Tag Archives: humanitarian aid

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

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The imperial past and the humanitarian present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Ibid, p. 202.

[11] Ibid, p. 185.

[12] Ibid, p. 189.

[13] Ibid, p. 242.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food as an instrument of peace

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

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

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

WFP and the political nature of humanitarian multilateralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding thoughts

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

The Politics of Humanitarian Aid to Myanmar

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This text first appeared on PK Forum, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Marte Nilsen is Senior Researcher at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Women in a market in Myanmar. Photo: eGuide Travel CC BY

I felt like I had defeated the dictators when I walked out of Yangon’s Mingeladon airport for the first time, more than 20 years ago. Unnoticed, I had sneaked out of the que and avoided the mandatory exchange of three new, unfolded, and spotless 100-dollar bills into the FEC monopoly money that the Myanmar military regime made foreigners use. Before arrival, I had gone many rounds with myself considering the ethical dilemma of visiting Burma, or Myanmar, under the repressive regime of the generals. I had seen the leaflets and posters all over Northern Thailand, asking tourists not to go. I knew about the brutal crackdown of the student uprising ten years earlier. I knew about the civil wars, the humanitarian suffering, and about Aung San Su Kyi in house arrest. Yet, I decided to go. I had to see for myself.

Myanmar was something else. The tea leaf salads, the Shan noodles, the cheroot cigars, the green tea and the palm sugar jaggery. Getting conned by black market money changers down at Sule Pagoda. Listening to cheesy Burmese love songs to the tunes of Metallica in coffeeshops serving black coffee with lime. The blasting karaoke on overnight busses. Getting lectured, in secrecy, by school teachers and tour guides about politics and about the radio that was broadcasting from my home town in Oslo. The strange feeling of normality interrupted by the large red billboards in white writing with propaganda from the military regime, reminding me about the repression and the hardship.

Returning to Myanmar 14 years later, it was like arriving to a different country. T-shirts and shoulder bags picturing the Lady was sold openly on the streets. A booming civil society and people speaking freely about politics, about the war and the suffering, and about the peace process. Dissidents returning from exile. In October 2012, together with our local partner, PRIO organized an academic conference about democratization and peace in Myanmar – the first of its kind in many decades. Myanmar was opening up, but international actors engaged in heated arguments and disputes about the reliability of the reforms and the sincerity of the generals.

Building up since the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the politics of aid to Myanmar was reaching a peak of tension. Anyone providing humanitarian relief for people in Myanmar would have to consider the political implications of their approach and be prepared to be met by harsh criticism for their stance. Were any operations dealing with the illegitimate regime in Naypyidaw consequently undermining the struggle for democracy and minority rights, or were such concerns trumped by the humanitarian imperative of providing assistance wherever it is needed? 

Was it more effective to pressure the military with isolation and international sanctions, or did these sanctions only hurt the people of Myanmar? Could support to civil society groups inside Myanmar lead to a transformation of Myanmar society and to political changes in the long run, or would this strategy only benefit existing elites with close links to the regime? These were the kind of questions that characterized the heated debate. The different positions were strongly held by the various aid providers and advocacy groups, and they were based on competing theories of change. 

In the first years of the transition since 2011, I followed closely the work and the different approaches of the three Norwegian organizations with the largest operations in Myanmar and along the Thai-Myanmar border – The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA). 

Norway had become an engine in the international shift from sanctions and isolation to engagement, and initiated a number of humanitarian programs inside Myanmar to support the peace process and the reforms. Some of these initiatives were operated by NRC and NPA, while NCA expressed concern against the initiatives and feared that they would be implemented at the expense of support to refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border. In 2017 I visited some of the key humanitarian projects of these three Norwegian organizations in Myanmar and along the border, and I conducted interviews with staff, partner organizations and aid recipients. 

In my study I found that these three organizations exhibited characteristics from three competing humanitarian approaches that are commonly found among aid providers in Myanmar. While NRC strived to operate with a neutral approach aiming to secure humanitarian principles without pursuing any other political agenda, NPA cultivated a more pragmatic approach aiming to work with the government to open up space for local organizations. 

This approach was the result of a clear political thinking that the humanitarian suffering can only be stopped through a transformation of the Myanmar Society from below. This political thinking was largely shared by NCA, but while NPA saw a value in expanding its support within Myanmar, NCA maintained an idealist approach aiming to support exile organizations to push for human rights and seek to hold international donors, the Myanmar government, and the military accountable for their actions. 

One of the most difficult dilemmas for aid providers working in authoritarian and repressive states involved in violent conflict is the trade-off between getting humanitarian access in the short term and securing human rights for the future. To gain access to the areas where people are in desperate need of outside assistance, humanitarian providers need to bargain and compromise with the regimes that cause the suffering. Where the line between confrontation and collaboration should be drawn is a constant source of debate among aid providers. 

The controversies in Myanmar concerned two strategic divides: One between staying neutral (NRC) and having a political agenda (NPA, NCA); and one between maintaining a distance to the old regime (NCA) and seeking careful engagement (NRC, NPA). However, I would argue that despite the competing strategies, the different approaches among humanitarian actors have, unintentionally, contributed to a division of labour, enabling them to address a variety of Myanmar’s humanitarian needs. 

