Tag Archives: humanitarianism

There must be something I can ‘help with’

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This text first appeared on CMI and is re-posted here. Salla Turunen is a PhD fellow at CMI with a research focus on humanitarian diplomacy and the United Nations.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

What is usually white, offers short-term solutions and is often misplaced? An international volunteer.

At the age of 20, I spent two months as a volunteer English teacher in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Like many white, Western, and particularly young women, I too wanted to participate in ‘doing global good’. I too saw images of ‘less privileged’, non-white women, children and men in the ‘Global South’, which in contrast to my home surroundings had an effect. I too felt that there must be something I can ‘help with’.

Recently, I read a blog post of We Aren’t Just Vehicles for your Guilt and Privilege: A View from Nepal by Rishi Bhandari, a Nepali who grew up surrounded by international volunteers. Bhandari’s key criticism surrounds volunteer travel in a post-colonial manner: White savior comes to the short-term ‘rescue’ by pursuing to save the illusion that the white savior has created in their mind of the ‘beneficiaries’ and their surroundings. For Bhandari, and for many post-colonial scholars, the perceived privilege comes along with imagined capability to ‘teach’, ‘help’ and ‘empower’. This is problematic, among others, due to lack of local contextual knowledge, Global North epistemologies and mere naivete.

Having done my graduate degree in gender studies and currently doing a PhD in the field of humanitarianism, I identified intellectually several of Bhandari’s arguments. Mary Mostafanezhad (2014) discusses how volunteer tourism commodifies empathy and stretches our imagination on how neoliberal capitalism articulates in global social relations. Michael Mascarenhas (2017) flags that colonial countries have a long-standing tradition to send, particularly young, people overseas in the guise of goodwill, democracy and charity, which translates into the spread of the Western cultural, political and economic hegemony. As for global politics, Johannes Paulmann (2013) argues that the overall humanitarian commitment from the Global North has safeguarded the moral positioning and superiority of the West and the commitment itself is a kind of postcolonial remedy. Yet, despite such intellectual approaches, the blog post was speaking to me on another level – as addressing the thoughts of the 20-year-old me.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

There are several different kinds of volunteering opportunities for those who are interested. Importantly, volunteering doesn’t equal to international volunteering. An example of this are national Greek volunteers in crisis-ridden Greece of the 21st century’s second decade, during which volunteering became a governmental, institutional and social reconfiguration of the new Greek and European Union citizen (Rozakou 2016). Despite having had volunteering opportunities inter alia among the elderly, youth and homeless in my home country, such considerations were swept away by the temptation to combine volunteering with travel.

Back in the beginning of this decade, I remember having had a discussion with another Finnish volunteer on her experiences which eventually created a yearning for myself to do something similar. Many volunteer experiences begin this way – from an intersectional perspective, you hear the side of the story from a person who bears resemblance to yourself and you are attracted to their insight. Alternatively, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain: After my volunteering, I received numerous inquiries particularly via Facebook from other interested people from the Global North asking about the NGO I ended up working with and my insight and experiences as a volunteer in Nepal.

After a quick Google search for key words “volunteer Nepal” today, I was given 26,700,000 results in 0.83 seconds.

When I began my search for my volunteer travel in 2010, the volunteering opportunities through online searches seemed endless, and they still appear to be so. After a quick Google search for key words “volunteer Nepal” today, I was given 26,700,000 results in 0.83 seconds. At the beginning of my twenties, when scrolling through the World Wide Web for these opportunities, I saw a program for an English teacher, which I felt back then to be an area in which I could ‘contribute’ – interestingly enough as a non-native English speaker.

As far as I would like to remember, my intentions for deciding to become a volunteer were ‘good’ from the position and perspective I then had. As many other young Global North volunteers, I was curious about the world and motivated by the opportunity to see another part of it while simultaneously interacting with people from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Having recently finished my high school studies, I was in the search of directions and interests for my life and somehow the idea of travelling far in order to see near seemed appealing. And as far as I recall, also my social circles in Finland found my thoughts and determination for international volunteering a fascinating discussion topic, inevitably accumulating my social capital.

The program costs (including residence and food in the monastery) and the flights from Helsinki to Kathmandu and back were around 3000 euros altogether. A hefty investment for a high school graduate in a gap year as I was working in the restaurant field at the time, earning approximately 1300 euros per month. But this was a target I felt withdrawn to direct my savings to. Soon enough I was on the airplane heading to Kathmandu, then completing my volunteering and personal soul-searching after which heading home with an experience of a memorable summer. In Finland, I was interviewed by the local newspaper and radio on my experiences of volunteering and living in a Buddhist monastery, broadening my personal spectacular into a public one.

