Tag Archives: humanitarian governance

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

Written by

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.

Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced?

Written by

This text first appeared on the TheGlobal and is re-posted here. The blog post draws on the introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, ‘A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises’ published by Disasters.

Photo: TheGlobal

While localization is high on the agenda for humanitarian actors, at present, humanitarian governance does not support the localization agenda. To understand better why, we explore three issues underpinning humanitarian governance: the problem construction, consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians. We conclude that the localization agenda is important, but for it to succeed a fundamental change of the humanitarian system is needed.


Humanitarian crises conjure up a specific world of urgency and emergency populated by a set of ‘doers’: international organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), heroic humanitarian workers, the military and the private sector, as well as donors. At the same time, it is well known that affected populations primarily rescue themselves, with the assistance of local civil society and host governments. Reflecting that reality, since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, ‘localization’ of aid has become a mantra of the sector. Yet, things appear not to be going so well. In this blog we try to provide conceptual pointers for explaining why. In line with Michael Barnett’s insight that humanitarian governance voluntarily or involuntarily produces or contributes to some kind of societal order, we ask in this blog what kind of order is being imagined and produced through humanitarian governance in relation to the localization agenda.

In general, there are two versions of humanitarian governance in circulation: the narrow version is concerned with the provision of immediate relief to human suffering. This traditional humanitarianism does not attempt to politically change the world or take a position on conflicts, but instead uses the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence to gain access to people in need and alleviate their suffering. In this sense, it operates as a stopgap measure: it only addresses needs and does not judge openly the conflict that causes the suffering. The second and more extensive interpretation signifies a broader concern for human welfare and incorporates political change to address the root causes of suffering through human rights, conflict resolution, emancipatory movements, and development cooperation.

In everyday practice and discourse, both interpretations of humanitarian governance are used in parallel, which leads to confusion or disagreement about the goals and roles of humanitarian action. This also means that what we mean by localization is essentially unclear. To illuminate the implications of this discrepancy, we consider three critical issues for the localization agenda, namely: humanitarian problem construction, the consolidation and growth of the sector, and the sorting of civilians.

The paradoxes of top-down humanitarian problem constructions

Once a humanitarian emergency is declared, it then shapes not only who is supposed to act but what is supposed to be done. Humanitarian problem construction involves the conceptualization of social and political needs, crises, and risks as ‘humanitarian problems’; it also entails new and/or expanded conceptualizations of humanitarian suffering that call on humanitarians to be present on the ground with their staff, values, and toolkits; carrying with it the assumption that humanitarians and their toolkits are relevant, useful, and welcome. Underpinning and reinforcing this emphasis on emergency is the invention and promulgation of a technical vocabulary. For example, while we have now become accustomed to the use of ‘L3’ as a way of describing the worst emergencies, it is only from the introduction of ‘L’ levels in the UN humanitarian reform of 2011 that L3 has worked as a global symbol to designate the most serious level of crisis and help humanitarians create a globally stratified map of emergencies.

So far, the localization agenda has not substantially altered the conceptualization of social and political needs, nor of crises and risk. To push the localization agenda forward, humanitarian governance should pay more attention to local definitions of crises, risks and ‘appropriate’ aid, so that humanitarian problems are no longer just defined by professionals, who then control the planning and distribution of resources.

In a similar vein, we are witnessing the persistence of a classic problem of humanitarian action, namely that the humanitarian sector legitimizes its interventions by producing higher numbers of both individuals in need and concomitant funding needs to legitimate humanitarian requests and interventions. This includes, for example, the mortality surveys in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq; contestations over maternal deaths; the 2005 non-famine in Niger; exaggerated population counts in refugee camps and more recently talk about ‘unprecedented numbers of refugees. This has a paradoxical effect on the humanitarian sector.

On the one hand, the very limited funding for local NGOs is also increasingly recognized as a structural impediment to localization. Data released in the 2017 Global Humanitarian Assistance report showed that funding for local NGOs stayed very low, at 0.3 per cent of tracked funding. Even when all local stakeholders are added together, including governments, they still only accounted for two per cent of funding. On the other hand, the identification of unmet needs led to continuous expansion among international NGOs, a kind of ongoing mission creep, which is an inadvertent consequence in line with the expansive nature of risk. These categories and numbers leave the humanitarian sector in the double bind that it is not doing enough while simultaneously being too expansive. In both cases, it is falling short of its own and external normative expectations. The mortality surveys in the DRC, for instance, showed a degree of suffering that was unprecedented, but also led to debates about their validity and impact as a justification for the expansion of humanitarian aid.

