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Red Lines and Grey Zones: Ethical dilemmas in humanitarian negotiations and the need for a research agenda

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Kristoffer Lidén is Senior Researcher and coordinator of the humanitarianism research group at PRIO. Kristina Roepstorff is lecturer at the University of Magdeburg (OVGU) and Associated Researcher at Center for Humanitarian Action (CHA) and the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) Ruhr University Bochum (RUB).

Aid delivery in South Sudan. Photo: EU/ECHO/Malini Morzaria

When turning humanitarian principles into practice, humanitarian organisations are faced with a range of difficult ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas are rarely as tangible as when the organisations negotiate with local counterparts for access and programming in settings of armed conflict. This dimension of humanitarian negotiations remains to be systematically studied, and we hereby argue why this needs to be redressed as part of the ethics of humanitarian action.   

Providing humanitarian aid is easier said than done. When humanitarian organisations distribute food, treat the ill, or evacuate civilians during wars and disasters, they engage in recurrent negotiations with the actors controlling the territory and population, such as state ministries, armies or opposition groups (Grace, 2020a; Clements, 2020; du Pasquier, 2016; Acuto, 2012). These negotiations put the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence to the test (Grace, 2020b; Menkhaus, 2012; Magone et al., 2011). When their counterparts are violent militaries or partisan politicians, organisations may define red lines beyond which they can no longer justify their assistance. Forced to choose between uncomfortable compromises and inaction, this often leaves them operating in humanitarian grey zones on the fringes of ‘the humanitarian space’ (CCHN, 2019b: 279-309, 340-374; Hilhorst and Jansen, 2010).

The ethical dilemma can be illustrated by an example. Imagine a situation in which a humanitarian organisation seeks to provide food aid to desperately hungry people in an area controlled by a militia. The organisation’s ethical principles dictate that no food rations be used to support a war effort. But the militia insists that it will prevent any food distribution unless food aid is also provided to its healthy soldiers. If the organisation maintains its ‘red line,’ innocent people will die from starvation, a result at odds with the organisation’s humanitarian mission. To prevent this result, the relief organization may venture into a grey zone, where principles are bent in an effort to negotiate a compromise. The compromise could be that food will be distributed to the starving as well as to soldiers’ families, under the pretence that they are also poor, if not starving (cf. CCHN, 2019b: 290). Those negotiating the compromise rarely have just one option but instead, must choose among several non-ideal ones. In this example, other solutions could be to allow the militia itself to distribute the food, or to involve a third party, like a UN peacekeeping force, in the negotiation. Figure 1 from the CCHN Field Manual on Frontline Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN, 2019b: 287) offers a diagram that depicts the negotiation space between the humanitarian organisation (P) and its counterpart (P’).

Figure 1: Humanitarian negotiation space

Thus, defining red lines and negotiating within grey zones involves making hard choices that have ethical repercussions. Concerned to adhere to the principle of humanity – that action must be taken to prevent and alleviate suffering wherever it may be found – humanitarian organisations set the bar for withdrawal exceptionally high and allow the grey zones to be accordingly wide in comparison to others engaging in benevolent international work. Quoting a humanitarian negotiator par excellence, Jan Egeland: ‘If you are there to help the victims from the depths of hell, you have to speak to the devil’ (Hoge, 2004). As such, humanitarian negotiations exemplify what has elsewhere been discussed as moral dilemmas, tragic choices, ‘dirty hands’ problems, emergency ethics and non-ideal theory (Slim, 2015: 163-167).

No one acknowledges these dilemmas more than the practitioners themselves. A survey conducted by the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) in 2017, identified recurrent dilemmas faced by humanitarian negotiators. These include balancing security rules with proximity to beneficiaries, denunciation/advocacy with silence, and impartial assistance with conditional assistance, as well as determining how much to compromise on sensitive issues of international humanitarian law and human rights, and whether to even engage with ‘controversial’ counterparts (CCHN, 2019a: 11). These dilemmas, which reflect the familiar ethical quandary of how to do good without directly or indirectly doing harm (Slim, 2015: 183-230; Lepora and Goodin, 2013; Ahmad and Smith, 2018; Anderson, 1999), are at their most intense during negotiations, which amplify controversial conundrums of power, culture and complicity. Engaging with these actors may not only be interpreted as a recognition of their legitimacy and play in the hands of local power holders, but also exhibit clashes in cultural norms while advancing international hierarchies of power and privilege.

