Tag Archives: humanitarianism

Call for papers: Intersections of Humanitarianism

Kickoff workshop of the EASA Anthropology of Humanitarianism Network (AHN)

Goettingen, 01-03 November 2019

What does humanitarianism look like when it intersects with the state and the military? Or with the local ways of giving? What sort of help are we dealing with when humanitarian forms of reasoning and practice become intertwined with “that which is not humanitarianism”, to paraphrase Gupta (1995: 393)? Anthropological studies have suggested that a lot of work has to be invested into keeping up the boundaries of humanitarianism (Fassin 2012, Dunn 2018, Gilbert 2016). The result of this work has been a loose network of aid that moves throughout the world and replaces, suspends, or otherwise sidesteps state sovereignties in an attempt to save lives (Redfield and Bornstein 2011, Ticktin 2014, Schuller 2016, Ramsey 2017).

In this workshop, we will focus on what sort of hybrids emerge when, instead of maintaining its boundaries, humanitarianism intersects with other ways of thinking and acting. What kind of politics does this enable or prevent (cf. Feldman 2018)? What types of social dynamics, positions, and exclusions take place in such cases? We invite papers that explore the following five thematic strands:

  1. Humanitarianism and voluntarism: What happens when humanitarianism becomes intertwined with vernacular ideas about how to help others (including activism, solidarity, or charity)?
  2. Humanitarianism and military: how is the relationship between humanitarian aid and the use of military force evolving in the context of transnational securitization and border management?
  3. Humanitarianism and development: How do large-scale humanitarian initiatives relate to developmental projects?
  4. Humanitarianism and human rights: How does humanitarianization of state politics and human rights look like?
  5. Humanitarianism and religion: Which moral configurations emerge as part of humanitarian projects and how are they related to religious orders?

This will be the first meeting of the Anthropology of Humanitarianism Network (AHN), founded in 2018 by the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), with an aim to provide a platform for a broad discussion on the meanings and practices of humanitarianism and on the possible future directions of an anthropological study of humanitarianism. The kickoff workshop “Intersections of humanitarianism” will provide a venue for the network members to meet in person, share ongoing research, and make plans for the future development of the network.

Please send abstracts of 200 words to ahn.easa@gmail.comas well as a 100 words bio by 30 June 2019.

The workshop “Intersections of Humanitarianism” is supported by EASA, Centre for Global Migration (CeMIG) of the Georg August University Goettingen, and Chr. Michelsen Institute.


Carna Brkovic, Georg August University Goettingen

Antonio De Lauri, Chr. Michelsen Institute

Jens Adam, Georg August University Goettingen

Sabine Hess, Georg August University Goettingen

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

The Brazilian aid paradox

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While the Norwegian overseas aid budget has been debated intensely here at home, Crown Prince Haakon was recently on an official visit in Brazil, from 16-19 November. Brazil is unquestionably the largest recipient of Norwegian aid, while simultaneously donating aid itself to poorer countries. This paradoxical situation tells us much about our changing world and Brazil’s ambitions for great power status.

Norwegian aid to Brazil

Over the past five years, Norway has given over NOK 6.5 billion in aid to Brazil. Most of this aid has gone towards environmental measures. When Norway’s minister of climate and environment, Ms Tine Sundtoft, visited Brazil in September, she could confirm with pride that from 2009 to 2015, Norway had fulfilled its obligation to donate NOK 6 billion to the Amazon Fund.

This collaboration between Norway and Brazil has been both innovative and successful. Innovative because Norway pays by results. If Brazil had not succeeded in reducing deforestation in the Amazon, there would have been no money. Successful because we have contributed politically, economically and symbolically to Brazil’s success in reducing the annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 75 per cent over the past decade. In doing so, Brazil has succeeded in cutting 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from its greenhouse gas emissions. This amount is equivalent to approximately 60 times Norway’s annual emissions. We do not yet know the fate of this collaboration from 2016 onwards, but the Norwegian government’s warnings of budget cuts are a cause for concern. It would be a tragedy if Norway did not continue to support the world’s most successful initiative to tackle climate change.

Brazil is not unique

There is nothing either new or exceptional about a country being – simultaneously – both an aid recipient and an aid donor. Norway is a good example. We were still receiving Marshall Plan aid from the United States when we started to send fishing vessels and Norwegian fisheries expertise to Kerala in South India in 1952.

Today we see that all the world’s so-called “emerging” economies are providing emergency relief and aid outside their own borders. This applies to all of the BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. And it also applies to many slightly smaller countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

The motivation – more similar than we think

But why are these countries providing aid? Part of the motivation is of course the humanitarian imperative, just as it is for Norway: one must help people in need. At the same time, these countries – like Norway – see their aid as a means to an end: they want to achieve something.