Consolidation and growth: where is the local?

In general, multi-mandate organizations follow the broader interpretation of humanitarian governance and thus address a broader array of problems, including the prevention of crises and linking relief and development. The presence of different interpretations of governance has not stopped and has probably facilitated the humanitarian sector’s growth and rapid consolidation over the last three decades. Overall, the humanitarian ‘industry’ handled $27.3 billion in 2016, a six per cent increase on 2015. The largest humanitarian NGOs now have thousands of employees and annual turnover of many millions of dollars. While the consolidation and growth of the humanitarian enterprise can be seen as a success story for the humanitarian industry as such, the gap between available resources and perceived humanitarian needs is portrayed as growing continually wider. Several scholars have pointed out that this endemic and multi-faceted response ‘gap’—with respect to funding, technical capacity, material goods, humanitarian access, or political will—is the product of efforts to construct (and not discover) meaning. For example, it takes analytical labor to define and construct humanitarians as ‘becoming unprepared or ‘unfit for purpose.” Humanitarian actors are apt at describing and presenting ‘gaps’ as fundamental threats to addressing needs and/or constructing a more humane world order. Once again, local perspectives on this issue require more attention.

The sorting of civilians

A final issue which affects the meaning of localization concerns the sorting of civilians, which is currently in large part shaped by considerations of risk and security as emanating from the global war on terror and extremism. In qualitative terms, not only the language used to describe the intended recipients of aid (victims, beneficiaries, communities in crisis, clients, target groups, people in need, survivors, or customers) but also the categories of protected civilians and the calculus of suffering deployed to sort and select protectable civilians are in continuous flux. Generally, the 1990s and 2000s saw a continuous expansion of legal and political victim categories, such as internally displaced person (IDPs), and this expansion continues with a discursive broadening of sexual violence as a key mode of categorizing ‘humanitarian victims’, as it happened in Bosnia and the DRC, for example.

Importantly, a countertrend that is enabled both by the risk politics of humanitarianism and the turn to technology is the parallel turn to resilience thinking and the sorting of ‘protectable’ civilians, which increasingly represents a shrinking of the categories of civilians that receive protection. In particular, resilience thinking puts the onus of responsibility for being prepared for, or able to cope with, crises more on local actors than on international ones, which can lead to a shrinking of the categories of people that receive protection or other forms of aid. Yet, when the capacities of these local actors need to be strengthened, this nevertheless leads to an expansion of capacity-building activities by international organizations involved in humanitarian work.


In sum, the way that humanitarian governance orders the humanitarian field in terms of problem construction, consolidation and expansion, as well as with sorting of civilians, does not yet support the localization agenda. The localization agenda is important but if it is to be taken seriously, it needs to go hand in hand with a far more fundamental change of the humanitarian system than has happened so far.

New Directions in Humanitarian Governance: Technology, Juridification and Criminalization

Written by

This text first appeared on Global Policy and is re-posted here. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Dennis Dijkzeul reflect on some of the new directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the principal techniques.

A member of the European Union assessment team disembarks a UN peacekeeping helicopter in Petit-Goâve, Haiti. 20/Jan/2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi. www.un.org/av/photo/

According to an influential conception, humanitarian governance entails ‘the increasingly organized and internationalized attempt to save the lives, enhance the welfare, and reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable populations.’ The actors involved in humanitarian governance include affected populations, civil society, host governments, the military, the private sector, international organisations and NGOs, and donors. Much of this governance is associated with the intended as well as the unintended consequences of humanitarian action.

In particular, these unintended consequences have brought about a quest for institutional or moral improvement of humanitarian action. Presented as progress narratives, these initiatives – or techniques – range from efforts to enhance accountability, for example through legalization, to offering better technological solutions. However, in recent years, the techniques of humanitarian governance are increasingly also incorporated into narratives of decline, where attempts to govern humanitarianism is also seen to hinder humanitarian access, hamper aid delivery and undermine the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This blog post reflects on some of the new directions in humanitarian governance and the ambiguity of some of the principal techniques of such governance.

The Governance Techniques

Accountability to improve behavior. Starting from the mid-1990s, a number of sector-wide transparency and accountability initiatives (e.g., SPHERE, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) International, People in Aid, Groupe URD’s Compass, and more recently the Core Humanitarian Standard) have influenced humanitarian organisations. Criticism has been directed at ‘the accountability industry’ for emphasizing standardization and technocratization, which hide the actual politics, and for prioritizing upwards accountability to donors at the expense of true, participatory accountability processes with communities in crisis. Still, the quest for accountability remains a core normative ambition and shapes attempts to govern in the humanitarian arena.