Although several distinct literatures address the ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian organisations, these ethical dilemmas are so far receiving too little attention in the context of negotiations. This is however much needed in order to provide guidance for humanitarian practitioners for navigating this difficult terrain and make hard choices. The disciplines of international relations (IR), political science, law, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, human geography, history and medicine have all contributed descriptive accounts of humanitarian engagement and its social and political ramifications. Collectively, they offer a patchwork of empirical and theoretical perspectives that touch on humanitarian negotiation. In particular, recent investigations of the rise of humanitarian action as a mode of global governance since the end of the Cold War and during the global War on Terror are essential for grasping the contemporary political character of humanitarian negotiations (Barnett, 2011; 2008; Donini, 2012; Acuto, 2012; Duffield, 2019; de Lauri, 2016; Hoffman and Weiss, 2018). None of these directly tackle the issue of ethics and humanitarian negotiation though.

The multi-faceted field of global ethics (which includes international ethics, global justice, and international political theory), on the other hand, has examined at length the specific issue of armed humanitarian intervention and the ‘responsibility to protect’ (Wheeler, 2000; Holzgrefe and Keohane, 2003; Bellamy, 2009). These studies explore issues of relevance to humanitarian negotiation, such as the tensions between global humanitarian norms, on the one hand, and the principles of state sovereignty and self-determination, on the other (Brown, 2002; Roepstorff, 2013; Lidén, 2014). But humanitarian intervention, and the military or political coercion it implies, is not what is at stake in most humanitarian access negotiations, which relies on pragmatic political support from local and international stakeholders (Barnett, 2013; Koddenbrock, 2016; Dijkzeul and Sandvik, 2019; Lidén, 2019; Roepstorff, 2020). Moreover, the need for better accounts of international engagement in ‘non-Western’ contexts remains within the study of global ethics (Sen, 2010; 2017; Erskine, 2012; Gaskarth, 2015; Lizée, 2011; Hutchings, 2018), and the ethics of humanitarian negotiations puts such accounts to the test.

More recently, several books and articles have begun to address the ethical problems that humanitarian actors are confronted with in their daily work, including those related to gender, class, ethnicity and religion (see also Zack, 2009; ICRC, 2015; Löfquist, 2017; Givoni, 2011; Rubenstein, 2015; Schneiker, 2017). These significant contributions do not specifically discuss the matter of negotiation, however, and they generally take humanitarian norms and principles as their frame of reference, reinforcing the ‘humanitarian reason’ (Fassin, 2011). As of yet, there are no analyses of the ethics of humanitarian negotiation. Such understandings of a neglected aspect of world politics are of immediate practical relevance, but they would also inform general scholarship on humanitarian action and the ethics of international engagement across cultural and political borders.

We thus propose a research agenda that seeks to close this gap in scholarship on humanitarian action and that provides a framework for ethical decision taking for humanitarian practitioners confronted with moral dilemmas. Such a research agenda should be based on theory and methods for empirical research on the subject (descriptive ethics) as well as philosophical analysis for the evaluation of the ethical problems (applied ethics) and include, among other things, studies that

  • Investigate the ethics of humanitarian action from the epistemic perspectives of the individuals and institutions engaged in humanitarian negotiations, including local actors from the Global South.
  • Map and systematically analyse ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian negotiators.
  • Identify different approaches to negotiations and responses to ethical dilemmas by humanitarian practitioners and organisations.
  • Examine the process of establishing red lines by humanitarian organisations and the handling of grey zones by humanitarian negotiators.
  • Uncover the cultural norms informing humanitarian negotiations and discuss their potential clashes.
  • Micro-studies and in-depth case studies of humanitarian negotiations in different contexts and with different actor constellations.

References

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Ahmad A and Smith J (2018) Humanitarian Action and Ethics. 1st ed. London: ZED Books.

Anderson MB (1999) Do no harm: how aid can support peace – or war. Boulder Co: Lynne Rienner.

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

Barnett M (2013) Humanitarian governance. Annual Review of Political Science 16: 379-398.