China is the most obvious example. China wants influence and access to natural resources such as oil and minerals. Saudi Arabia has perhaps the most clear-cut religious agenda. Among other things, Saudi Arabia is directing major resources to build mosques for refugees from Syria.

Aid as a means of boosting power

Brazil wants to be taken seriously. To use a Brazilian expression, Brazil wants to be seen as um país sério – a serious country. We have just been to Brazil to research Brazilian aid, and one thing was clear: Brazil wants to be a great power. Its wet dream is a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

If a country does not have sufficient military or economic muscle to make its voice heard in the world, it must turn to other means. And this is where aid and humanitarian relief come into play. A key person in Brazil’s foreign aid bureaucracy put it bluntly: “Aid is a tool in Brazilian foreign policy.” Brazil will contribute in order to be heard.

Significant differences

Despite similarities in the reasons for giving aid, Brazilian aid is in many ways significantly different from that provided by Norway and other European countries. Brazil is crystal clear that it doesn’t want to be a donor, but a partner. Everyone we talked to felt the need to emphasize this particular point. This ambition comes to expression in the fact that Brazil sends very little aid in the form of cash to other countries. Brazil sends foodstuffs to relieve famines, but mostly it provides knowledge, experience and guidance on policy, generally by dispatching state employees abroad to train others. The Brazilians we spoke to also insisted that they don’t only give, they also get a lot in return, in the form of new and shared experiences. In its own view, Brazil’s own status as an aid recipient is a major advantage, as it means that there is less distance between donor and recipient.

Brazilian aid is very fragmented. There are no strategies or shared planning; there is no body like Norad to coordinate and evaluate contributions. Instead, over 100 state bodies run their own projects, without any real coordination. In addition, Brazilian non-governmental organizations are as good as absent. It is quite simply impossible to apply state resources to assist in efforts by non-governmental organizations abroad, and the Brazilian authorities don’t show any noticeable interest in doing so. In our opinion, these are clear weaknesses in Brazil’s engagement.

Economic growth – now crisis

Brazilian aid is in a state of change. After eight years of economic growth and of expansive foreign and overseas aid policies under president Lula da Silva, the more domestically oriented Dilma Rousseff is now in power. And the economy is in crisis. This has lead to severe cuts in the overseas aid budgets over the past two-to-three years, and to a change of emphasis from the humanitarian, healthcare and agricultural sectors to trade and commercial cooperation. Nonetheless: Brazil continues to make an international contribution.

During his visit to Brazil, Crown Prince Haakon visited a project supported by Norwegian overseas aid through the Amazon Fund. He also encountered a country that is itself giving billions in overseas aid. This is a paradoxical situation, although only in the sense that it is apparently self-contradictory. Fundamentally, Brazil is not doing anything different from Norway. The country is using its limited resources to get the greatest possible return. In foreign policy, this means giving in order to be heard.

Note: This entry, written by Torkjell Leira and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert, was originally posted on the PRIO blog, and is derived from the authors’ participation in the research project Brazil’s Rise to the Global Stage. A version of this text was published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen on 16 November 2015: Bistandsparadokset Brasil. Translation from Norwegian: Eivind Lilleskjæret.

Humanitarian innovation, humanitarian renewal?

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The continued evolution of the humanitarian innovation concept needs a critical engagement with how this agenda interacts with previous and contemporary attempts to improve humanitarian action.

Accountability and transparency have been central to discussions of humanitarian action over the past two decades. Yet these issues appear generally to be given scant attention in the discourse around humanitarian innovation. The humanitarian innovation agenda is becoming a self-contained field with its own discourse and its own set of experts, institutions and projects – and even a definitive founding moment, namely 2009, when the ALNAP study on innovation in humanitarian action was published.[1] While attempts to develop a critical humanitarian innovation discourse have borrowed extensively from critical discussions on innovation in development studies, humanitarianism is not development done in a hurry but has its own distinct challenges, objectives and methodologies.

I will focus here on concrete material innovations, most commonly referred to as ‘humanitarian technology’. Discussions on such humanitarian innovations regularly acknowledge the need to avoid both fetishising novelty in itself and attributing inherently transformative qualities to technology rather than seeing how technology may fit into and build upon refugees’ existing resources.

Renewing humanitarianism

While it is obvious that internal and external reflections on a humanitarian industry and a humanitarian ethos in need of improvement are much older pursuits, I will start – as most scholars in humanitarian studies do today – with the mid-1990s and the ‘Goma-moment’. To recover from the moral and operational failures of the response to the Rwanda genocide and the ensuing crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa, humanitarianism turned to human rights based approaches (HRBA) to become more ethical, to move from charitable action to social contract. Yet HRBA always suffered from an intrinsic lack of clarity of meaning as well as the problem of states being the obliged parties under international human rights, a particular problem in the context of displacement, whether internal or across borders.