As part of this, humanitarians are increasingly ‘code of conducted up’, in particular with respect to intimate personal relationships and financial transparency. What would previously be deemed either private behavior – such as substance abuse – or individual moral and personal failure – such as buying sex – is increasingly construed as a risk-generating activity threatening specific operations, organisational reputations, and the legitimacy of the sector itself. Despite the Oxfam sex scandal, there is not sufficient evidence – or a concerted push to establish such evidence – on whether the humanitarian sector is currently doing better in terms of its accountability.

The technological turn. Moreover, the ongoing digitization and datafication of humanitarian action have become central techniques of humanitarian governance, and increasingly shape our understanding of and response to emergencies. Digitization is dramatically changing the way aid agencies provide assistance, from blockchain technology to provide cash transfers to the use of biometrics with iris scans and fingerprinting to register and track beneficiary assistance. This has led to faster information exchanges and greater transparency about what is happening on the ground. At the same time, the integration of information technology has enabled an increasing degree of remote management, which has changed the dynamic between communities in crisis, responders, regional offices, and headquarters.

The technologization of humanitarian space have also brought on a much closer relationship with the private sector: big tech outfits as well as small startups. These actors also have limited experience with and knowledge of the ends and objectives of the humanitarian sector, while pursuing their own financial objectives with respect to commodification and use of data. In addition, the attendant security challenges are slowly receiving more attention. Spyware is being deployed by governments and warlords to provide surveillance of humanitarian officials and civilians. Data collected by humanitarian organizations may be stolen and misused by the same actors. Indifference, incompetence and bad planning might result in data breaches.

Juridification. Humanitarian governance is increasingly undertaken through law and law-like language as actors are held accountable through legal or quasi-legal mechanisms. One important trend is the  evolving body of international disaster response law (IDRL) aiming to eliminate bureaucratic barriers to the entry of relief personnel, goods and equipment, and the operation of relief programmes, as well as addressing regulatory failures to monitor and correct problems of quality and coordination in disasters.

A different kind of legalisation is taking place through the evolution and institutionalization of a legal standard for a ‘duty of care’ for humanitarian staff. The 2015 Steve Dennis versus the Norwegian Refugee Council case from the Oslo District court, have shifted the conceptualisation of the duty of care standard for humanitarian staff from being a good practice standard in human resource management to becoming a standard considered from and articulated through the language of law and liability. Although it is positive the humanitarian organizations need to work out the operational details of their duty of care, it can also lead to risk-avoidance or an increase in bureaucracy.

There is also an increasingly frequent assertion that ‘humanitarianism is being criminalized’ (here, here, here or here). According to the humanitarian narrative of ‘the criminalization of humanitarian space’, such criminalization can hamper access to affected communities and compromises the ability of humanitarian actors to deliver principled aid to fulfill the humanitarian imperative of assisting according to need. This includes the prohibition of material support for terrorism, that was extended to include humanitarian advocacy in the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project and the use of the US False Claims Act to go after humanitarian NGOs operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. Based on complaints from a private individual In 2017 and 2018, the American University in Beirut (AUB) and the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) have reached costly settlements with the US government. Oxfam is currently facing a $ 160 million legal threat under the False Claims Act. Several more cases are under seal.

In parallel, there has been a broad trend towards to criminal prosecution of volunteer workers who have offered material support or protection – such as housing, transportation, food, education or rescue – to asylum seekers and refugees (here, here or here). Humanitarian work is here being construed as human smuggling or trafficking. At the same time, some types of criminalization are viewed as beneficial to ensure that humanitarians do no harm to beneficiaries or each other, for example with respect to sexual harassment and sexual violence. 


This blog post draws on our introduction to a 2019 special issue on humanitarian governance “A world in turmoil: governing risk, establishing order in humanitarian crises” published by Disasters. As discussed in the introduction and further analyzed in this blog post, it is ironic that the quest to deal with the unintended consequences of humanitarian action, has unintended effects as well. First, the initiatives listed above are often difficult to implement. Second, they also bear the risk of technocratization: these techniques are not neutral; they may hamper participation and obscure power politics. As illustrated by criminalization, some governance attempts can even contribute to a shrinking of humanitarian space. Third, they can lead to a lack of respect for the humanitarian principles, so that the protection of people in need is not well ensured.

Fighting the War with the Ebola Drone

Written by

A particularly interesting and puzzling corner of the War on Ebola imaginary is inhabited by the triad consisting of Ebola, humanitarian governance, and unmanned technology, drones more precisely. Out of this triad has emerged what will here be called ´the Ebola Drone`. The Ebola Drone has materialized from a confluence of ideas about the relationship between diseases and (inter)national security; the means and ends of effective aid delivery; and the potentiality of drones to «be good».

