Tag Archives: disaster response

“We are all fragile, but we are not all equally fragile”: Humanitarian operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

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Illustration: Prachatai via Flickr

As the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading across the globe, its impact touches all corners of society. What happens when the pandemic reaches areas that were already dealing with various sorts of humanitarian challenges, and in what ways are humanitarian operations being impacted both directly and indirectly? In a time where the news are being flooded with information related to the pandemic and much of national authorities’ time and resources are being spent at mapping domestic repercussions, this post is an attempt to highlight some of the potential impacts COVID-19 can have or is already having on humanitarian operations around the world.

Responding to the pandemic and related repercussions has become a key priority for humanitarian actors, and humanitarian information hubs are now posting regular updates related to the pandemic response. The United Nations has launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, and SPHERE and its partners have developed a manual with guidance on how to apply humanitarian standards to the COVID-19 response. Reliefweb has established a page devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an interactive map showcasing the pandemic in locations with a humanitarian response, appeals and response plans, manuals and guidelines, maps and infographics, reports by humanitarian actors and more. The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) provides global COVID-19 epidemiological data.

While all areas of humanitarian operations may be critically affected by the pandemic and related mitigation efforts, four thematic areas have emerged in humanitarian circles as the most discussed so far: 1) Health infrastructure and health information; 2) Exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities; 3) Refugees and other migrants; and 4) Access and delivery of humanitarian aid.

Health infrastructure and health information

As the disease has brought some of the world’s most advanced and well resources health systems to their knees, many humanitarian practitioners have expressed concern for what will occur when the virus reaches countries with less developed health infrastructure. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that developed countries must assist those less developed, or potentially “face the nightmare of the disease spreading like wildfire in the global South with millions of deaths and the prospect of the disease re-emerging where it was previously suppressed”. Coordinated global action is also the key message of the recently published UN report Shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

These concerns are not unfounded. For instance, the Central African Republic, a country with a population of almost five million people, only has three ventilators for the whole country. In Venezuela, now with 165 confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitals were lacking basic resources and health personnel had been fleeing the country already before the arrival of the virus. Moreover, if a large number of people all fall ill at the same time, the efforts to take care of patients contracting the virus is likely to divert resources away from other lifesaving work, such as other health programmes. Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development Jeremy Konydyk gave a stark reminder that during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, other diseases caused more deaths than what Ebola did.

Konydyk is not the only one to make comparisons to the Ebola outbreak. On a slightly more optimistic note, it has been pointed out that developing countries with recent experience in fighting epidemics such as Ebola are to some extent better prepared for handling COVID-19. For instance, existing Ebola screening systems have rapidly been converted to screen for coronavirus disease at airports and border crossings. Given many African countries’ recent experience with fighting epidemics, overall young populations and less frequent travel, Gunnar Bjune argues that a targeted response towards the most vulnerable populations would be more efficient and appropriate for the region.

Another important lesson from the Ebola epidemic is the importance of accurate and trusted public health communication to reduce misinformation and distrust amongst the public, as pointed out by Christopher Wilson and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert in their 2018 article on communication technology in humanitarian and pandemic response. Providing accurate information and building trust in health officials will be a key issue also for combating COVID-19.

Exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities

As with all emergencies, the repercussions tend to be distributed unequally in society and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the disease are likely to follow the same pattern. Those without existing safety nets will be hit the hardest. In the words of Senior Editor at the New Humanitarian Ben Parker during a recent webinar: “we are all fragile, but we are not all equally fragile”. 

The world economy, which was already weak before the pandemic, is falling into recession. Reduced fiscal revenues will negatively impact welfare programmes, leaving the most vulnerable without access to essential services. While a plummeting global economy and international travel restrictions have severe impacts in their own rights, they may also create difficulties in obtaining imported goods like food and medical equipment. Trade-dependent countries will be particularly vulnerable. In a recently published report, the World Food Programme predicts that global food insecurity is likely to increase.

Vulnerabilities on the basis of gender are also likely to be exacerbated, in particular due to the mitigation strategies employed to fight the pandemic. As Margot Skarpeteig, Policy Director at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), writes for Bistandsaktuelt, men are more likely to contract the disease, but the repercussions will hit women and girls the hardest. Based on lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak, Skarpeteig points out that lockdowns could lead to an increase in domestic violence, that closure of schools could result in an increase number of rapes and child marriages, and that rerouting of resources could lead to worse maternal care, all of which mainly impact women and girls. Several of these concerns are echoed in the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.