Achieving peace, development and democracy in a country like Myanmar, with its complex conflict dynamics and history of injustice and repression, is bound to be a long and winding road, involving a multitude of actors and engagement strategies. There is no simple recipe to progress. My first visit to Myanmar back in 1998, and the journeys of other travellers at the time, didn’t do much either way concerning democratization or repression. 

But it did lead to some incredible meetings between people with different experiences and references, to meaningful exchanges of ideas and insights, and to long-lasting friendships. Similarly, it is not the different approaches of various aid providers that is going to determine the success of Myanmar’s peace process or path to democracy and prosperity. That will be the struggle of the Myanmar people. However, the diversity of support that humanitarian actors can provide to people in desperate need and to people with aspirations, abilities and commitment to transform their country and their communities has been crucial in the past and will remain important in the years to come.

In a critical moment for Yemen, donor fatigue can have disastrous consequences

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About the authors: Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Mr Belal Abdo is a former Yemeni diplomat, and holds a Master degree in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action.

WFP food distibution in Raymah. Photo: Julien Harneis via Flickr

Heartbreakingly for those of us still watching, Yemen continues to descend further into humanitarian catastrophe. Now the scene of the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet, the country has been spiraling deeper into suffering since the war began in 2015 and the ongoing cholera epidemic took hold the following year. The economy in ruins, healthcare system close to collapse, and infrastructure devastated after years of conflict, a staggering 80% of the population need some form of humanitarian assistance or protection – some 24 million people. And now those people, already teetering on the edge of survival, face Covid-19, leading the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency to warm that the deadly virus could ‘delete Yemen from maps all over the world’.

Limited resources despite deepening crisis

Despite the deepening crisis, humanitarian aid operations in Yemen remain critically underfunded.  The UN warns that 30 of its 41 programmes in the country will have to close in few weeks. Some of the resources pledged last year have not yet materialized, causing financial distress to critical life-saving humanitarian programmes. What is more, humanitarian organizations working in Yemen face tremendous challenges. According to reports, they are threatened if they do not make payouts to warring parties, who are alleged to use the funds to finance their war effort. Humanitarian workers also face threats and restrictions, ratcheting up security concerns and limitations on their movements. During recent years, humanitarian aid is said to have been stolen from humanitarian organizations, in particular the World Food Programme, which declared that it will suspend its operations if the authorities continue to impose restrictions on the programme, their aid personnel, or their warehouses. Last year, Yemeni activists adopted a campaign calling for further transparency by UN agencies, especially in relation to using and disbursing funds for Yemen. Some also levelled accusations of corruption and the squandering of huge portions of funds on international travel, higher salaries for unqualified international staff, and diversion of aid money to warring parties. Activists claimed that only a small portion of funds was reaching those in need – in some cases, less than 30%.

“Pledges will not save lives unless they are paid” 

The dire situation in Yemen has prompted the UN to call, jointly with Saudi Arabia, for a high-level pledging conference for the response to the crisis. The conference convened via an online platform on June 2, 2020 and was attended by around 125 countries and international organizations, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged donor countries to pledge generously and to transfer the resources as quickly as possible so as major humanitarian aid operations can be maintained. Some 30 pledging announcements were made, amounting to $1.35 billion; around $1 billion less than that promised at last year’s pledging conference. This leaves a huge shortfall in the $2.41 billion needed to cover the UN’s basic humanitarian programmes in the country for the next six months.  UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, added that “pledges will not save lives unless they are paid”.

Of the pledges announced, Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition, is to contribute half a billion dollars – the biggest contribution for humanitarian situation in 2020 in Yemen. About $300 million will go to the UN agencies, and $200 million will support humanitarian programmes run by King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre. Although other Arab countries participated in the Conference, they have not pledged any financial support.  The United Arab Emirates, which is a key actor in the coalition and which directly or indirectly controls some areas in Yemen, has not pledged any money, choosing to refer to funding disbursed to UN agencies or politically charged Yemeni-run organizations. Qatar, among the top ten major donors to OCHA and humanitarian action around the world, did not participate in the conference due to circumstances relating to its withdrawal from the coalition, while Kuwait, surprisingly, did not commit.

Yemen’s hour of need

It is perhaps understandable that donors feel exhausted and despondent, as we see in the language of figures or numbers and as those who once supported Arab Spring issues turn away to focus instead on problems such as coronavirus and the global economic recession. But it comes at a time when Yemen needs more desperately than ever a political settlement which brings warring parties to the negotiating table with the support of Arab countries and the international community.  Donors –– especially those who contributed to what is now the world’s largest humanitarian crisis –– must shoulder their responsibilities by providing humanitarian aid and contributing to post-conflict reconstruction. History will not forgive them if they do not.

COVID-19 could kill off Muslim charities in the West that fail to adapt

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About the authors: Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Mr. Omar Gamal holds a MSc. in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action, and is a humanitarian partnership consultant.

Boy in camp. Photo: Danish Muslim Aid via Flickr

Humanitarian organisations have issued dire warnings about the potentially catastrophic impact of COVID-19 in countries already in the throes of crisis. Calling for $2.01 billion to fund a coordinated humanitarian response to COVID-19, the United Nations priorities countries gripped by food insecurity, including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslim charities are on the frontline in this global health crisis. As national non-governmental organizations they are among the first to reach communities with lifesaving aid. And as international charities, they are providing vital support to vulnerable people who who endure precarious conditions in camps and urban centres.