The Ebola Drone is imagined to be able to do many things, including seeing, sensing and shooting Ebola infected individuals to protect Western Health Workers participating in the War on Ebola. At the same time the Ebola Drone is a reflection of the efforts made by the drone industry and the drone DIY movements to reshape the public notion of drones as spy or killer drones: the Ebola Drone is designated as a humanitarian drone; it can carry medication and other aid where health workers cannot go, due to “insecurity” or bad roads. This latter idea is not coincidentally also feeding into the current private sector frenzy to identify and promote credible and publically acceptable usages of small cargo-carrying drones.

Mike Crang and Stephen Graham refer to such narratives as “technological fantasies” that position emergent technological systems as necessary — and effective — responses to dire threats. They note that such narratives are not just instrumental devices designed to achieve desired ends; they also actively shape the larger security cultures and afford them influence. Carved out from mainstream media as well as the more obscure parts of the blogosphere, this is precisely the type of work the multiple Ebola Drone narratives appear to be doing.

Back in September, Ebola was framed by President Obama as an issue of national security (complete with a parallel manufacturing of Ebola terrorism scares) and by the UN as a threat to international peace and security. With the deployment of AFRICOM, the type of military medical response at play since September has been patterned on the modus operandi of the War on Terror: According to division spokesman Lt. Col. Brian DeSantis

Our job is to build Ebola treatment units and train health care workers. There is no mission for us to handle infected people, human remains or medical waste… We will have our own facility separate from the population where we will handle force protection and life support, similar to our facilities in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

There has also been some generalized optimism about the potential of robot technology to serve as force protection and force multiplier in the War on Ebola. The answers to questions of how US health workers can help West Africa while minimizing risk to themselves (and their country) include suggestions for “mortuary robots” to deal with the “Ebola burial problem”: the Robokiyu Rescue Robot has a pair of giant claws to pull the injured or the dead onto a slide to move them away. Another idea is to use robots for crowd control to protect the physical security of hospital staff in the case of a riot.

Then there is the Ebola Drone. There are creative proposals for using the Ebola Drone for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and surveillance, premised on the idea that it is possible and meaningful to try to “see” Ebola from a distance so as to identify infected and thus potentially threatening individuals. One commentator proposes that drone reconnaissance could enable the military to look “for what’s happening in this village? Any signs of illness? [How] are people fleeing “. Another commentator suggests that if Global Hawks were based at the US drone base in Niger, they could easily fly over Liberia, providing surveillance which could “could help the fight against Ebola by looking for unusual human behavior, like a sudden vehicle exodus or overcrowded hospitals, which might give away an outbreak before its reported.

Elaborate scenarios are devised to prove the value of the Ebola Drone in producing ground truth: “Someone’s sick, they call a cab to take them to the hospital, they may be shedding the virus [via fluids] in the cab. They reach the hospital and there’s no beds; then they go home and they’ve contaminated these cabs.” It’s the sort of subtle clue you can catch from space, with enough time, patience and, most importantly, attention. That’s where drones come in, which could provide more eyes on potential hotspots.” No longer just an eye in the sky, but a militarized medical eye in the sky.

A different proposal for detecting sick locals is to use thermal imagery. In a discussion on DIY Drones, one user wonders if UAVs could be used to detect people with Ebola: “people who have Ebola have an increased temperature as it is one of the symptoms and from what I have seen on News most of the checking at airports is done by individuals with infra-red thermometer. The UAV could highlight individuals who might have symptoms and they could be isolated or given treatment.” Of course, even if infrared science would be successful in effectively detecting fever through layers of cloth and sweat, it could not detect the cause of the fever.

Most remarkable however, is the very aspirational rhetoric on the cargo-potentiality of the Ebola Drone to drop of medication, food and water to Ebola affected populations: In testimony before Congress about the Defense Department’s efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin reiterated that, “I traveled to the region thinking we faced a healthcare crisis with a logistics challenge. In reality, we face a logistics crisis focused on a healthcare challenge.”

The call for drones to carry medicine in crisis or to generally inaccessible areas (which unfailingly have been imagined to be Somewhere in Africa) is not new. In 2012, Jack Chow pondered about the potential of “predators for peace” to deliver HIV/AIDS medication. According to Chow, cargo drones could be a ‘game changer’ for delivering aid, which could eliminate or reduce the type of corruption, theft and insecurity (as well as the consequences of difficult weather conditions and problems caused by disasters) which frequently undermines delivery of aid.