A decade or so later, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and in the face of accusations about poor governance, insufficient coordination, incompetence and waste, the humanitarian enterprise embarked on institutional reform to become better. Responses were to be maximised through Humanitarian Coordinators, funding was to become more efficient through Central Emergency Response Funds and, most importantly in the everyday life of humanitarian practitioners, the Cluster approach allocated areas of responsibility to the largest humanitarian actors.

The need for greater accountability and transparency were drivers for both HRBA (with its moral intricacies) and humantiarian reform (with its bureaucratic complexities). What is now happening with accountability and transparency within the technological-innovation-as-renewal paradigm?

If Rwanda and the Indian Ocean tsunami were the events ushering in HRBA and humanitarian reform, Haiti was the much heralded game-changer for technology whose use there (despite many practical problems and malfunctioning solutions) is generally assessed as positive.[2] In the years since, a host of new technology actors, initiatives, technical platforms and methodologies has emerged. New communications technology, biometrics, cash cards, drones and 3D printing have all captured the humanitarian imagination.

Thinking about problems and difficulties is often framed in terms of finding technical solutions, obtaining sufficient funding to move from pilot phases to scale, etc. However, as ideas about progress and inevitability dominate the field, the technology is seen not as something we use to get closer to a better humanitarianism but something which, once deployed, is itself a better, more accountable and transparent humanitarianism.

So institutionalised have transparency and accountability become that they have now vanished off the critical radar and become part of the taken-for-granted discursive and institutional framework. Accountability and transparency are assumed to be automatically produced simply by the act of adopting and deploying new technology. (Interestingly, the third tenet usually listed with accountability and transparency, efficiency, is also a basic assumption of this agenda.)

Accountability, participation and transparency

A 2013 report published by UN OCHA, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, argues that “everyone agrees that technology has changed how people interact and how power is distributed”.[3] While technology has undoubtedly altered human interaction, an assumption that proliferating innovative humanitarian technology unveils power, redistributes power or empowers needs to be subjected to scrutiny.

The classic issues in humanitarian accountability – to whom it is owed and by whom, how it can be achieved and, most crucially, what would count as substantively meaningful accountability – remain acutely difficult to answer. These issues also remain political issues which cannot be solved only with new technical solutions emphasising functionality and affordability; we cannot innovate ourselves out of the accountability problem, in the same way as technology cannot be seen as an empty shell waiting to be filled with (humanitarian) meaning.

This speaks particularly to the quest for participation of those in need of humanitarian protection and assistance, “helping people find innovative ways to help themselves”. In practice, we know that humanitarians arrive late in the field – they are not (at least not outside their own communications) the first responders. Affected individuals, their neighbours and communities are. Yet we should be concerned if the engagement with technological innovation also becomes a way of pushing the resilience agenda further in the direction of making those in need more responsible than well-paid humanitarian actors for providing humanitarian aid.

The arrival of the private sector as fully respectable partners in humanitarian action is in principle a necessary and desirable development. Nevertheless, while expressing distaste for the involvement of the private sector in humanitarian response is passé, talk of the importance of local markets and of ‘local innovation’, ‘indigenous innovation’ or ‘bottom-up innovation’ inevitable begs the questions: is the private sector one of the local participants as well as those in humanitarian need, and what do they want out of the partnership?

The current drive towards open data – and the belief in the emancipatory potential of open data access – means that transparency is a highly relevant theme on the humanitarian innovation agenda. Yet, on a pragmatic level, in an avalanche of information, it is difficult to see what is not there, particularly for individuals in crisis with limited access to information technology or with limited (computer) literacy.

Accountability and transparency thus seem to be missing in the implementation of the humanitarian innovation agenda, although innovation should be a means to enhance these objectives (among others) to produce a better humanitarianism.


First, we must beware of the assumption of automatic progress. We may be able to innovate ourselves out of a few traditional challenges and difficulties but most will remain, and additionally there will be new challenges resulting from the new technology.

Second, innovation looked at as a process appears suspiciously like the reforms of yesteryear. What, for example, is the difference between ‘bottom-up innovation’ and the ‘local knowledge’ valued in previous efforts to ensure participation? And are the paradigm shifts of innovation really much different from the moral improvement agenda of approaches such as the human-rights-based humanitarian aid?

