overwhelmed. But has something changed over the years as the amount of refugees entering Europe became smaller? What happened to these smaller grassroots initiatives as state and professional humanitarian actors gradually took over?

The arrival of migrants to Europe during the summer of 2015 and in the succeeding months saw massive political attention and media coverage at the time due to the sheer scale of the influx. Also remarkable was the widespread mobilisation of volunteers who helped refugees during and after their arduous journeys. Besides those initiatives led by civil society networks, many of the volunteers were ordinary citizens who had never or rarely been involved in volunteer initiatives before. They mobilised across Europe to provide basic assistance to refugees traversing Europe in a number of ways, for example in the form of food, shelter, clothes, access to Wi-Fi, and access to electrical outlets for charging mobile phones.

As the number of people wanting to help grew rapidly, it became necessary to organise volunteers and create structures. And so a flurry of new organisations arose in 2015 in Greece, the north of France around Calais, as well as in Paris – and basically in most of the European countries receiving an increased number of refugees between 2015 and 2016. Yet, as government policies on migration became increasingly strict and as fewer refugees arrived – at least to other European countries than Greece, where those who’ve made it there have mostly been stuck – what has become of these initiatives?

Following two of the main Norwegian volunteer initiatives created in 2015 can give us an insight into different paths some of these organisations have taken. Refugees Welcome Norway (RWN) and A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet – DiH ) are two initiatives who took quite different paths, with one assisting refugees arriving in Norway and the other one organising volunteers to go help in Greece. Refugees Welcome Norway became the umbrella organisation for most of the spontaneous volunteer efforts that popped up, first in Oslo, and then across several other cities in Norway. It took its name from other similar organisations that were being formed in Germany and most other European countries at the time.

A Drop in the Ocean was created by a Norwegian woman with personal connections to Greece and who had jumped on the first possible plane to Athens in late August 2015 after having grown increasingly frustrated following radio debates on exactly what number of refugees Norway might take in. She saw many others wanting to follow suit. The initiative quickly started attracting many more volunteers, first from Norway, and then from a range of other countries as well, who wanted to go to Greece and “do something” to help the refugees arriving there. Over the years, it has become a rather well-respected NGO among those organisations doing humanitarian work on the Greek mainland and islands.

Fewer refugees arriving and other actors taking over

The context in which the two initiatives emerged changed over the next year – albeit in different ways. In Norway, fewer refugees arrived from 2016 onwards, primarily due to reinforced border controls, the returning of asylum seekers to Russia (who had crossed over to Norway at its northern border with Russia), and increased restrictions on family reunification. While RWN for a couple of weeks in August and September 2015 was busy providing basic assistance to those waiting in front of the police registration office, itself unprepared for these new arrivals, a new reception and registration office established by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration by mid-October meant that immediate assistance became the responsibility of the state in collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross.

In Greece, the situation changed in a different way: fewer refugees and other migrants arrived from March 2016 onwards following the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement – yet some boats still arrived in varying numbers in the subsequent years. More importantly, Greece’s border to Europe was sealed off, and those having arrived on the islands were prevented from moving further. For the volunteers in place, the work shifted from reception on the beaches to working in the various ‘camps’ that had been established on the islands. While many more established humanitarian organisations by then had set up their own operations, DiH felt its support was still needed.

Two paths: a preparedness structure in case of a “next refugee crisis” and a professionalising humanitarian organisation

The two organisations developed in different ways over the years, both adapting to changing needs, as well as to varying levels of volunteer ‘supply’, yet both continuing to be characterised by volunteering, either as a political force for change or as individuals contributing to benevolent acts at different levels. As fewer migrants actually reached Norway, the then-leaders of RWN shifted their attention to political lobbying – notably against the government’s forced returns of migrants to Russia. Others involved in RWN in 2015 and 2016 in the meantime launched other local initiatives, which can be read as direct spin-offs from the activities of RWN in the early days: from neighbourhood integration projects (offering the possibility to act as contact points for newly arrived refugees in volunteers’ neighbourhoods) to a second-hand shop handing out clothes to those in need. Several key leaders of RWN also drew on the structure that had been established earlier, with local chapters emerging in multiple cities and common systems made ready to organise, recruit, and deploy volunteers should the number refugees and other migrants rise again.