Incomes drop as needs rise

However, Muslim charities face unprecedented challenges as the coronavirus crisis strangles fundraising and threatens lifesaving programmes in the field – at precisely the moment they’re needed most. Western-Muslim charities.  Lockdowns imposed to save lives in the West have prevented Muslim charities from carrying out their usual fundraising in mosques and through public events. Their incomes are dropping precisely as the humanitarian needs are rising. Many are responding to COVID in the countries in which they fundraise, as well as to complicated crises in Muslim majority countries including Yemen, Syria and Myanmar. They are also providing a lifeline to those affected by largely neglected crises such as in Gaza and Mali.

New ways of humanitarian fundraising

According to the United Nations, funding for humanitarian action has been falling short since 2009, exceeding $13 billion last year. The gap is the result of natural disasters and protracted conflicts such as in Yemen and Syria, and an increase in numbers of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Muslim charities are responding to many of these crises, with donations from Muslims making up a sizable proportion of their income. Muslims give sadaqa, voluntary charity, and obligatory alms-giving known as zakat, with many choosing to support programmes serving their local and national communities. However Muslim charities typically focus their humanitarian programming on the Global South, and so they lack implementing bodies in the west.

What’s more, COVID has left their usual donors with less money to give – according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), half of the world’s workers are now in danger of losing their jobs. In response, Muslim charities should develop implementing bodies and strengthen local charities in donor countries and use the opportunity to educate donors about the value of their economic empowerment programming.

As the world looks for ways in which to live with the virus, the ‘tried and tested’ fundraising activities on which many Muslim charities rely may be gone forever.  But without the outlays associated with putting on public events, combined with lower office running costs as staff in lockdown work from home and the expenditure on travel drops, savings can be made. Savvy charities will invest this cash in training staff in new ways of working, and in developing creative and resilient fundraising mechanisms.

Fundraising for sectors such as health or education, rather than countries, would give charities greater flexibility to respond where the needs are greatest. Concentrating on building brand affinity rather than promoting individual projects will boost donor retention. Drawing on volunteers to organise challenges, as an alternative to using alternative fundraising that would reduce costs and better engage donors.

Adapting project implementation

The virus is also presenting significant challenges to Muslim charities as they implement their humanitarian programmes. For example, some are currently distributing Ramadan food parcels, with budgets reaching $5 million or more. They are having to find ways of getting food supplies to vulnerable families while introducing social distancing measures to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Many humanitarian projects are seeing their duration extended by up to 12 months, leaving vulnerable people without the interventions they so desperately need. It is unclear who will shoulder the additional cost of the extensions. Muslim international non-governmental organisations still have to run their field offices, and they have to find the money for unforeseen expenses such as face masks, hand sanitizer, and increased use of private transport. We estimate that the measures needed to protect staff from infection could see the cost of humanitarian action could rise by 15-25%.

Muslim charities must prepare teams to negotiate with donors about the increase in project costs, and to preserve the skills and expertise in their offices, consider reducing all staff salaries as an alternative to redundancies.

A heavy price

The Muslim charities that survive this global crisis will be those that swiftly adapt, and that invest in a new vision for fundraising post-COVID. Those that do not will themselves fall victim to COVID-19. And it will be the world’s poorest people who pay the price.

Context matters – Why Africa should tailor its own measures to fight COVID-19

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This post was originally published in Africa Policy Brief by the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. You can find the original post by clicking here, along with a list of references. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Nina Wilén is Research Director for the Africa Programme at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at Lund University as well as a Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

African governments have been faster than most of their European counterparts in imposing measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak despite dealing with numerous other challenges. However, context matters, and for Africa, the political and socioeconomic consequences of the lockdown measures may cause more havoc than the actual virus. This brief identifies political, economic and social risks related to coronavirus responses in Africa and emphasises the disproportionate burden carried by women. It argues that localised measures, which include dialogue, transparency and flexibility, may be the only realistic way forward, while underlining the need for wealthier states to provide generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments, in spite of current challenges, in order for Africa to pull through yet another challenge.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation COVID-19 Command Centre. Photo: GovernmentZA via Flickr

Introduction

As Europe and the United States grapple to cope with the effects of COVID-19, Africa is getting ready to add the coronavirus to the long list of challenges the continent already faces. Against a backdrop of widespread poverty, armed conflict, terrorism and climate change, African governments have reacted surprisingly swiftly, many imposing social-distancing measures and closing borders early on. But extensive lockdown measures are probably not, as others have already pointed out, [i] the right, or even the possible, way to go for most African states. For a continent where 70% of the population are under the age of 30 [ii] and around 5% aged 65 or over, the political, social and economic consequences of isolation measures are likely to cause more havoc than the actual virus.

This policy brief analyses the risks related to the spread of, and the responses to, the coronavirus in an African context. In particular, it looks at the political risks of emergency laws, extended powers and suspended elections; the economic risks related to both Western and African states’ lockdown measures, including rising unemployment figures, food insecurity and deepening debts; and the social impacts to which hard-hitting isolation measures may lead, focusing on how women are disproportionately affected – even though men are overrepresented among the victims of the virus. Finally, it points to the fact that Africa is a continent composed of highly heterogeneous states where localised measures that include dialogue, transparency and flexibility may not just be the most appropriate response but also the only realistic way forward.