Other vulnerable groups who are likely to be severely affected include the urban poor, refugees and other migrants, and groups generally marginalized in terms of access to economic welfare and health services.

Refugees and other migrants

As the pandemic is also turning into a mobility crisis, refugees and other migrants are facing mutually reinforcing vulnerabilities, as they are often housed in crowded areas with limited health and sanitation facilities and now also experiencing enhanced immobility.

Many governments have imposed lockdowns and closed their borders to stop the virus from spreading. This has devastating impacts on many migrant workers, in particular those relying on daily wages, many of which do not have a social network to rely on. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi call for refugees and other migrants – regardless of their formal status – to be an integral part of national systems and plans for tackling the virus, as many of them do not have access to basic health services.

Further, several frameworks put in place for refugees are now temporarily being removed. On 17 March, IOM and the UNHCR announced a temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees. In Uganda, authorities have put up a temporarily bar on arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers. Syrian refugees in the two main refugee camps in Jordan have been on lockdown since 21 March. In Greece, there have been major concerns for and calls for evacuation of camps with very limited health and sanitation facilities, and in early April the refugee camp in Ritsona was quarantined as 20 refugees tested positive for COVID-19.

Kristin Bergtora Sanvik and Adèle Garnier have called attention to how the pandemic is reshaping refugee and migration governance through ‘legal distancing’. Countries hastily adopt restrictive regulation on migration and asylum processes on the one hand, while simultaneously slowing down due process mechanisms. The results are further exclusion and marginalization of already vulnerable groups.

Delivery of humanitarian aid: Access and localisation

While humanitarian organizations are working hard to maintain their existing operations, most humanitarian work is affected by the pandemic and mitigation efforts in some shape or form. Through travel restrictions, imposed regulations, and withdrawal of staff, the pandemic is affecting the delivery of humanitarian aid in multiple countries, and the impacts are cascading as the disease reaches new corners of the world.

Amongst the effects on aid operations covered by The New Humanitarian over the past week are: aid access is blocked for ’unsanitary’ quarantine spots in Burundi; transport bans in Burkina Faso create access challenges for humanitarians; non-essential aid workers are being evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo creating limits on staff; border closures in Afghanistan threaten supply chains; and flight bans hamper aid delivery in Yemen. Imposed restrictions on gatherings and travel are hampering both delivery of humanitarian assistance and general access to vulnerable populations. On 25 March, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reported that they were unable to reach 300,000 people in the Middle East alone.

As large international organizations are struggling to reach people in need, the pandemic might turn out to have an unexpected effect on localisation. The so-called ‘localisation agenda’, and outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, vowed to increase funding to national and local partners, and involve them in decision-making and assistance in humanitarian response. Since 2016, the humanitarian system has been criticised for failing to support localisation (see for instance Sandvik and Dijkzeul’s blog post from 2019). The conditions caused by the pandemic, however, might change how international and local staff coordinate and operate. Similar to how many enterprises are being forced to speed up digitalization to keep in touch from various home offices, the restrictions on travel and limits on international staff might force international humanitarian actors to increasingly rely on local partners in delivery, coordination and management of humanitarian assistance, as well as enhancing communication structures between the local responders and international assistance providers.

Uncertain outcomes and long-term consequences

While the four themes mentioned here seem to be the most frequently discussed in humanitarian circles so far, the range of repercussions caused by the pandemic and mitigation efforts has yet to be seen.

It is highly likely that other issues may emerge as the situation develops, and the long-term consequences remain unknown. Technological measures applied to keep the pandemic at bay are amongst the issues that might cause severe and unintended long-term consequences (such as tracking mobile devises, drone surveillance, collecting biometric data etc.). Humanitarian data governance is not a new issue (see for instance Katja Lindskov Jacobsen and Larissa Fast’s 2019 article for Disasters), as it often deals with sensitive data from vulnerable populations. During previous health crisis people with diseases have faced discrimination and stigma, such as people living with HIV and Ebola survivors. Keeping in mind also future consequences, it is therefore of vital importance that ethics and privacy is considered, and that actors employ responsible data governance and management.