Barnett MN and Weiss TG (2008) Humanitarianism in question : politics, power, ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bellamy AJ (2009) Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities. London: Polity.

Brown C (2002) Sovereignty, Rights and Justice: International Political Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

CCHN (2019a) CCHN Facilitator Handbook. Center of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation.

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Clements AJ (2020) Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups : The Frontlines of Diplomacy. Abingdon: Routledge.

de Lauri A (2016) The Politics of Humanitarianism: Power, Ideology and Aid. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

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Donini A (2012) The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action. Kumarian Press.

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Erskine T (2012) Whose progress, which morals? Constructivism, normative IR theory and the limits and possibilities of studying ethics in world politics. International Theory 4(3): 449-468.

Fassin D (2011) Humanitarian Reason. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gaskarth J (2015) Rising Powers, Global Governance and Global Ethics. London: Routledge.

Givoni M (2011) Beyond the Humanitarian/Political Divide: Witnessing and the Making of Humanitarian Ethics. Journal of Human Rights 10(1): 55-75.

Grace R (2020a) The Humanitarian as Negotiator: Developing Capacity Across the Aid Sector. Negotiation Journal 36(1): 13-41.

Grace R (2020b) Humanitarian Negotiation with Parties to Armed Conflict. Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies. 1-29.

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Hoge W (2004) The Saturday profile; Rescuing Victims Worldwide ‘From the Depths of Hell’. The New York Times, 10 April.

Holzgrefe JL and Keohane RO (2003) Humanitarian intervention : ethical, legal and political dilemmas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutchings K (2018) Global Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

ICRC (2015) The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: Ethics and Tools for Humanitarian Action. International Committee of the Red Cross.

Koddenbrock K (2016) The practice of humanitarian intervention : aid workers, agencies and institutions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lepora C and Goodin RE (2013) Complicity and Compromise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lidén K (2014) Between Intervention and Sovereignty: Ethics of Liberal Peacebuilding and the Philosophy of Global Governance. University of Oslo Oslo.

Lidén K (2019) The Protection of Civilians and ethics of humanitarian governance: beyond intervention and resilience. Disasters 43(S2): S210-S229.

Lizée PP (2011) A Whole New World: Reinventing International Studies for the Post-Western World. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Löfquist L (2017) Virtues and humanitarian ethics. Disasters 41(1): 41-54.

Magone C, Neuman M and Weissman F (2011) Humanitarian negotiations revealed : the MSF experience. London: Hurst.

Menkhaus K (2012) Leap of faith: Negotiating humanitarian access in Somalia’s 2011 famine. In: Acuto M (ed) Negotiating Relief: The Dialectics of Humanitarian Space. Hurst and Co.

Roepstorff K (2013) The politics of self-determination : beyond the decolonisation process. London: Routledge.

Roepstorff K (2020) A call for critical reflection on the localisation agenda in humanitarian action. Third World Quarterly 41(2): 284-301.

Rubenstein J (2015) Between samaritans and states : the political ethics of humanitarian INGOs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schneiker A (2017) NGOs as Norm Takers: Insider–Outsider Networks as Translators of Norms. International Studies Review 19(3): 381-406.

Sen A (2010) The idea of justice. London: Penguin.

Sen A (2017) Ethics and the Foundation of Global Justice. Ethics & International Affairs 31(3): 261-270.

Slim H (2015) Humanitarian ethics: a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Protecting children’s digital bodies through rights

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This text first appeared on Open Global Rights and is re-posted here.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is a socio-legal scholar with a particular interest in the politics of innovation and technology in the humanitarian space. She is a research professor in humanitarian studies at PRIO, and a professor in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.

Children are becoming the objects of a multitude of monitoring devices—what are the possible negative ramifications in low resource contexts and fragile settings?

The recent incident of a UNHCR official tweeting a photo of an Iraqi refugee girl holding a piece of paper with all her personal data, including family composition and location, is remarkable for two reasons. First, because of the stunning indifference and perhaps also ignorance displayed by a high-ranking UN communications official with respect to a child’s personal data. However, the more notable aspect of this incident has been the widespread condemnation of the tweet (since deleted) and its sender, and her explanation that it was “six years old”. While public criticism has focused on the power gap between humanitarians and refugees and the precarious situation of Iraqi refugees, this incident is noteworthy because it marks the descent of a new figure in international aid and global governance: that of children’s digital bodies.