Above all, it underlines the necessity for the continent’s wealthier neighbours in the North to ensure that the desperately needed solidarity is extended further south in the shape of generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments. While this might seem like a utopic vision for an ever-more isolationist United States and an EU that faces problems raising solidarity among its own Member States, a quick glance at the repercussions that an Africa in crisis might have, in the shape of more refugees, starvation and a vaster breeding ground for terrorists, should convince the Northern states of the necessity to extend backing to the continent. If those arguments are still not enough, the leeway left for Chinese and Russian influence on the continent should alter the balance in favour of reinforced European and American economic, political and  social support to Africa, even if it will be challenging as the former face their own crises.

Emergency powers, suspended elections and political tensions

The current pandemic has provided political leaders with the opportunity of a lifetime to extend their powers through a variety of different measures. In Europe, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has pushed through a bill that allows the government to maintain the state of emergency as long as it wants, while in the United States, Trump’s vast emergency powers and history of attempts to erode institutional checks and balances, should send shivers along any democratic citizen’s spine. The risk of political leaders using the coronavirus crisis as a means to grab more power is thus a global phenomenon.

Yet, this risk is especially worrying in states with a history of weak democratic institutions, which are overly represented on the African continent. The 2019 Democracy Index, where half of the 44 sub-Saharan governments included are categorised as authoritarian and the remaining 22 as hybrid regimes or flawed democracies (with the exception of one state), paints a bleak picture of the strength of the continent’s democratic institutions. [iii] Furthermore, a worryingly high number of senior political officials have contracted COVID-19 incountries that are already unstable gerontocracies, including Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Popular unrest and increased political instability related to power competition are just two of the consequences that the death of a leader can trigger in states where politics are highly personalised and democratic institutions weak.[iv]

In 2020, Africa is set to host a dozen presidential or general elections, the majority of which will be held in countries confronting or emerging from conflict. COVID-19 is likely to disrupt electoral processes because of public health concerns and logistical impossibility of organizing them. Ethiopia has already postponed its first election, scheduled for August, since Prime Minister Abiy opened up the political space. While this decision has been taken in accordance with some of the opposition parties, in other states, less democratic leaders may use this as a precedent to circumvent elections. However, leaders inclined to stay in power may also choose to go ahead with elections, benefitting from the limited possibilities that the (few) opposition parties will have to prepare and execute election campaigns. They may also use emergency powers to extend their time in office. Somewhat ironically, Uganda’s 2013 law against meetings between more than three people, aimed at stifling the opposition, was declared unconstitutional on 26 March, yet the nation-wide lockdown, which, among other measures, prohibits public transport and exercise in public, will supersede it for the weeks to come.[v] In sum, the options for undemocratic leaders to avoid elections, extend powers and suppress opposition are disturbingly many this year.

Burundi, which is preparing for presidential elections in just a month,[vi] has so far not put any additional restrictions on political or sport-related gatherings, claiming that the country is protected by God’s grace.[vii] This should, however, be seen in a context where members of the opposition have faced heavy-handed clampdowns that have reduced their camps and sent most opposition members into exile. The appreciation for God’s grace also means that people continue to visit churches en masse, which may increase the spread of the virus and work against God’s protection.

Unemployment, food insecurity and the risk of increasing debts

The vast majority of the world’s poorest countries are located on the African continent, with over 40% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population living in extreme poverty [viii] and 55% of the urban population living in slums.[ix] A large part of the urban population gets by on work in the informal sector, such as street trading and open markets, with no access to unemployment benefits or sick pay. Imposing isolation measures in such contexts is not only practically impossible but also counterproductive, as it will increase poverty and lead to food insecurity. Outcries against lockdown measures can already now be heard across the continent, with people rightly identifying starvation as a bigger threat than the virus.

Africa is an integral part of the global economy and, as such, the economic downturn related to China, Europe and the United States’ quarantine measures has seen the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) give bleak prognostics for the continent. Africa may lose half its GDP due to the COVID-19 crisis, due to falling oil revenues, disruption of export trade, and a decline in tourism and investments. [xii] In addition, African states importing goods such as basic food and medicines see their currencies losing value against the dollar in an instable economic context. Predictions of the loss of nearly half of all jobs in Africa underline how the corona crisis is likely to deepen socioeconomic inequalities, unless wealthier states help carry the disproportionate burden shouldered by many of the states in the southern hemisphere. [xiii]Few states on the continent have the financial capacity to offer a sufficient number of welfare packages or adequate support measures for lost incomes. South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, has yet to come up with a way to compensate the loss of income for the three million informal workers who dominate the day-to-day economy in the country’s townships and downtown areas. [x] The Nigerian government has promised a subvention of ten billion naira (23 million euros) to alleviate the economic consequences felt in Lagos, a city that is home to more than 20 million people,[xi] and while the initiative is important, it is uncertain whether it will be enough to cover the loss of incomes.

The UN launched a two-billion-dollar coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight COVID-19 for the world’s poorest countries, while the EU announced 15 billion euros to fight the virus in vulnerable countries, with EU High Representative Borrell promising that Europe would not forget its sister continent – reflecting the new EU-Africa strategy proposed only a few weeks earlier. [xiv] Wealthier states and individuals have also made contributions to fight both the virus and its socioeconomic consequences on the continent. The Chinese billionaire, Jack Ma, has donated a total of 1.1 million testing kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits to help Africa, [xv] while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide up to 100 million dollars to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts and protect at-risk populations in Africa and South Asia.xvi

Upcoming discussions between the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the G20 leaders about debt reliefs [xvii] and the creation of one-trilliondollar special drawing rights (SDRs) to offer grants and loans provide short-term relief for many African states. Yet, delaying debt payments while giving greater access to credit only risks delaying the economic shock until a later date. Debt cancellations and increased aid budgets in the current context are not only signs of solidarity but also self-protective measures for wealthier states that are otherwise likely to see spillover effects from their Southern neighbours’ crises. Importantly, the consequences of the responses to COVID-19 will not be limited to the political or the economic sphere but will also increase social inequalities.