The consideration that I have made professional gains through such volunteering, is a painful one.

Without going into the details of my volunteer experience itself or the possible usefulness of my work (as these reflections would be only one-sided), I have been reflecting my decision to go in retro-perspective. Particularly, by employing critical thinking tools I have acquired during my years in academia. There I was, a young, well-meaning Western adventurer finding courses for my life at the expense and in the everyday of other people. Simultaneously, I had a sincere feeling of contributing to an enterprise more novel and greater than my individual self. With time and education in social sciences, I become more aware of the history and reproduction of global inequalities which had been embodied in my volunteer experience. My economic situation and overall global positioning as white, Western and travelled individual with English language capabilities (to name a few) enabled me to volunteer in a manner that the majority of the world’s population cannot. With that being said, I am also considering has my new privilege – academic education – somehow overridden my previous privileges in giving me new tools to criticize volunteer travel[1] today in a way which was out of my reach when I made the decision to become a volunteer.

Illustration by Pernille Jørgensen/CMI.

Overall, reflecting volunteer travel from the positionality I have today feels problematic as for me such experience is not an intangible intellectual discussion or societal phenomenon, but a part of my personal and professional past. Later in life, and particularly as a young professional otherwise lacking years of applicable work experiences, I have also stated my international volunteering in my curriculum vitaes, which, undoubtedly, have aided my professional opportunities in my international career. The consideration that I have made professional gains through such volunteering —which grounds and continues to exists on the basis of global inequalities— is a painful one. Expanding from personal agony into systematic structures, both Mary Mostafanezhad and Michael Mascarenhas (2014 & 2017) underline that young volunteers today are also increasingly cognizant of the pressure to gain international experiences to open doors for educational and professional opportunities in which volunteer travel plays a role. Also, prestigious universities and trainee programs have taken such an ‘exposure’ as a part of their programming in ‘qualifying’ young professionals to face the global challenges of today.

This phenomenon feeds also into the professionalization of the humanitarian field, of which Thomas G. Weiss and Michael Barnett (2011) write:

In other words, [humanitarian] volunteers began as amateurs. But increasingly the humanitarian enterprise frowned upon such naïfs and began demanding that staff have real expertise and rewarded them accordingly. A CEO or CFO of a major not-for-profit aid agency should not require less training or fewer skills or relevant work experience than a CEO or CFO of a for-profit Fortune 500 company. And if they are experts, they expect to be paid accordingly. (p. 116, emphasis added.)

Volunteer travel does not seem to have an end in sight, rather, it seems to accelerate in an increasing pace, and it has firm structures in its support and maintenance. Seemingly ever-increasing number of NGOs, INGOs and private sector social corporate responsibility programs provide opportunities in which volunteer travel can be deployed. As discussed, it is also now being more and more integrated and formalized in the spheres of education and professional careers. As scholars, activists and journalists argue, volunteer travel remains deeply problematic as individual, small-scale intervention (whether based on morality, empathy, guilt, curiosity, educational and professional development or something else) lack the means and muscles to redress macro level challenges such as poverty and weak governance. Silver bullet solutions, such as volunteer travel, and the framing of global inequalities in their format are perplexing and contested to begin with, posing the question whose interests these bullets actually serve.

Volunteers are motivated by various shades and impressions of other people’s imagined existence which are given illustrations inter alia in media and aid campaigns’ propaganda and images. Regrettably, volunteer travel continues to reinforce global inequalities by offering patch solutions at its best and without adequate means to address the underlying root causes of suffering. What at first glance seems to be a hearty interaction between a volunteer and a host-community member, can actually contribute to bolstering of inequalities. In addition to lacking the desired macro level impact, the micro, individual level effects take place.

For example, for Rishi Bhandari growing up in Nepal surrounded by international volunteers, it meant the following:

– I first encountered international volunteers when I was five, and I loved them! As a five-year-old kid, who doesn’t enjoy being tossed up into the air and given candies? But the irony was that they always only stayed for a short period of time, so the fun interactions were tainted by the knowledge that it was all going to be over soon. And when they would leave I would feel a keen sense of loss.