DiH developed in a different way: it sought to develop itself into a professional humanitarian organisation, all the while not replicating the undesirable sides of the sector. The organisation in many ways sees itself as a reaction to these, i.e. to the formalised structures and bureaucracy plaguing professional humanitarian organisations. When I visited their facilities on the outskirts of Athens a few years ago, they would stress how DiH volunteers were directly interacting with the refugees, getting to know them, as opposed to officials of international organisations who were too busy with paperwork inside their bunker offices. DiH has also become more involved in political lobbying in recent years, in particular towards the Norwegian government and decision-makers, for example by organising awareness campaigns to draw attention to the dire conditions of refugees in the Moria camp and other similar places, or by pressuring Norway to accept more refugees from Greece.

What both organisations have had in common is a strong emphasis on their origins as “popular movements”, based on a multitude of spontaneous desires to “do something” to help out. While formalising their structures, professionalising and adapting to changing needs, they continue to stress that it “should be easy to help”. Both of them have also over these years developed new volunteer recruitment strategies designed precisely to continue to “make it easy”, and to attract new volunteers when these were no longer coming in in large numbers.

Challenging humanitarian practices?

These benevolent acts can be understood both as emerging out of a desire or “need” to help fellow human beings in vulnerable situations (as such identifying primarily as humanitarian acts), as well as acts meant to protest against the non-action or insufficient response by the state and professional humanitarian organisations (as such self-defining as part of a broader social or political movement). Many initiatives started as the former, and evolved into the latter – with many of these volunteers arguing about the impossibility of remaining neutral and apolitical in the face of the injustices lived by the migrants. The intersection between humanitarian needs and protection needs, as well acts of helping out amidst state-led efforts to keep migrants away, makes this an interesting microcosm – also to study what is required for humanitarian aid to be precisely that – a humanitarianism based on humanity and impartiality. While most of the volunteer-based responses to the situation arising in 2015 have evolved into socially and politically engaged initiatives and have defined their actions as “humanitarian” to varying degrees, they nevertheless continue to challenge how humanitarian responses should be understood and practiced in highly politicised contexts.


This blog post is based on an article titled ‘Making It “Easy to Help”: The Evolution of Norwegian Volunteer Initiatives for Refugees’ that was published in International Migration. The article can be accessed freely here.

The datafication of refugee protection in and beyond the Middle East: A case for digital refugee lawyering

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In February and March 2021, I organised a two-part workshop in which academics, activists, lawyers and NGO-workers were invited to (re)think how digital technologies interact with refugee protection, specifically in the Middle East. Refugee protection – the right to be protected from persecution and the right to make claims to these rights in another country – is increasingly data-driven protection. The increased pluralisation and privatisation of migration management interact with widespread experimental deployment of humanitarian technology. In regard to border and migration governance, governments and UN agencies are developing emerging digital technologies in ways that are ‘dangerous and discriminatory’.

Discussions of digital rights of refugees are key, because getting their privacy wrong can have disastrous consequences. Digital technologies also interact with refugee law, for instance by reconstituting what counts as legal knowledge. And the same technologies – biometric information and automated technologies – are also increasingly used for pre-emptive border controls further narrowing the right to seek refuge and future rights of refugees. Here I consider some important concerns and potential directions for doing differently, derived from the workshop, before I make a case for digital refugee lawyering.  

Concerns about data-driven refugee protection

The workshop’s geographical focus relates to the relatively large presence of refugee populations in Middle Eastern protection contexts and the complex legal interplay pertaining to the roles (and immunity) that International Organisations have taken on regarding refugee rights, in interaction with governments, private entities, implementing partners and donors. Limited regulations combined with a dwindling of funding and the push for efficiency and ‘objectivity’ by external stakeholders has contributed to experimental technology-use, such as the use of iris-scanning technologies, automated vulnerability assessments and cash-assistance via block-chain technology. Humanitarian operations in Jordan and Lebanon are known for innovation and datafication of relief. Geographical areas that receive less humanitarian and academic attention are perhaps also prime locations for technological experimentation.

Recently, there has been more attention for data protection in humanitarian settings. International organizations have developed their own data protection policies. But matters such as limited information provided to data subjects, widespread (meta)data sharing and the permanence of data are persisting as is the presumption that a digital identity would result into a legal identity. Concerns about the use of data beyond its original purposes, cyber (in)security, and algorithm’s tendencies for entrenching structural inequalities also remain.