When social distancing is not an option

Social distancing and hand washing have been hammered into populations across the world as the main measures to avoid spreading the virus and to flatten the curve of its exponential growth. ‘Flattening the curve’ implies slowing down the rate of infection so that the number of severely ill patients is reduced, allowing countries to prepare and increase hospital capacity. This three-headed strategy presupposes that 1) social distancing is feasible; 2) there is an access to clean water and soap; and 3) that health-care sectors can ramp up capacity in a short period. Even in richer countries on the continent, such as Nigeria, South Africa and Angola, all three of these assumptions pose problems.

African urban areas are often densely inhabited even in relatively sparsely populated countries in the Sahel. Public transport often consists of privately-owned vehicles where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder, and access to clean water is limited for the poorer part of the population even in many of the major cities. [xviii] Of course, there are enormous variations between different areas, even within the same country. While the large majority of white citizens in Stellenbosch, a university town outside of Cape Town, may not have difficulty social distancing and hand washing, only 20 kilometres away in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Western Cape, which has five times the population density of Stellenbosch, this will be considerably more difficult. This is especially the case because, just days before the lockdown was enforced, the City of Cape Town decided to temporarily cut water access for those who had not paid their bills in time. [xix]

Increased tensions in areas where lockdowns have severe repercussions on the population may provoke clashes with security forces. While South African president Ramaphosa urged the military to be a force for kindness and not might, the use of water cannon and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown has been difficult to associate with kindness and is likely to have increased rather than diminished tensions. In the DRC, the head of the Kinshasa police force sent a video to Reuters of police officers beating a taxi driver for violating a one-passenger limit, to encourage others to obey the rules.[xx] These examples of forcible impositions of lockdown are not only likely to lead to largescale evasion and subversion, but also risk crowding in the streets and increased distrust of government motives.xxi

Women on the frontlines

While, thus far, men seem to be overrepresented among COVID-19 casualties, women are more likely to suffer disproportionately from the socioeconomic consequences of the virus’ spread. Women make up 70% of health workers globally and provide 75% of unpaid care, looking after children, the sick and the elderly.[xxii] Women are also more likely to be employed in poorly paid precarious jobs that are most at risk, while access to healthcare for sexual and reproductive health will be constrained during the pandemic. In addition, domestic abuse, which affects women disproportionately, has already seen a horrifying surge in places like China and France, and is likely to continue to rise worldwide, as stress, alcohol consumption and financial difficulties – all triggers for violence at home – increase during isolation. [xxiii]

While these aspects affect women globally, they will most likely hit women harder in poorer countries where the health sector is weak, traditional gender roles are deepseated, and the majority are employed in the informal sector. Entrenched gender roles can be seen in the exceptionally high percentage of single mothers in sub-Saharan Africa – 32%, compared to the global average of 13% [xxiv] – while women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare is likely to be sidelined. In Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, for example, more women died of obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself. [xxv] In places with ongoing conflicts, like Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the risks are obviously even greater as healthcare sectors are already under enormous strains, violence normalised and infrastructures weak.

It is utopic and unrealistic to attempt to change gender roles in the midst of a pandemic. However, it is irresponsible not to do a gender analysis of how the measures to contain the spread of the virus will affect women and men, boys and girls differently. Humanitarian aid should take into account these differences, earmarking funds for the disproportionate risk of domestic abuse that women face during quarantine periods. Providing emergency child-care provision, economic security even for informal sector workers and shelters, which can host abused women and children, are aspects that are needed now. Collecting high-quality data about how women and men are affected differently, both by the actual virus and the socio-economic consequences, also needs to be done now, to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Conclusion

Africa is a large continent with over 50 highly diverse states. Any analysis that attempts to capture the whole continent is deemed to be general, superficial and miss important differences. This brief is no exception. Similarly, any ‘one-size-fits-all response’ to a global epidemic is likely to neglect crucial local variances. This is why it is critical to take into account countryspecific demographic patterns and make sure to communicate with concerned populations. This is not only for the sake of transparency and compliance, but also to improve the efficiency of the measures. Africa has proven to be more resilient than expected in the face of earlier epidemics like Ebola and HIV. One of the reasons for this is, paradoxically, popular distrust of governments and, instead, reliance on families and communities, prompting innovative local solutions. During the Ebola outbreak, smaller community care centres replaced larger hospitals and allowed for closer cooperation between Ebola responders and families, while communities’ self-quarantine measures often proved more effective than heavy-handed whole impositions by the government. [xxvi] Letting communities propose their own ideas of how to control the spread of the virus, while providing the essential epidemiological facts, is one way to take local differences into account. Here it is essential that both men and women are consulted to ensure that diverse gender needs meet fitting responses.

While Africa’s young demographic seems to make the coronavirus less of a lethal threat than in Europe, the political and socioeconomic consequences will most likely hit Africa harder. Their impact risks undermining significant advances made during the past few decades in terms of democratisation, economic growth and improved living conditions. This is why Africa cannot and should not be facing the coming crisis alone. As US and European states struggle to show solidarity among themselves, they should be rigorous in extending solidarity further south and show that slogans of partnership, sister continents and equality actually reflect values and guide action.