The lack of testing capacities in many countries and overworked international and local staff may also result in the exact impact of the pandemic being hard to state specifically at any point. Yet, there is no doubt that the impacts will be large and long-felt for humanitarian operations and the people already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian experimentation

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Humanitarian actors, faced with ongoing conflict, epidemics, famine and a range of natural disasters, are increasingly being asked to do more with less. The international community’s commitment of resources has not kept pace with their expectations or the growing crises around the world. Some humanitarian organizations are trying to bridge this disparity by adopting new technologies—a practice often referred to as humanitarian innovation. This blog post, building on a recent article in the ICRC Review, asserts that humanitarian innovation is often human experimentation without accountability, which may both cause harm and violate some of humanitarians’ most basic principles.

While many elements of humanitarian action are uncertain, there is a clear difference between using proven approaches to respond in new contexts and using wholly experimental approaches on populations at the height of their vulnerability. This is also not the first generation of humanitarian organizations to test new technologies or approaches in the midst of disaster. Our article draws upon three timely examples of humanitarian innovations, which are expanding into the mainstream of humanitarian practice without clear assessments of potential benefits or harms.

Cargo drones, for one, have been presented as a means to help deliver assistance to places that aid agencies otherwise find difficult, and sometimes impossible, to reach. Biometrics is another example. It is said to speed up cumbersome registration processes, thereby allowing faster access to aid for people in need (who can only receive assistance upon registration). And, in the case of responding to the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, data modelling was seen as a way to help in this response. In each of these cases, technologies with great promise were deployed in ways that risked, distorted and/or damaged the relationships between survivors and responders.

These examples illustrate the need for investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application of new technologies in humanitarian response. It is incumbent on humanitarian actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during the response, but long after the emergency ends. This balance is between, on the one hand, working to identify new and ‘innovative’ ways of addressing some of the challenges that humanitarian actors confront and, on the other hand, the risk of introducing new technological ‘solutions’ in ways that resemble ‘humanitarian experimentation’ (as explained in the article). The latter carries with it the potential for various forms of harm. This risk of harm is not only to those that humanitarian actors are tasked to protect, but also to humanitarian actors themselves, in the form of legal liability, loss of credibility and operational inefficiency. Without open and transparent validation, it is impossible to know whether humanitarian innovations are solutions, or threats themselves. Aid agencies must not only to be extremely attentive to this balance, but also should do their utmost to avoid a harmful outcome.

Framing aid projects as ‘innovative’, rather than ‘experimental’, avoids the explicit acknowledgment that these tools are untested, understating both the risks these approaches may pose, as well as sidestepping the extensive body of laws that regulate human trials. Facing enormous pressure to act and ‘do something’ in view of contemporary humanitarian crisis, a specific logic seems to have gained prominence in the humanitarian community, a logic that conflicts with the risk-taking standards that prevail under normal circumstances. The use of untested approaches in uncertain and challenging humanitarian contexts provokes risks that do not necessarily bolster humanitarian principles. In fact, they may even conflict with the otherwise widely adhered to Do No Harm principle. Failing to test these technologies, or even explicitly acknowledge that they are untested, prior to deployment raises significant questions about both the ethics and evidence requirements implicit in the unique license afforded to humanitarian responders.

In Do No Harm: A Taxonomy of the Challenges of Humanitarian Experimentation, we contextualize humanitarian experimentation—providing a history, examples of current practice, a taxonomy of potential harms and an analysis against the core principles of the humanitarian enterprise.


Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, SJD Harvard Law School, is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. Her widely published socio-legal research focuses on technology and innovation, forced displacement and the struggle for accountability in humanitarian action. Most recently, Sandvik co-edited UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability (Routledge, 2016), with Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, and The Good Drone (Routledge, 2017).

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, PhD International Relations Lancaster University, is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. She is an international authority on the issue of humanitarian biometrics and security dimensions and is the author of The Politics of Humanitarian Technology (Routledge, 2015). Her research has also appeared in Citizenship Studies, Security Dialogue, Journal of Intervention & Statebuilding, and African Security Review, among others.

Sean Martin McDonald, JD/MA American University, is the CEO of FrontlineSMS and a Fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. He is the author of Ebola: A Big Data Disaster, a legal analysis of the way that humanitarian responders use data during crises. His work focuses on building agency at the intersection of digital spaces, using technology, law and civic trusts.

ICCM – The Annual Gathering of a Global Digital Village

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


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

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

 Towards a more digitalized response

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

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

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

Technology in and out of Africa

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

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

 10 per cent technology, 90 per cent human

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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