Third, the increasingly self-referential humanitarian innovation discourse itself warrants scrutiny. With almost no talk of justice, social transformation or redistribution of power, we are left with a humanitarianism where inclusion is about access to markets, and empowerment is about making beneficiaries more self-reliant and about putting the label ‘humanitarian’ onto the customer concept in innovation theory.



[1] www.alnap.org/resource/9207
[2] See the IFRC World Disasters Report 2013 on Technology and Humanitarian Innovation.
[3] www.unocha.org/hina



This blog is based on Kristin B. Sandvik’s article, ‘Humanitarian innovation, humanitarian renewal?’, published in a special Forced Migration Review supplement on ‘Innovation and refugees’.

The “humanitarianization” of urban violence

In the article ‘The “humanitarianization” of urban violence’, NCHS members Simon Reid-Henry (PRIO) and Ole Jacob Sending (NUPI) discuss how international humanitarian organizations accommodate their operations when working in urban settings. The research on which the article is based has been carried out under the NCHS project Armed Violence in Urban Areas: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms, funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The article is published in one of the world’s most highly ranked environmental and urban studies journals, Environment and Urbanization.


This paper describes how international humanitarian organizations (IHOs) are adapting their operations to working in the urban environment. When levels of armed violence in urban areas are sufficient to trigger international humanitarian law, organizations such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) may argue that they have an important contribution to make by offering a set of skills and experience gleaned in conflict and non-governed settings. This paper reflects on this humanitarian turn to the city and uses it to problematize certain assumptions within the existing understanding of “urban violence” and the nature of humanitarianism itself. What does it mean to “humanitarianize” urban violence? What is the value-added that humanitarians might bring? And in what ways might such engagements be changing the nature of the problem itself? Drawing upon a wide range of literature that sets the local structures of violence in light of wider national and international processes, we analyze the “humanitarianization” of urban violence as a cross-scalar governmental assemblage that is likely to play an increasingly important role in cities in the global South in the future.

The article, published in Environment and Urbanization, is available here.

Is it acceptable to lie for a good cause?

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Humanitarian organizations may easily succumb to the temptation to misuse numbers and statistics in order to promote their own causes. Does the end justify the means?

Disasters are most dangerous for moms reported Save the Children’s Carolyn S Miles in Huffington Post when presenting the organization’s State of the World’s Mothers report for 2014. The claim was followed by a number: women and children are ‘14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men’. A sky-high number when one is talking about differences in death rates and a colossal injustice if the information is reliable. But it’s not.

Humanitarian organizations fight for attention for their good causes in a challenging everyday media environment. Attaching a number to a dramatic claim is an effective way of endowing it with trustworthiness. And numbers also form the basis for headlines. As a result there may be a considerable temptation to select the highest and most dramatic numbers, even though the researchers behind the numbers may urge extreme caution. Sometimes organizations use numbers that have no basis in research whatsoever. Often these ‘mythical numbers’ are reproduced from other organizations’ reports and go from strength to strength as they circulate between humanitarian and international organizations, the media, and politicians.

The claim that women and children are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster is a classic example of a ‘mythical number’. It took fewer than five minutes to find and cross-check the source. Save the Children was citing a report published by Plan International in 2013. This report contains a reference that at first glance seems to be to an article published in a research periodical, Natural Hazard Observer, in 1997. The article turns out, however, to be a two-page opinion piece authored by a pastor associated with Church World Service, an American ecumenical organization. Pastor Kristina Peterson does not provide any sources to back up her claim. Interestingly, both Plan International and Save the Children have qualified the original claim by adding the words ‘up to’ in their own reports, even though these words do not appear in the original article ­– apparently suggesting that the original claim went too far.

My target here is not the way in which Save the Children cites its sources, but its uncritical use of numbers that simply should have been checked and rejected. It is difficult to understand how a large, professional humanitarian organization can fail thoroughly to check numbers that it uses so directly for marketing purposes. And although the claim referred to above is the most serious error, it is not an isolated case of a number that has shaky foundations. Another key claim in Save the Children’s press release is that ‘statistically, it is more dangerous to be a woman or a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) than an armed fighter’. This claim is impossible to substantiate. In order to make such a comparison, Save the Children would need to know at the very least how many soldiers there are in the DRC and how many have died both on and off the battlefield. It would also need equivalently reliable figures for mortality among women in the DRC. No such figures exist, and accordingly neither Save the Children nor anyone else can verify this claim. The report also claims that more than 5.4 million people have lost their lives as a result of war in the DRC. This is another ‘mythical number’. While it does indeed originate from extensive surveys conducted by another humanitarian organization, the International Rescue Committee, the methods used by the latter organization to calculate its figures have been strongly criticised. Much of this criticism is summarised in the Human Security Report.