Humanitarian Wearables and the Future of Aid in the Global Data Economy

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This text first appeared on the Global Policy blog and is re-posted here. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO/UiO) examines the politics of humanitarian wearables to understand more about how digitization is reshaping the nature and relations of aid.

Photo: Inge Knoff via Flickr

Utopian visions for change. The rise of a global data economy has engendered intense engagements with new patterns of digital extraction and surveillance, giving rise to terms such as ‘data colonialism’ and ‘algorithmic fairness’.  In the aid sector, the onset of ‘digital humanitarianism’  has produced a significant amount of hype with frequent promises that the latest digital device or platform will be a ‘game changer’.  In a highly  influential report from 2013 called ‘Humanitarianism in the network age’  OCHA, the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs proclaimed that everyone agrees that technology has changed ‘how people interact with each other and how power is distributed’. The report concludes that the turn to technology would lead to a fundamental shift in power from capitals and headquarters to the people aid agencies aim to assist. In 2020, it is safe to say that this is not quite how things worked out. At the same time, there has been fundamental changes in how the sector engages with the people it aims to protect and assist.   

Small devices, big governance questions. This blog discusses the emergence of ‘humanitarian wearables’ and how the meshing of digital devices and data extraction in the humanitarian context engenders new questions with respect to the nature of aid. Wearables placed on beneficiaries can be used for tracking and protecting the health, safety and nutrition of aid recipients. UNICEF’s 2015 ‘Wearables for Good’ challenge showcased numerous applications with important humanitarian purposes. One of the winners was a necklace tracking infant immunizations. However, while this type of device has also – somewhat predictably- been hailed as a ‘game changer’ , I suggest that this time it’s true- but that the game changing is of a different nature: What needs to be understood is that, in ‘the making’ of humanitarian wearables, over time, the product will be the data produced by beneficiaries wearing tracking devices, not the wearables themselves. 

What is a wearable. Operating on the developing interfaces between bio and sensor technology, wearables provide measurement, selection, screening, legibility, calculability and visibility. Tracking operates through and upon multiple layers: general biodata, such as height, weight, gender, age and race; bodily fluids, including blood, sweat, sperm and tears; and the capture of individual characteristics, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice and face recognition. These are conceptualized as smart devices that can be placed on or inside aid recipients’ bodies for many purposes, including tracking and protecting health, safety and nutrition. This may involve delivering or monitoring reproductive health, producing security and accountability through more efficient registration, or monitoring or delivering nutrition. While the sociological literature on tracking devices, focusing on individual self-tracing and consumer behavior is large and growing, little critical scholarly attention has been paid to the use of tracking devices in the Global South, and none at all to their use in the humanitarian context. In contrast, the deployment of wearables in emergencies entails deployment in contexts where there are deep, extra-democratic power differences between beneficiaries and structurally unaccountable humanitarian actors, donors and private sector actors.

A complicated past. The humanitarian sector has long used wristbands to control and care for beneficiaries. A key objective of international refugee management is to reduce fraud, one type of which is repeated registration by the same individual, or registration by those who do not qualify as recipients. In the past, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to avoid multiple registrations by using stamps, wristbands, photographs, fingerprints or biometrics. The historical use of wristbands raises questions about potentially repressive aspects of contemporary humanitarian use of wearables. According to UNHCR, wristbands identify each individual claiming to be a refugee, limit the recycling of the refugee population, serve as distribution ‘cards’, and give everyone better access to food and other assistance. They are, then, a tool for protecting the most vulnerable. Wristbands are considered a comparatively low-tech, low-cost, low-trauma method of fixing. At the same time, wristbands are then clearly a technology of exclusion, and has also been commonly used in extreme registration contexts, such as those involving enclosure systems – the herding of people into a confined space for registration. This complicated historical baggage calls into question the idea of humanitarian wearables as a uniquely benevolent technology.

Gadgets not structural change. Wearables are best understood as part of a process of miniaturization of the architecture of aid:  As observed by Collier et al. (2017), the grand aid schemes of yesterday are today found as gadgets. Small technologies of government now permeate the field of international aid. The smallness of these devices stand in contrast to the massive modernist projects of the period of technological imperialism: wearables are part of a general trend in aid, whereby “tremendous intellectual and moral energy, as well as the financial and organizational resources, being devoted to inventing and disseminating … micro-endeavors”. While not designed to provide paradigm shifts, the devices are surrounded by what the authors describe as “salvational talk”. The underlying motif here is “a dream of scaling up micro-technologies to have macro effects.”  Discourses surrounding these goods are free of talk of social justice, focusing on devices that can achieve benefits without “the messy complications and entanglements of collective action”.

Profit and the private sector. This perspective on technology is part of a broader culture shift taking place regarding the permissibility and necessity of private sector collaboration to achieve success. At the same time, the humanitarian sector remains uneasy about the idea of profit.  The sizeable academic literature on humanitarian goods has so far given little attention to how the incorporation of international aid into the global data economy changes this equation.