The increased usage of ‘new’ technologies can cloud that technologies have long been used in refugee management and already often simultaneously imposed control. For instance, physical copies of UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination handbook were never made accessible, for concern that refugees would use them to ‘game’ the system. Current emphasis on data extraction and biometrics closely resemble colonial governance and its racialised exceptionalism. And some refugee communities have longstanding histories of being experimented on.

What is new is the persistence of data, their accessibility over distance and the ability to continuously reassemble data. Technologies can enable urban refugee settings to become camp-like environments by installing modes of surveillance and control. Digital transformations are not confined to refugee governance. But experimentations in humanitarian settings often provide normative and scientific affirmation for technological-driven measures and relate to larger macro-political developments, including anti-migration tendencies and bio-tracing efforts to control Covid-19.

Greater and inclusive techno-legal consciousness

The involvement of private sector and big tech often creates opacity. Across the board, there is need for greater techno-legal consciousness and more knowledge on the back-end of technological infrastructure, on how data can be (mis)used, exploited and misappropriated and how the activities of private partners – including but going beyond Palantir, IrisGuard, Accenture – oscillate between border control and humanitarian operations. Such private partnerships raise questions about normative frameworks used within UN organisations. Committed humanitarian operations might be dedicated to not sharing data, but it is questionable whether involved third parties will uphold the same standards.

This not an argument for more handbooks, for there is often a gap between guidelines produced in Brussels or Geneva and actual data practices by humanitarian workers and this can easily result in more work pressure in the ‘field’. Persisting hierarchical work cultures, fear that admitting mistakes would result in loss (jobs, funding) and the need to tell success stories continue to make learning from the past difficult.

Academics, activists, affected populations, the tech community, practitioners, and policymakers ought to join their efforts. This includes being mindful to the politics of translation, language and accessibility to knowledge. Concerned populations are actively involved in negotiating safety, also concerning their data use, but meaningful consent and access to necessary information. From the outset people on the move, trusted local researchers and communities already working on these topics ought to be involved in discussions on digital rights spaces. In the tech community emphasis is often put on removing biases whereas in refugee law, personal information and characteristics are crucial to determine the credibility of a claim. Such and other differences need to be recognised and addressed.

Implementing partners, headquartered in the EEA, are since 2018 required to follow the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR also applies to personal data collected from people beyond Europe. It does not apply to International Organisations. Workshop participants noted that the GDPR did not result in substantive changes in how data is collected, stored, and processed: other NGOs, not bound by GDPR, would be asked to do the work. Many countries across the globe have their own national frameworks for data protection, but these are not always enforced as GDPR would be. Data protection policies can also be (mis)used for government control.

Donors tend to push for efficiency and a logic of audit but have rather minimal requirement for data protection and technology-oriented programs. And claims about the functionality of technologies in humanitarian relief are hardly ever questioned or evaluated. It is therefore noteworthy that in April 2021 a European parliament member asked why the EU, by funding the WFP and UNHCR’s biometric identity systems for refugee registration in Jordan, was approving standards that within the EU would be deemed ethically unacceptable. This question will hopefully be taken forward. 

A case for digital refugee lawyering

Discussions on rights easily turn into discursive dances around responsibilities and sovereignty that do not relate to realities on the ground. The concept of digital refugee lawyering I put forward therefore perceives digital rights as a negotiated practice. It not only considers how technologies interact with the already precarious access to rights that is reality to many forced and illegalised migrants worldwide. It also explores how to ensure that – considering legal marginalisation in interaction with (lack of) rule of law – people seeking protection and persons working to aid their access to rights can draw safely upon the potentials of digital connectivity. How technologies operate and interact with social relationships relates to matters such as access, power, and privilege. There is potential that procedures taken to curtail Covid-19 can aggravate risks of refugees. And much of UNHCR’s processing procedures are now done remotely. Legal aid is following this development. This only makes discussions on how to act collectively and locally in favor of digital rights of refugees and other (illegalized) migrants more pertinent.

Vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy: Vaccine distribution and the global south

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The coronavirus pandemic represents a massive challenge for all states. In the first instance, it is a health crisis, with thousands of citizens infected and dying across the world. At the same time, the health crisis is accompanied by an economic crisis, as government measures to deal with the pandemic lead to severe contractions in economic activity. Finally, it represents a potential political crisis, with governments facing the massive challenge of addressing both the pandemic itself and its effects.