Save the Children is by no means alone, but shares the company of a succession of humanitarian and international organizations when it comes to the use of mythical numbers. One frequently heard claim is that there are 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. This number has been used by a range of children’s rights organizations in order to draw global attention to the suffering of child soldiers. The number was advanced originally by Rachel Brett of the Quaker UN Office. It was promulgated worldwide by a UN report in 1996, but is not supported by any solid evidence. Like many other mythical numbers, it has remained remarkably constant despite changing circumstances. Several wars involving a high number of child soldiers, such as the wars in Angola, Liberia and Nepal, have now ended. This has not, however, caused any reduction in the number. As far as we are aware, no one has made a serious attempt to calculate the actual number of child soldiers. Probably this is impossible.

The same applies to the much-cited claim that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. The number originates back to a report written in the mid-1990s by Norman Myers, a British environmentalist. Myers has no research expertise in the field of human migration and provides no documentation to demonstrate how he arrived at this number. Nevertheless it is frequently referred to both by humanitarian organizations and by international governmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and took on a new lease of life when it was reproduced in the highly influential Stern Review in 2006. Thus endowed with renewed authority, the number has been presented repeatedly by the media as a ‘new finding’ from a ‘research report’. This is despite the fact that all references to it can be traced back – via just a few detours – to Myers’ 1995 report. In reality there is no clear definition of the term ‘climate refugee’. And few people ask whether this undocumented number is really as dramatic as the reports indirectly suggest. The answer is no, not necessarily. Many ‘climate refugees’ are very likely among the people who relocate from increasingly difficult living conditions in rural areas in order to try their luck in cities, which in the vast majority of cases will be within their own countries. Even though estimates for human migration in general are uncertain, as many as 200 million people worldwide may have relocated from rural areas to cities in the course of just 10 years, between 2005 and 2015, according to the UN’s Population Division.

Why do humanitarian organizations choose to use numbers that they know – or ought to know – are wrong? I would hazard to suggest that this has nothing to do with the competence of the organizations’ analytical departments. Rather, the temptation not to discard an attention-grabbing number is sometimes simply too great, even though one may doubt its reliability. Specialist expertise or knowledge of advanced statistical methods is seldom required in order to ascertain whether a number is mythical. What one does need is a fundamentally critical approach to sources and some understanding of what constitutes proper research evidence.

When organizations choose to put forward numbers that they know – or ought to know – are undocumented, this may create an impression that they believe that it is justifiable to lie when they consider the circumstances to be in any event precarious and the objective to be sufficiently important and good; that it is not so important for all the details to be accurate so long as the overall message gets through. There are three main reasons why this conclusion is troubling. Firstly, global humanitarian and international organizations are important contributors to the policymaking of governments worldwide. Their aim is to get governments and others to act. If the evidentiary basis for their arguments is weak or distorted, this will reduce their effectiveness. Secondly, the use of exaggeratedly large numbers may cause the general public to become jaded. This may contribute to a vicious circle where dramatic numbers and spectacular campaigns become increasingly necessary in order to attract attention and justify action. Thirdly, this is a problem for the organizations themselves. Humanitarian organizations generally enjoy special trust as the providers of international aid. They should not take this trust for granted.

Humanitarian organizations can themselves take steps to cultivate a critical approach to numbers within their own analytical and informational departments. A process of quality assurance for numbers that are used aggressively for marketing should be a minimum requirement. There is never a good reason not to check one’s facts one last time, but it does require the inclination to change.

Henrik Urdal is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and is directing a research project on conflict trends in collaboration with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Humanitarian–Development Nexus: Lessons from Northern Uganda

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International aid can be grouped into two separate realms; humanitarianism and development. Increasingly these segments of the international system rub shoulders, sometimes even overlapping and challenging each other. The realms of humanitarianism and development draw on distinct rationales involving different actors with their particular mandates: humanitarianism’s imminent needs-based approaches building on the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence are as such fundamentally different from the more long-term, political, rights-based development approaches.

When I lived in Kampala in 2005–6 for my dissertation fieldwork on the World Bank-Uganda partnership, most researchers, international aid agencies, activists and advocacy organisations were focused on the civil war in northern Uganda where the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) had been terrorising, looting, killing and abducting civilians over two decades. Meeting other researchers and other donors I was often asked why I did not focus on the situation in the north. When I arrived Kampala again in 2012 to incept studies on the protection of civilians in northern Uganda, Kampala friends and informants – including representatives of the UN, donor agencies and the government – often asked why I came now, since the humanitarian actors were wrapping up and terminating their activities in northern Uganda, with some relocating to the new hotspot of the northeastern Karamoja region, other withdrawing from Uganda, while some choosing to stay by reconfiguring their aid portfolio.