Because children are dependent, what technology promises most of all is almost unlimited care and control: directly by parents but indirectly by marketing agencies and tech companies building consumer profiles. As explained by the Deborah Lupton, in the political economy of the global North (and, I would add, the global East), children are becoming the objects of a multitude of monitoring devices that generate detailed data about them. What are the possible negative ramifications in low resources contexts and fragile settings characterized by deep-seated oversight and accountability deficits?

The rise of experimental practices: Ed. Tech, babies and biometrics

There is a long history of problematic educational transplants in aid context, from dumping used text books to culturally or linguistically inappropriate material. The history of tech-dumping in disasters is much more recent, but also problematically involves large-scale testing of educational technology platforms. While practitioners complain about relevance, lack of participatory engagement and questionable operability in the emergency context, ethical aspects of educational technology (Ed. Tech), data extraction—and how the collection of data from children and youth constitute part of the merging of aid and surveillance capitalism—are little discussed.

Another recent trend concerns infant biometric identification to help boost vaccination rates. Hundreds of thousands of children die annually due to preventable diseases, many because of inconsistencies in the provision of vaccine programs. Biometric identification is thus intended to link children with their medical records and overcome the logistical challenges of paper-based systems. Trials are now ongoing or planned for India, Bangladesh and Tanzania. While there are still technical challenges in accurately capturing the biometric data of infants, new biometric techniques capture fingers, eyes, faces, ears and feet. In addition to vaccines, uses for child biometrics include combatting aid fraud, identifying missing children and combatting identity theft.

In aid, data is increasingly extracted from children through the miniaturization and personalization of ICT technology. Infant and child biometrics are often coupled with tracking devices in the form of wristbands, necklaces, earpieces, and other devices which the users carry for extended periods of time.

Across the board, technology initiatives directed at children are usually presented as progress narratives, with little concern for unintended consequences. In the economy of suffering, children and infants are always the most deserving individuals, and life-saving interventions are hard to argue against. Similarly, the urgency of saving children functions as a call to action that affords aid and private sector actors room to maneuver with respect to testing and experimentation. At the same time, the mix of gadget distribution and data harvesting inevitably become part of a global data economy, where patterns of structural inequality are reproduced and exacerbated.

Children’s digital bodies

Despite the massive technologization of aid targeting children, so far, no critical thinking has gone into considering the production of children’s digital bodies in aid. The use of digital technologies creates corresponding “digital bodies”—images, information, biometrics, and other data stored in digital space—that represent the physical bodies of populations affected by conflict and natural hazards, but over which these populations have little say or control. These “digital bodies” co-constitute our personalities, relationships, legal and social personas—and today they have immense bearing on our rights and privileges as individuals and citizens. What is really different about children’s digital bodies? What is the specific nature of risk and harm these bodies might incur?

In a non-aid context, critical data researchers and privacy advocates are only just beginning to direct attention to these practices, in particular to the array of specific harms they may encounter, including but not limited to the erosion of privacy.

The question of testing unfinished products on children is deeply contentious: the possibility that unsafe products may be trialed in fragile and low resource settings under different requirements than those posed by rich countries is highly problematic.  On the other hand, parachuting and transplanting digital devices from the global North and East to the global South without any understanding of local needs, context and adaption practices is—based on the history of technological imperialism—ineffective, disempowering, a misuse of resources and, at worst, could further destabilize fragile school systems.

Very often, in aid tech targeting children, the potential for digital risk and harm for children is ignored or made invisible. Risk is phrased as an issue of data security and malfunction and human manipulation of data. Children—especially in low-resource settings—have few opportunities to challenge the knowledge generated through algorithms. They also have scant techno-legal consciousness with respect to how their personal data is being exploited, commodified and used for decisions about their future access to resources, such as healthcare, education, insurance, welfare, employment, and so on. There is the obvious risk of armed actors and other malicious actors accessing and exploiting data; but there are also issues connected to wearables, tablets and phones being used as listening devices useful for surveilling the child’s relatives and careers. It is incumbent on aid actors to understand both the opportunities posed by new technologies, as well as the potential harms they may present—not only during the response, but long after the emergency ends.