The ability of states to deal with the crisis varies greatly. While rich countries with strong institutions are well placed to handle it reasonably well, poorer countries with institutions that are less effective are severely constrained.

Poor countries’ access to Covid19 vaccines depends on the production capacity and the policies of the vaccine producing countries. The vaccines were first developed in the West and Western countries have the largest production capacity, at least in the short term. However, vaccines are also produced in China, India and Russia.

Although everyone realises that “nobody is safe until everybody is safe”, responses to the pandemic and to vaccination have been driven by national interests rather than global cooperation and solidarity. While Western countries’ policies can be described as “vaccine nationalism”, doing everything they can to get access to as many vaccines as possible to their own citizens, emerging powers such as China, India and Russia, have been practicing “vaccine diplomacy” and used the pandemic to improve their relations with other states.

Constraints on vaccine distribution: Politics and economics

In addition to the global constraints in terms of production capacity, three interrelated factors constrain poor countries’ access to vaccines at the moment: lack of purchasing power, vaccine nationalism in rich countries and intellectual property rights preventing the production of cheaper vaccines. The first is purchasing power. At the moment, global production capacity is still limited in relation to demand. So far, rich countries, with 14% of the world’s population have obtained 53% of the vaccines. Almost all of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have gone to rich countries. The US and the UK have banned vaccine exports, while the European Union (EU) has exported 34 million doses to Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong – countries that have no problem paying for vaccines. The EU has also sent about 9 million doses to the UK. Meanwhile, African countries, such as Uganda and South Africa, have paid more than twice as much per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine as the EU. This has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to warn that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure”.

The second constraint for developing countries is political. With production capacity limited and concentrated in rich countries, poor countries have received a very limited number of vaccines. Rich countries have prioritized securing vaccines for their own citizens and have ordered several times more vaccines than they need. Taken together with the shortage of supply and poor countries limited purchasing power, this “vaccine nationalism” has left poor countries with only a fraction of the vaccines they need.

The third constraint is the system of intellectual property rights, which gives those who develop a vaccine an exclusive right to produce it for a specified time period. The first medicines were developed by Western companies with funding from governments and in cooperation with public research institutions. After the first vaccines were developed, Chinese and Russian companies have developed their own vaccines, while India’s Serum Institute has made an agreement with AstraZeneca to produce their vaccine with a license. The Serum Institute has produced 60 million vaccine doses, which have been supplied to over 70 nations, on a bilateral-grant or commercial basis. While China, India, South Africa and Brazil have the ability to develop and produce copies of the patented vaccines – so-called generics – significantly cheaper than the big Western companies, they are only allowed to do so if agreements are made with the patent-owning companies. India and South Africa have proposed that patent rules should be wavered in the current emergency situation. However, this was flatly rejected by both Western governments and the pharmaceutical industry.

International cooperation and vaccine diplomacy

Meanwhile, there are two countervailing factors that to some extent compensate for these constraints. First, the Covax initiative – a collaboration between UNICEF, the WHO, the vaccine alliance Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – uses purchases by wealthier nations to fund vaccine supplies to poorer and middle-income countries. The Serum Institute is contracted to supply 1 billion vaccine doses to Covax this year, and received $300 million in funding support from Gavi and the Gates Foundation to assist it in expanding its capacity. By 1 April, 33 million vaccine doses India have been distributed through the Covax facility.

However, funding for Covax remains insufficient. According to the WHO, Covax has only received a quarter of the funds needed. Moreover, because of an increase in infections in India, export of vaccines produced in the country were halted in late March. In addition, India is now facing constraints in supplies of filters and bags needed for its vaccine production, as a result of a US ban on exports of such equipment. These developments will cause delays in the distribution of vaccines, including distribution under the Covax programme.

The second countervailing factor is the vaccine supplies coming from non-western countries. While Western countries have scrambled to obtain as many vaccines as possible for their own population, other countries have used vaccines as a political resource. China, India and Russia have all distributed vaccines to other countries, sometimes for free. Such “vaccine diplomacy” lies behind the distribution of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In Asia, it has become part of the competition between China and India for regional influence. India, with its formidable vaccine manufacturing capacity, and a licensing deal to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, has distributed 60 million doses, mainly to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Its pharmaceutical industry is also the largest contributor of vaccine to the global Covax facility.