Conversely, the manufacturers of smaller cargo drones for civil airspace heavily emphasize their potential humanitarian use: AERMATICA, an Italian UAV manufacturer, has suggested that ´Civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief operations”, evolving from performing relief-site monitoring tasks to a more incisive participation in on-field operations through the use of cargo drones. Part of a broader movement of Silicon Valley UAV-entrepreneurs, the startup Matternet describes plans to create ‘the next paradigm for transportation’ of goods and medicines to remote settlements, through a network of unmanned aerial vehicles, while another startup, ARIA (Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Arrays), wants to provide rural Africa with a humanitarian drone skyway network, which can help launch ‘a new strategy of fighting poverty from the air’. There is the MedicAir Courier UAV from BFA Systems, and countless other examples. While DHL, Google and Amazon have joined the race to develop cargo drones, the amateur hour is far from over, and neither is the struggle for access to airspace and popular legitimacy.

The Ebola Drone is imagined as a useful way to carry what doesn’t exist either here or there- an effective and available cure for Ebola: according to one commentator, “a flying drone can prove useful to send medical supplies to remote (dangerous) locations. It would act as a simple way to either stop or slow down the spread of the Ebola virus” and be a “safer alternative than people travelling to dangerous areas just to deliver materials.” Moreover, it is unclear how the drone pilot would identify the individuals, communities or health facilities that were to receive and distribute this medication.

The Ebola Drone can also mediate closed airspace: “surely the United States can use them to bring protective medical gear to hospitals in countries like Liberia or Sierra Leone. Closed borders to commercial air traffic are no barriers to drones.” Finally, the Ebola Drone is also tasked with the old jobs of bringing both hope and providing pamphlet drops to suffering peoples, as if despair and ignorance was behind the whole epidemic: “Drones also can bring hope and, say, by pamphlets deliver valuable information to West Africans”. As “knowledge can combat disease and the fear that precedes”, these pamphlets are supposed to inform people of how to protect themselves, how to discern the signs of sickness, and how to treat the stricken or safely dispose of the dead.”

Existing technology has very limited cargo-carrying capacity and can fly only for a short time. As pertinently observed by Timothy Luege, the problem is the lack of a “possible scenario in the current Ebola crisis in which you can’t deliver something more efficiently with a motorbike within the area that the drone can cover”. According to Luege, this builds on a misdiagnosis of Ebola as a problem of delivering drugs to remote areas (as we know, the current Ebola outbreak is so serious because it is urban in nature).

Finally, understanding Ebola as a “supply chain challenge” also engages the classic technology transfer argument where military technology is better and re-use for civilian purposes is both responsible and economic: in response to the regions bad roads and shortage of trucks, civilian drone technology cannot deliver the “tons of aid” needed. Hence “military-grade drones” are the answer. Part of the appeal of drones is their ability to undertake ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous’ military jobs. Some of the dullest, dirtiest and most dangerous work is related to supplying troops. The Kaman K-Max has been “extraordinarily successful at delivering supplies to American troops in remote parts of Afghanistan” and “could easily be repurposed to deliver humanitarian aid” (from 2011, the manufacturer of the K-Max began foreseeing its migration into civilian use, explicitly including humanitarian relief);  it could solve problems related to infrastructure and crime and enable more remote management, which would reduce the number of personnel needed on the ground in remote regions.  The not-unexpected second part of this argument is that the US already owns the K-Max, which is just sitting idle in storage.

In the end, then, it seems the Ebola Drone is mostly a set of imaginations about extended uses of military drones, whereby some drones do good to make many drones look better. Imagined for deployment in the War on Ebola, it is endowed with the potentiality for being surgically precise, avoiding the burden of having boots on the ground and allowing for remote management. Meanwhile, West Africans are strangely absent from the technoscape created by Ebola drone imaginary: it is a technoscape inhabited only by Western actors, who possess hardware, technical skills and the know-how of crisis management. The locals seem to be dead, infected or potentially infected. They are allotted roles as threat subjects (the Ebola terrorist scenario) or victims (in a humanitarian crisis), but either way as individuals and communities mostly void of agency. However, we should remember that while this resonates with the rationales underlying the militarized approach to Ebola, and the determinist views of technology accompanying it; on a different level the militarized approach is also a response to a lack of knowledge about how to deal effectively with disease emerging from structural injustice, a post-conflict context and “culture”. Just as drones can’t clean up combat, no Ebola Drone can ever “combat” disease.

Note: This blog, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (PRIO), was originally posted on the blog of Mats Utas, Associate Professor in Cultural Anthropology at the Nordic Africa Institute.