While seemingly trivial, these brief temporal snapshots – reflecting a general turn in the collective mentality of aid practitioners and researchers – draw attention to more profound questions pertaining to the humanitarian sector and the protection of civilians discourse. The first refers to benchmarks, i.e. how and when do whom decide a situation is no longer a humanitarian crisis but rather a recovery and development phase? Does removing the humanitarian crisis label necessarily mean there are no more humanitarian concerns that need to be attended to? Secondly, what does the transition say about the nexus and interplay between humanitarian action and development activities, and how are humanitarian concerns and protection activities programmed for in a non-humanitarian context?

When I recently visited northern Uganda (February 2014), a representative of the NGO forum said that Gulu, the regional capital, for a long time suffered from NGO obesity, but that the situation now was in reverse – too many NGOs had withdrawn too soon with too much unfinished business. The massive NGO influx causing this obesity was prompted by the CNN effect caused by Jan Egeland when he, in the capacity as head of OCHA, in late 2003 brought attention to the conflict, describing the then 17-years old civil war in northern Uganda as the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth.[1] Soon, the world’s attention was on the civil war in Uganda, and subsequently a plethora of international donors and humanitarian actors moved in with large humanitarian programmes to protect the civilian population and aide the government’s efforts.

For over two decades the Acholi population in Northern Uganda has been affected by the LRA and the government’s failure to sufficiently quell the LRA and stop its terror, looting, killing and abduction, and in the wake of this, to address imminent humanitarian concerns and the widespread lack of development in the northern districts. By 2006 more than 90% of the Acholi population, about 1,7 million peoples, in northern Uganda lived in more than 200 IDP camps seeking refuge and protection from the LRA.

The camps, designated as ‘protected camps’ were set up by the government from 1996 and onwards as a means to protect the civilian population from the civil war. As such, the camps – which the government forced the population to relocate into – are a witness of the government’s own failure to protect its citizenry and its inability to beat the LRA military. Yet, these camps were far from safe. They had high mortality rates due to weak protection and service provision. People within the camps died from violence, malnutrition, malaria and AIDS,[2] and those moving outside of the camp – to go to the market, fetch water, collect firewood, and farm their land – feared being attacked by the rebels. In this context, international donors, NGOs and multilateral organisations played a key role in remedying the situation among civilians both within the camps and in affected communities.

Gulu, the regional capital of northern Uganda was, however, soon put on a strict diet for its NGO-obesity. After the conflict effectively ended in 2006 when the LRA was pushed out of Uganda (yet still at large, roaming the borders of CAR, DRC and South Sudan) and with the start of the peace talks in Juba, South Sudan, people gradually started to move back to their home communities. As such, 2006 marked the start of the end of the humanitarian crisis – at least at the official level: In 2008 the government took the donors to the north showing them that the war had ended, that the guns were silenced and that the people had started to return to their home communities. This was very much the government’s call – just as swift as they decided to establish the camps and forced the rural people to move into them, the government also closed the camps based on its own assessment and claim to victory over the LRA after its massive military offensive code-named Operation Iron Fist (2002–6). International donors – primarily multi- and bilateral ones not present in the north albeit funding activities there – bought into the government’s argument, persuaded that the humanitarian crisis was over and not in need of external humanitarian assistance.

Recasting the situation as a phase of recovery and development, the government urged the donors to move their funding from humanitarian action to development assistance. With this other aid mechanisms become prevalent. Instead of being guided by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in which humanitarian actors largely bypass the state to implement their own programmes or provide financial support to activities of existing non-state actors, development assistance is far more political both regarding which programmes that are implemented but also because development aid to a much larger extent should involve domestic state structures under the auspices of the notions of participation and ownership guiding development partnerships.

In northern Uganda, instead of channeling the monies directly to donor selected partners, the government demanded the donors to route their monies via its national budget, as direct budget support. Thus, the government was able to finance its general programmes in the north and to secure the implementation of its own Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) and the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF).[3] To the donors, particularly after having consented to the government’s assessment that there no longer was any humanitarian crisis going on, it was hard to rebut the government’s appeal. A consequence of the transition, or the recast of the situation from one of crisis to one of recovery, meant not only a general transition from humanitarian to development aid. It also meant a dramatic reduction in the number and scope of humanitarian NGOs and activities to the advance of the government’s own plans now funded by external actors.