My concern is not only how humanitarian wearables can turn the basic relationships of the aid sector upside down, but how we fail to recognize this development.  The OCHA report promised ‘a fundamental shift in power’.  Perhaps it is possible to talk about a ‘further shift in power’ instead. I propose that a proliferation of wearable technologies in the humanitarian space will necessarily engender important questions about the nature and meaning of aid and about how we understand the elements of the key humanitarian relationships: who donates, who aids and who gives. Humanitarian aid – at least by donors and humanitarian actors – is presented as a one-directional activity premised on notions of charity and financial generosity. With the rise of wearables, this relationship is turned on its head, if we recognize the central premise of the global data economy: that it is the beneficiary data that is the product, not the tracking device.

Penal Humanitarianism: Sovereign power and migration (Part II)

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This is the second post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. This post is based on an article examining UK ‘managing migration’ initiatives, illustrating a securitization of humanitarian aid.

Penal Humanitarianism and Sovereign Power

In 2017, I published an article in the New Criminal Law Review on a series of UK programmes delivered overseas that were funded by the Returns and Reintegration Fund (RRF), under the rubric of ‘managing migration.’ These initiatives, which included prison building programs, mandatory prisoner transfer agreements, prison training programs, and resettlement assistance for deportees, I wrote, ‘demonstrate in quite concrete ways a series of interconnections between criminal justice and migration control that are both novel and, in their postcolonial location, familiar. In their ties to international development and foreign policy, they also illuminate how humanitarianism allows penal power to move beyond the nation state, raising important questions about our understanding of punishment and its application.’ In 2016 these programs were absorbed into the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF), which, seeks ‘to deliver and support security, defence, peacekeeping, peace-building and stability activity.’

In 2013 the UK government helped the New Broughton Prison in Manchester, Jamaica, to start a poultry farm which supplies the other institutions within the Department of Corrections network with eggs and chickens. Image from British High Commission, Kingston.

Whereas the RRF was made up of (and paid into by) the Home Office, the Department of International Development, the Ministry of Justice, and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the composition of the CSSF suggests a more muscular form of sovereign power. In additional to the four original departments, it includes Border Force, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Ministry of Defence, the National Crime Agency, and the Stabilisation Unit. Likewise, whereas the RRF was chaired by the Foreign Office, signaling a diplomatic approach, the CSSF’s strategic direction is set by the National Security Council (NSC) which includes secretaries of state and is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is further guided by the priorities set out in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the UK aid Strategy. The CSSF is active in over 70 countries, which include Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, Burundi, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Macedonia, Mali, Morocco, Moldova, Nepal, Nigeria, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Pakistan , Peru, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Yemen and the UK Overseas Territories.  

As its composition and geographical reach suggests, the CSSF is clearly a far bigger endeavour than the RRF ever was. Such matters are also evident in its budget, which in 2018-19 is £1.28 billion, of which £300 million is used towards mandatory contributions to peacekeeping operations. The budget is split between Official Development Assistance (ODA) that counts towards the UK aid target of 0.7% of GNI, and funding that is not ODA eligible.

In my 2017 article, I examined some RRF investments in Jamaica and Nigeria in criminal justice institutions and training as well as in resettlement programs for deportees. The programs ranged from very modest programs such as a  course in cake baking for female young offenders in Jamaica, to a new prison wing in Kirikiri prison in Lagos both of which were funded in 2012. Three years later, in 2015, then prime minister David Cameron offered to fund a new prison in Kingston.

For the UK, these programs were part of an attempt to bring about new mandatory prisoner transfer agreements in Nigeria and Jamaica, through which the British government could rid themselves more speedily of serving foreign national offenders. In tying such matters together, and in delivering them often via organisations from the nongovernmental sector, these programs, I argued, acted as a form of ‘penal humanitarianism.’ This form of aid, moreover, I suggested, allowed the British government to reinstate sovereignty over its former colonial subjects, often within the very institutions that it had originally constructed. As such, penal humanitarianism illuminated the colonial roots of much migration and migration policy in the UK, and indeed in the global North more generally.

Under the CSSF, the connections between criminal justice and migration control have become more explicit, amplified by a greater emphasis on security.  Thus, for example, under the terms of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, the CSSF supports the ‘Organised immigration crime taskforce (Project INVIGOR)’ ‘to improve the capability of source and transit countries to tackle organised immigration crime (OIC); develop and enrich the intelligence picture of the threat of OIC; identify and investigate those involved; disrupt the use of enablers by organised criminals in facilitating OIC; and identify and recover illicit finances.’  Aimed at tackling groups who smuggling people across borders they cannot otherwise legally traverse, this programme seeks to:

  • Reduce the profitability of organised immigration crime.
  • Improve transit and source country’s ability to stop organised immigration crime.
  • [obtain] More prosecutions and convictions of criminals involved in organised immigration crime in the UK and overseas.

So, too, the CSSF ‘Reintegration and Support for Returnees Programme’, ‘delivers against the objectives in the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Strategy.’ Specifically, it ‘aims to increase the capacity of countries to manage the return of migrants through provision of post-arrival and reintegration support and by prison institution building.’  

No serious attempt is made to explain why people use smugglers to cross borders, e.g. in response to the lack of legal routes. Instead, the CSSF summary states obliquely ‘Among the migrants’ reasons for attempting to reach the EU illegally is a belief that they can eventually find a better life there.’ Preventing this mobility, is for their own good, the policy document notes, because ‘organised crime groups… expose migrants to great risks due to the often-dangerous routes and methods that they use, and there are great personal costs to the individual migrants who can end up in modern slavery.’