China has sent its own manufacturers’ vaccines to a large number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America – partly as donations and partly as sales. This vaccine provision has been linked with the Belt and Road Initiative, distributing vaccines as part of deals related to ports, roads and rail projects. China has also decided to provide 10 million vaccine doses to the Covax alliance.

Meanwhile, Russia has capitalised on delays in the EU’s programme to promote its Sputnik vaccine to Hungary, Serbia, Austria, as well as to Middle Eastern and Latin American countries, albeit in much smaller volumes than China and India. Russian and Chinese companies have also been willing to strike licensing deals to allow manufacturers in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia to partly or fully produce Covid-19 vaccines themselves.

So what are the implications of these factors for poor countries’ ability to vaccinate their populations? Clearly, the constraints faced by poor countries (purchasing power, vaccine nationalism and patent rules) have so far been much more severe than the countervailing factors (Covax, supplies from emerging powers). The result is that poor countries, by and large, will have to wait until rich countries have vaccinated their own populations before they will receive anything like the amount of vaccines they need. Meanwhile, the pandemic will continue, and new mutants are likely to emerge which may be both more infectious and more resistant to the existing vaccines.

Looking for the humanitarian backbone at the top of the United Nations

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This blog first appeared on Flesh & Blood: The Blog of Mukesh Kapila and is re-posted here. You can access the original blog post hereMukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester.

The United Nations is not just another bureaucracy. Its structures and symbols mark a secular faith that is determined to save humanity, according to its holy book, the UN Charter.  To do that, it engages on four grand missions: fostering peace and security, progressing economic and social development, advancing human rights, and providing humanitarian succour.

The UN’s noble theology derives from universal human values that underpin the dreams and aspirations of billions, even if it’s flawed set-up fails so often. While it’s contradictions constantly test the patience of adherents, they are also remarkably persistent. Perhaps because they are perpetually hopeful that a wise leader is about to emerge who will do better than the last one that disappointed us so much.

The four grand missions are each headed by their own high priests and a great shiver of excitement runs through the UN’s hallowed corridors whenever one of these priesthoods is up for anointment. The one coming up now is for humanitarian affairs.

Of course, we don’t  live in medieval times. Thus, we are told that the selection of the correctly-titled position of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator will be merit based (although it is not clear whether that is the merit of the candidate or their country). If you had been interested, you would have applied by the closing date of 15 March. You can be confident in the open and transparent selection process as applications were welcomed from anywhere (as long as you had fluent English), digitally (sorry if you didn’t have good internet), and from anyone (but especially women). You will be graded strictly accordingly to the UN’s human resources competency framework.

Naturally, the Secretary-General can’t rely solely on this process. So, he also conducts his own mysterious “search and consultations” and gets guidance from special visitations. In any case, we will know when the Secretary General’s divine hand lands on someone when, in the words of his messenger“It will be announced when it is announced, when you see white smoke”.  

There is a formal job description for the USG’s duties and responsibilities. It is well- written with a beguiling simplicity. After de-coding, we learn that the role requires a superwoman or man who will be the world’s conscience and can boldly hold the mirror to its misbehaviours. This is massively difficult nowadays with record levels of disasters, conflicts, population displacements, violations of international humanitarian laws, crimes against humanity, and attacks on humanitarian workers and facilities. 

The USG is officially licenced to call a spade a spade. Thus, fluency with a broad lexicon of words around horror, shock or outrage is essential as well as fine judgement on the shades of concern to be expressed in different contexts. Similarly calibrated must be the look of sincerity and compassion in front of the camera, depending on whether the setting is a refugee camp or a press conference. 

However, it will be wise not to over-do this, as it is prudent not to be too rude to despots and dictators, because they are UN members too. And, when the bad behaviours come from big powers or from within the permanent members of the Security Council, the incumbent must tread with extra caution. Be careful not to embarrass the Big Boss, who is up for re-election this year and will need the votes of all important countries. 

The world’s top humanitarian must also be adept at holding out the begging bowl which is implanted into the USG immediately on assuming office. The bowl is bottomless because of the ever-growing needs of the world’s most vulnerable. Hence, the USG must use all their begging, bullying, and cajoling skills with reluctant donors, but should beware becoming too boring or tiresome, by constantly asking for more and more.