However, despite relative peace having gradually returned to the area, humanitarian concerns persist and multiple legacies of the conflict have still not been fully addressed. The transition from humanitarianism to development came sudden, and today’s common rendering of this change is that too many organizations withdrew too soon with too much unfinished business that are not sufficiently addressed by the government’s development plans. These concerns include issues of repatriating and reintegrating former abductees and LRA soldiers, reducing the prevalence of guns among civilians; reducing the amount of unexploded ordinances; address the psycho-social effects of violence and war, particularly emanating from the inhumane IDP camp policy and the camps as a system of ‘social torture’.

When returning from the camps many realized their land had been occupied. Hence issues of land rights and access to arable land in an area where the majority depends on subsistence farming are major concern and source to violence and social unrest. This, coupled with lack of farming knowledge among those born and raised in the camps, have made many of the returning IDPs to settle in the urban areas, notably in and around Gulu, where idleness and unemployment cause drinking, social problems and violence, including gender based violence. The social services are weak and largely missing, the governance system is malfunctioning and there is a lack of democracy. The development of social services as e.g. schools and health clinics was paused during the conflict. The civilian population is not properly aware of their rights, and different traditional structures and justice systems still prevail over the formal governmental framework making access to justice arbitrary and largely limited to urban areas.

In sum, there are many concerns that challenge both the individual and collective peace and security in northern Uganda. Admittedly, many of these issues are not only of a humanitarian matter but pertain perhaps equally to the realm of development aid. To a large extent these problems are of the same ilk as found elsewhere in Uganda, and might just as much be linked to poverty as to the civil war. It is, however, undeniable that in Northern Uganda these problems have been exacerbated by the prolonged conflict and the lack of development over the last two decades. The challenges have also become more visible after the end of the conflict, gradually surfacing with the withdrawal of humanitarian actors erstwhile filling the void of the government’s lack of protection and service delivery.

Yet, the question remains whether these concerns should be understood and addressed as pertaining to the realm of humanitarianism or development – and indeed the extent to which such a distinction, if at all, is relevant. Returning to the two initial questions referring to benchmarking and the humanitarian–development nexus, the case of northern Uganda provides for some interesting observations.

Regarding benchmarking, the case demonstrates that removing the humanitarian crisis-label from the situation in northern Uganda was far from merely based on an assessment of the humanitarian needs on the ground and among the affected population. While the situation in the north has improved significantly over the last years, recasting it as one of development has most likely served less the needs of the civilians than the government’s needs to reassert control over the north and claim victory over the LRA. Interlinked, the case illustrates how it matters whether one classifies the situation as one of humanitarian crisis or as one of post-conflict recovery and development, as this translates into which part of the international toolbox that is at your disposal – and indeed conversely, that it provides limitations on what type of actors and activities that are present in the given situation: the demise of the humanitarian actors also meant removing critical rights based advocacy groups and activities not only bypassing the government but often also challenging it.

Development activities are nominally more conducive to the government’s own strategies and structures. As the Ugandan columnist Andrew Mwenda holds, the Ugandan government has for decades played politics with the conflict in the north, transforming it into an opportunity for regime survival by enabling the government to quell political resistance under the auspices of civilian protection.[4] With this, however, came a plethora of international actors that not only aimed to aide the situation, but also gave attention to the political challenges and weak governance. Moving into the development phase could thus be seen as one way of getting rid of the many critical voices. More profound, however, is how the nominal move from humanitarianism to development can be seen as a means of the government’s long-term strategy of political consolidation and rebutting political opposition in the north, now driven by foreign aid.

The case also informs about another inevitable concern of protracted crises and the war-to-peace-continuum where it is difficult to demarcate the transition from one phase to the next, i.e. the nexus of humanitarianism and development – and thus what often is described in negative terms as a humanitarian mission creep. Humanitarianism and development are two features of international aid. Despite overlaps, they work according to different principles, where humanitarianism’s claim to neutrality rubs shoulder with the politics of development. Obviously, and as many have pointed out in a number of cases, including Northern Uganda, the practices of humanitarian aid tends to fall far from its guiding principles. If not by intention, humanitarianism operates in a political landscape and inevitably has political effects. The complex linkages of the Ugandan government, local and international agencies and NGOs, as well as the current and historical political opposition emanating from the north have made humanitarianism part of the political context.

The relationship between the two-pronged sides of international aid is nevertheless a matter of perspective. While the nexus between humanitarianism and development causes disturbance among policymakers and debates in conference rooms at the headquarters level, those working in the field often have a more pragmatic relation to this schism, and the intended beneficiaries of international aid tend not to distinguish between humanitarian action and development aid. Yet, as argued above, their differences have practical effects for the delivery of aid and the protection of civilians – as observed in the ongoing transition humanitarianism to development in Northern Uganda.