So, too, the CSSF doesn’t explain why prison building is necessary to manage returning migrants. Instead it notes that its ‘overarching outputs’, namely the:

  • Provision of post-arrival and longer-term reintegration support to returning migrants, [and]
  • Prison reform, capacity building and training… should contribute to the following outcomes:
  • A supportive return for migrants from the UK to their country of origin
  • Improved capacity and facilities for countries of origin to manage returns

‘As a secondary benefit’ the document observes, ‘the programme meets UK Government objectives of returning a greater number of migrants with no legal basis to remain in the UK, to their country of origin.’

In these examples, as migration and crime have been elided, criminal justice investment appears to have become a humanitarian goal in its own right. The implications of these developments for our understanding of sovereignty and punishment requires careful empirical analysis; a difficult task given the inaccessibility of many of these programmes and the lack of transparency about them. As we have seen on this blog, humanitarianism is in flux. One aspect of this concerns how civil society organisations face an increasingly harsh political and legal landscape. While considerable attention has rightly been given to the treatment of these organisations, and their forms of resistance to the growing restrictions (and indeed criminalisation) they face, another aspect concerns the role of humanitarianism in a more muscular form of governance abroad. As programmes like those funded by CSSF, which seek to build capacity under the aegis of aid, increasingly are designed to confine and compel, urgent questions arise about the kind of state and sovereignty that is under construction.

As humanitarian aid becomes increasingly penal, justified by and focused on security, a number of things happen.  First, and most obviously, states like Britain obscure their own role in creating insecurity – by preventing legal and safe modes of entry, for example. Similarly, presenting their actions as a response to contemporary crises, the government also effectively disavows Britain’s longstanding, historical ties to those very parts of the world where it runs these programmes. Finally, in basing aid on criminal justice and migration control, penal humanitarianism ties sovereignty to exclusion. In so doing, it upholds a racialised view of British national identity.

New article: Digital communication technologies in humanitarian and pandemic response

In their newly published article, The new informatics of pandemic response: humanitarian technology, efficiency, and the subtle retreat of national agency, in the Journal of International Humanitarian Action, Christopher Wilson and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert, review empirical uses of communications technology in humanitarian and pandemic response, and the 2014 Ebola response in particular, and propose a three-part conceptual model for the new informatics of pandemic response.

Digital communication technologies play an increasingly prominent role in humanitarian operations and in response to international pandemics specifically. A burgeoning body of scholarship on the topic displays high expectations for such tools to increase the efficiency of pandemic response. The model proposed in this article distinguishes between the use of digital communication tools for diagnostic, risk communication, and coordination activities and highlights how the influx of novel actors and tendencies towards digital and operational convergence risks focusing humanitarian action and decision-making outside national authorities’ spheres of influence in pandemic response. This risk exacerbates a fundamental tension between the humanitarian promise of new technologies and the fundamental norm that international humanitarian response should complement and give primacy to the role of national authorities when possible. The article closes with recommendations for ensuring the inclusion of roles and agency for national authorities in technology-supported communication processes for pandemic response.

The article can be read here: https://jhumanitarianaction.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41018-018-0036-5

Syria’s humanitarian crisis

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The Syrian revolt has over the past three years escalated into a massive humanitarian crisis with regional implications. At present, almost half Syria’s pre-war population (22 million) is displaced, including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 2.3 million refugees. Inside Syria, almost ten million war-affected residents need outside assistance, the majority of them being homeless. At the Kuwait donor conference in January 2013, the international community pledged USD 1.5 billion in aid to the “Syria Regional Response Plan”. In June, the amount was tripled to USD 4.5 billion, the largest humanitarian appeal in UN history. By end of the year the amount was raised to USD 6.5 billion the largest-ever appeal for a single crisis.

 Complex emergency

The Syrian civil war has turned into a complex emergency with brutal violence, massive displacement and regional havoc. The most intense battles have taken place along the Hama-Homs-Idlib axis. This is the most ethnically diverse part of the country, where the Alawites – who make up about 12 per cent of the pre-war population – live side-by-side with the Sunni majority representing over 70 per cent. Strategically, the Syrian Army is determined to remain in control of the Homs-Hama “corridor” connecting Damascus with the Alawite heartland in the Latakia and Tartous Governates. For this reason, the Army has staged massive attacks on rebel strongholds in Homs, Hama and Aleppo ruining the built environment, killing civilians and causing repeated displacement.

Displacement crisis

The Syrian displacement crisis is consistent with (global) panel data surveys demonstrating the robust link between violence and displacement. The turning point was the the Syrian army’s ground assault on Homs in March 2012, which changed the nature of the conflict,from a security to military approach that led to a steep rise in casualties and displacement (Figure 1). In mid-2013, the UN casualty figure was more than 100,000 dead, with current estimates reaching 130,000 (Dec. 2013). Since the start of 2013, nearly 50,000 people are fleeing Syria every week. With no diplomatic or military solution in sight the Syrian civil war will continue. The displacement crises will therefore expand too, with dire consequences for regional stability.

 

Syria displacement crisis (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Syria displacement crisis: March 2011–December 2013 (33 months)
Sources: Data compiled from several sources: HIU, ICDM, OHCHR, SNC, UNHCR, UNOCHA.
 
This blog post is part of a longer article analysing the Syrian displacement crisis within the context of contemporary forced migration theory and assesses its impact on the region, forthcoming in Maghreb-Machrek (2014).