When they do get some funds (perhaps 10 to 70% of appeals, depending on the crisis that is popular at a moment), they must exercise the wisdom of Solomon in doling out the dough. Nowadays, there are sophisticated metrics to measure misery but any USG with a heart instead of a computer chip will find it tough to tackle questions such as:  Whose suffering is more urgent? Whose needs are more deserving? Besides, much of the mobilised funds are often too little and too late, or ear-marked for concerns or countries that donors prefer.

So, when the right needs are, inevitably, not met at the right time in the right way, there will be complaints. The USG must always be a good sport and shoulder the blame. It is a natural extension of the role of the world’s conscience to be the lightening conductor for its woes and frustrations. Of course, everyone knows that most of the world’s problems don’t have humanitarian solutions but that is beside the point.

The USG will be extremely busy firefighting (mostly insoluble) crises around the world. That includes rallying humanitarian ‘troops’ everywhere. They fly many different banners and follow their own brands of the humanitarian faith. But it is the USG’s task, as Emergency Relief Coordinator, to get them pointed vaguely in the same direction or, at least, not at cross-purposes. How to do this is beyond the knowhow of the world’s most expensive business schools, although that has not stopped several consulting firms from establishing lucrative business lines in humanitarian leadership training. They get tax benefits by offering pro bono services to cash-strapped humanitarian bodies which reciprocate by serving as training grounds for junior consultants. After all, anyone wanting to get anywhere, has to start somewhere, and the humanitarian field is one of the very few public endeavours that is open to all comers (although, to be fair, this is getting better after the scandals of recent years and there is another profitable business line in monitoring quality and standards for conduct and performance). 

Meanwhile, the outward-facing USG must not neglect looking inside their personal fiefdom: the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This consists of a split headquarters straddling  New York and Geneva and dozens of offices or representatives worldwide. It will be useful if the USG brushes up on their knowledge of Max Weber, that great 19th century sociologist who waxed lyrical on the topic of the perfect bureaucracy. If he was alive today, he would surely be overwhelmed by the beauty of the UN, in that regard. OCHA, as a constituent department of the UN Secretariat reflects all the attributes of the parent body and improves on it by adding its own bizarre structural complications.  

It is the job of the USG to manage OCHA and many a good incumbent has been broken at the wheel of change, especially when challenging its internal chieftaincies. The next post-holder would be wise to remember that although several humanitarian bodies have won the Nobel Prize, none have been awarded for pioneering organisational reform.

The Secretary-General will be mulling over these considerations while grilling hopeful candidates. Meanwhile, it is a fairly harmless ritual to offer him unsolicited advice on selecting his new humanitarian chief. This starts first by damning the incumbent to be replaced. That is quite OK as it is a generally recognised truth that all high careers end in failure because, as said by the idiosyncratic statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, “that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.

Critics can make their job easier by following an established checklist. The obvious place to start is with gender and geographic diversity: if you are male and white, you can expect to be automatically pilloried. Especially, if your predecessors were the same as you. Even worse if they were of the same nationality.

Then it gets more complicated. We know that it won’t look good if the SG appoints a serial rights abuser to such a sacred role. Fortunately, candidates have self-attested that they have not violated international human rights and humanitarian laws. But what if their country is a champion violator of such decencies? Of course, a good person can’t be blamed for the sins of their nation. But they will have needed strong national backing to advance their candidature in an institution which is, above all, a club of nations. So should otherwise good candidates be blackballed if they are too close to less-than-wholesome governments?

Then let us come to candidates from humanitarian superpowers. Should the nationals of donor countries be favoured? There is an element of reward and recognition here as most international funding comes from just a few countries. Would selecting someone from a generous country encourage the miserly ones to step up? In any case, it is a well-known principle of international business that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Or conversely, it could be argued that candidates from countries that receive most funding for humanitarian crises are better qualified, and should get extra points in the selection hurdles?

May that also mean a bigger voice of understanding for the victims of humanitarian crises?

The SG may feel that these are all mutually-cancelling considerations. In those circumstances, a random selection made by picking a name out of a hat is as good as any tortuously-finessed choice.

Alternatively, he could throw away his complicated grids and checklists, and ignore all lobbyists. The Secretary-General could then liberate himself to make a truly revolutionary move. He could, without fear or favour, and without any other consideration, appoint to the top humanitarian position, someone that possesses a genuine humanitarian backbone. Doing that could also allow the UN to stand up straighter when facing-up to its detractors.

Will the UN Secretary-General have the special X-ray vision to detect the person with the sturdiest humanitarian backbone among the several worthy applicants?