Conclusion: time to turn to the CRC!

The mainstreaming of a combination of surveillance and data extraction from children now taking place in aid, ranging from education technology to infant biometrics means that critical discussions of the ethical and legal implications for children’s digital bodies are becoming a burning issue.

The do no harm principle is a key ethical guidance post across fields of development, humanitarianism and global health. The examples above illustrate the need for investment in ethics and evidence on the impact of development and application of new technologies in low resource and fragile settings.  Practitioners and academics need to be alert to how the framing of structural problems shifts to problematizations being amenable to technological innovation and intervention and the interests of technology stakeholders.  But is that enough?

The Children’s Rights Convention of 1989 represented a watershed moment in thinking children’s right to integrity, to be heard and to protection of their physical bodies. Article 3.1 demands that “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Time has now come to articulate and integrate an understanding of children’s digital bodies in international aid within this normative framework.

From Principle to Practice: Humanitarian Innovation and Experimentation

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Humanitarian organizations have an almost impossible task: They must balance the imperative to save lives with the commitment to do no harm. They perform this balancing act amidst chaos, with incredibly high stakes and far fewer resources than they need. It’s no wonder that new technologies that promise to do more with less are so appealing.

By now, we know that technology can introduce bias, insecurity, and failure into systems. We know it is not an unalloyed good. What we often don’t know is how to measure the potential for those harms in the especially fragile contexts where humanitarians work. Without the tools or frameworks to evaluate the credibility of new technologies, it’s hard for humanitarians to know whether they’re having the intended impact and to assess the potential for harm. Introducing untested technologies into unstable environments raises an essential question: When is humanitarian innovation actually human subjects experimentation?

Humanitarians’ use of new technologies (including biometric identification to register refugees for relief, commercial drones to deliver cargo in difficult areas, and big data-fueled algorithms to predict the spread of disease) increasingly looks like the type of experimentation that drove the creation of human subjects research rules in the mid-20th century. In both examples, Western interests used untested approaches on African and Asian populations with limited consent and even less recourse. Today’s digital humanitarians may be innovators, but each new technology raises the specter of new harms, including biasing public resources with predictions over needs assessment, introducing coordination and practical failures through unique indicators and incompatible databases, and significant legal risks to both humanitarians and their growing list of partners.

For example, one popular humanitarian innovation uses big data and algorithms to build predictive epidemiological models. In the immediate aftermath of the late 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a range of humanitarian, academic, and technology organizations called for access to mobile network operators’ databases to track and model the disease. Several organizations got access to those databases—which, it turns out, was both illegal and ineffective. It violated the privacy of millions of people in contravention of domestic regulation, regional conventions, and international law. Ebola was a hemorrhagic fever, which requires the exchange of fluids to transmit—a behavior that isn’t represented in call detail records. More importantly, the resources that should have gone into saving lives and building the facilities necessary to treat the disease instead went to technology.

Without functioning infrastructure, institutions, or systems to coordinate communication, technology fails just like anything else. And yet these are exactly the contexts in which humanitarian innovation organizations introduce technology, often without the tools to measure, monitor, or correct the failures that result. In many cases, these failures are endured by populations already under tremendous hardship, with few ways to hold humanitarians accountable.

Humanitarians need both an ethical and evidence-driven human experimentation framework for new technologies. They need a structure parallel to the guidelines created in medicine, which put in place a number of practical, ethical, and legal requirements for developing and applying new scientific advancements to human populations.

The Medical Model

“Human subjects research,” the term of art for human experimentation, comes from medicine, though it is increasingly applied across disciplines. Medicine created some of the first ethical codes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but the modern era of human subject research protections started in the aftermath of World War II, evolving with the Helsinki Declaration (1975), the Belmont Report (1978), and the Common Rule (1981). These rules established proportionality, informed consent, and ongoing due process as conditions of legal human subjects research. Proportionality refers to the idea that an experiment should balance the potential harms with the potential benefit to participants. Informed consent in human subjects research requires that subjects understand the context and the process of the experiment prior to agreeing to participate. And due process, here, refers to a bundle of principles, including assessing subjects’ need “equally,” subjects’ ability to quit a study, and the continuous assessment of whether an experiment balances methods with the potential outcomes.