[1] http://reliefweb.int/report/uganda/war-northern-uganda-worlds-worst-forgotten-crisis-un

[2] http://www.irinnews.org/report/56063/uganda-1-000-displaced-die-every-week-in-war-torn-north-report

[3] It should be noted that these programmes, run and coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) came under critical donor scrutiny from 2012 and onwards due to the unmasking of rampant corruption, thus causing donors to reduce support to these programmes.

[4] Mwenda, A. (2010). Uganda’s politics of foreign aid and violent conflict: the political uses of the LRA rebellion. The Lord’s Resistance Army. Myth and reality. T. Allen and K. Vlassenroot. London, Zed Books: 45-58.

ICCM – The Annual Gathering of a Global Digital Village

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


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

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

 Towards a more digitalized response

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

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

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

Technology in and out of Africa

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

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

 10 per cent technology, 90 per cent human

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The promise and perils of ‘disaster drones’

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The dire humanitarian consequences of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in conflict have become all too familiar. In contrast, there has been much less public discussion about the potential humanitarian uses of drones. So-called ‘disaster drones’ offer humanitarian agencies a range of possibilities in relation to crisis mapping, search and rescue and (some way off in the future) cargo transport and relief drops.

How can the humanitarian community benefit from the technological advances that UAVs and other unmanned or automated platforms offer without giving further legitimacy to a UAV industry looking for civilian applications for drones developed for military purposes? Are there particular ethical, legal and financial implications with respect to procuring disaster drones? This article gives an overview of current and foreseeable uses of disaster drones and ‘(ro)bots without borders’, highlighting the need for a more thorough understanding of the commercial logic underpinning the transfer of technology from the military to the civilian and humanitarian fields, and the systematic attempts being made by the UAV industry to rebrand itself as a humanitarian actor. It also shares insights from a recent workshop on the potential role of drones in Red Cross search and rescue operations, and concludes by linking the issue of the disaster drone to broader questions regarding humanitarian technology.

Available at: Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora & Lohne, Kjersti (2013). The promise and perils of ‘disaster drones’. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine.  ISSN 1472-4847.  (58).

Humanitarian challenges in Syria

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NCHS arranged a seminar on the humanitarian situation in Syria. During the discussions it was made clear that the world had not seen a humanitarian emergency of this scope since Rwanda 1994. Lack of access inhibits humanitarian operations directed at the Syrians in Syria, while the programs for the protection of refugees are still underfunded. There are many potential partner NGOs operating inside Syria, but the large international humanitarian NGOs have a hard time finding implementing partners. NGOs that are reliably neutral and have a full mastery of Western accounting standards – are in short supply. It was noted that work in Syria was very dangerous for both the media and the humanitarians; kidnappings, arrests, and executions have effectively blinded the international community and largely incapacitated the humanitarian response.

The seminar was opened by a rough introduction to the current positions in the civil war: The cleavages are many and, unfortunately, multiplying. A rough summary is that the Assad regime controls areas to the south and west; the opposition controls areas in the north and east – while the northern most area is controlled by Kurdish nationalists. The conflict threatens the stability of the entire region. Turkey is under pressure by a massive influx of people fleeing the conflict, Jordan is hard-pressed by its’ own population which can potentially gain support from Syrian refugees, and the population of Syrians in Lebanon is closing in on the 25 % mark. Considering Hezbollah’s close affiliation with the Shiite regime in Syria, and that the majority of fleeing Syrians are Sunni, this can potentially destabilize the political balance in Lebanon.

It was claimed that the international actors have a disproportionate focus on refugees; to the detriment of the internally displace inside Syria. A partial explanation for this is that it is very difficult to act inside Syria. The security situation is tough for the international humanitarians and the complex political situation makes it difficult to choose local implementing partners. It was also emphasized from many speakers that the neutrality had become an impossible ideal inside Syria. It is virtually impossible to get a full overview of political implications and potential offences taken at any given course of action. Meanwhile the UN is forced to work within the framework of Syria as a sovereign state, granting the Assad regime authority over how they conduct their humanitarian efforts. The national Red Cross Society also has close ties to Assad’s administration. Concern was expressed by several speakers that humanitarian relief could be abused by Islamist elements in the opposition. To this it was objected that the Islamists were there to stay. Neglecting humanitarian obligations in fear of supporting radical Islamists could potentially lead to a failure similar to the one faced in Somalia. The consequences could be catastrophic for the Syrian population.

The potential for abuse of humanitarian aid to promote political and military goals is large. At the same time the situation is dire. With winter on the way it can become necessary to sacrifice neutrality in order to ensure that the aid can reach those in the greatest of needs.

The complete video of the “Humanitarian Challenges in Syria” seminar (in Norwegian) is available here:

Part 1

Part 2