These standards defined the practice of human subjects research for the much of the rest of the world and are essential for protecting populations from mistreatment by experimenters who undervalue their well-being. But they come from the medical industry, which relies on a lot of established infrastructure that less-defined industries, such as technology and humanitarianism, lack, which limits their applicability.

The medical community’s human subjects research rules clearly differentiate between research and practice based on the intention of the researcher or practitioner. If the goal is to learn, an intervention is research. If the goal is to help the subject, it’s practice. Because it comes from science, human subjects research law doesn’t contemplate that an activity would use a method without researching it first. The distinction between research and practice has always been controversial, but it gets especially blurry when applied to humanitarian innovation, where the intention is both to learn and to help affected populations.

The Belmont Report, a summary of ethical principles and guidelines for human subject research, defines practice as “designed solely to enhance the well-being of a client or patient and that have a reasonable expectation of success,” (emphasis added). This differs from humanitarian practice in two major ways: First, there is no direct fiduciary relationship between humanitarians and those they serve, and so humanitarians may prioritize groups or collective well-being over the interests of individuals. Second, humanitarians have no way to evaluate the reasonableness of their expectation of success. In other words, the assumptions embedded in human subjects research protections don’t clearly map to the relationships or activities involved in humanitarian response. As a result, these conventions offer humanitarian organizations neither clear guidance nor the types of protections that exist for well-regulated industrial experimentation.

In addition, human subjects research rules are set up so that interventions are judged on their potential for impact. Essentially, the higher the potential for impact on human lives, the more important it is to get informed consent, have ethical review, and for subjects to extricate themselves from the experiment. Unfortunately, in humanitarian response, the impacts are always high, and it’s almost impossible to isolate the effects generated by a single technology or intervention. Even where establishing consent is possible, disasters don’t lend themselves to consent frameworks, because refusing to participate can mean refusing life-saving assistance. In law, consent agreements made under life-threatening circumstances are called contracts of adhesion and aren’t valid. The result is that humanitarian innovation faces fundamental challenges in knowing how to deploy ethical experimentation frameworks and in implementing the protections they require.

First Steps

The good news is that existing legal and ethical frameworks lay a strong foundation. As Jacob Metcalf and Kate Crawford lay out in a 2016 paper, there are significant enough similarities between biomedical and big data research to develop new human subjects research rules. This January, the United States expanded the purview of the Common Rule to govern human subjects research funded by 16 federal departments and agencies. Despite their gaps, human subjects research laws go a long way toward establishing legally significant requirements for consent, proportionality, and due process—even if they don’t yet directly address humanitarian organizations.

Human rights-based approaches such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Code go further, adapting human rights to digital humanitarian practice. But, like most rights frameworks, it relies on public infrastructure to ratify, harmonize, and operationalize. There are proactive efforts to set industry-focused standards and guidelines, such as the World Humanitarian Summit’s Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation and the Digital Impact Alliance’s Principles for Digital Development. And, of course, there are technology-centric efforts beginning to establish ethical use standards for specific technologies—like biometric identification, drone, and big data—that offer specific guidance but include incentives that may not be relevant in the humanitarian context.

That said, principles aren’t enough—we’re now getting to the hard part: building systems that actualize and operationalize our values. We don’t need to decide the boundaries of innovation or humanitarianism as industries to begin developing standards of practice. We don’t need to ratify an international convention on technology use to begin improving procurement requirements, developing common indicators of success for technology use, or establishing research centers capable of testing for applicability of new approaches to difficult and unstable environments. A wide range of industries are beginning to invest in legal, organizational, and technological approaches to building trust—all of which offer additional, practical steps forward.

For humanitarians, as always, the stakes are high. The mandate to intervene comes with the responsibility to know how to do better. Humanitarians hold themselves and their work to a higher standard than almost any other field in the world. They must now apply the same rigor to the technologies and tools they use.


This post originally appeared on the blog of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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.

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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.

Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies
Contact: Centre Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert margab@prio.org, PRIO, PO Box 9229 Grønland, NO-0134 Oslo, Norway