– When I reflect on it, I feel like the volunteers were treating us like we were from another planet. We were commodities to be used for a short period of time, not children with feelings and aspirations, or who are prone to attachment issues. There is a certain sense of exoticism associated with volunteering with kids overseas, that you can see on the posters that advertise these experiences.

The images seem to say: “Look at these smiling brown children! They are poor but happy!”

– Volunteers internalise these messages and treat children like toys, who are there to be touched and be tossed around. They didn’t treat us as complex, rounded human beings.

Nepalese culture is a valuable and living entity in its own right.

Rishi Bhandari

Volunteer travel will continue to exist. Volunteers may be young people in their gap year like I was, or they might be retired couples seeking to ‘give back’. International volunteering like other cross-cultural interactions, can break down artificial barriers between people and plant seeds to a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. The problem with volunteer travel is, however, that the movement in its current format is mostly a one-way street. It is the Finnish girl fresh-out of high school student who uses her gap year savings to go teach English to Buddhist monks in Nepal. It is not the young person from Bangladesh who comes to the United States to educate American children without any  professional quaifications equipped only with her or his high school diploma, young enthusiasm and life-experience.  

[1] The term volunteer travel is used in parallel with terms volunteer tourism and voluntourism, commonly referring to international volunteering for short periods of time, usually weeks or some months. Particularly volunteer tourism is often compared to mass tourism in the so-called developing countries, in which the former is seen pursuing to bring positive impacts to the host-communities and destinations whereas the latter has been criticized for the lack of such positive impacts (see for example Harng Luh Sin 2009).

References

Mascarenhas, M. (2017). New Humanitarianism and the Crisis of Charity: Good Intentions on the Road to Help. Indiana University Press.

Mostafanezhad, M. (2014). Volunteer Tourism. Routledge.

Paulmann, J. (2013). Conjunctures in the history of international humanitarian aid during the twentieth century. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development4(2), 215-238.

Rozakou, K. (2016). Crafting the volunteer: Voluntary associations and the reformation of sociality. Journal of Modern Greek Studies34(1), 79-102.

Sin, H. L. (2009). Volunteer tourism—“involve me and I will learn”?. Annals of Tourism Research36(3), 480-501.

Weiss, T. G., & Barnett, M. (2013). Humanitarianism Contested: Where Angels Fear to Tread. Routledge.

Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies: 2019 in review

Thanks to fresh new funding from the Norwegian Research Council’s NORGLOBAL program in early 2019 to establish a Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, it has truly been an exciting year for NCHS. Through connecting and engaging with academics, students and practitioners of humanitarianism in Norway and beyond, NCHS has been able to serve its purpose as a platform for debate and exchange.

Top 3 most read NCHS blog posts 2019

1. Sørbø, Gunnar. “Europe’s new border guards”.
2. Reid-Henry, Simon. “Do you speak humanitarian?”.
3. Sandvik, Kristin. “Safeguarding: good intentions, difficult process”.

Looking back at 2019, three thematic areas stand out as having shaped the work of the Centre, as well as humanitarian agendas more broadly speaking. The themes migration, humanitarianism in conflict, and technologization of aid are likely to continue creating debate in humanitarian forums in the new year.

Displacement and migration

The UN OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 lays out how a record number of people are currently displaced, and displacement typically lasts for longer periods of time. In early 2019, 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced, and twenty-eight of the 50 countries with the highest numbers of new displacements faced both conflict and disaster-induced displacement.

Migration policies in Europe and its neighboring regions has continued to be a hot topic of discussion in 2019, and NCHS associates have contributed to the debate by scrutinizing the securitization of migration and relatedly humanitarian aid, and the concept of humanitarian containment. The latter reflects on humanitarian actors restricting the movement of refugees and other migrants through provision of certain services in a geographically restricted area, as explored by the CMI-led project SuperCamp. In Norway, the Norwegian-registered rescue vessel Ocean Viking operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée  reignited the migration debate, as explored in this blog post by NCHS Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert on whether search-and-rescue (SAR) operations encourage people to attempt crossing the Mediterranean. A public event co-organized by NCHS, with PRIO and the University of Oslo, at Litteraturhuset, gathered academics, humanitarians and Norwegian politicians from various political parties to discuss whether there is any validity to the claim that SAR in the Mediterranean act as a pull factor. The topic clearly engages, being amongst our most highly attended events in 2019.Taking a step back from air-conditioned conference rooms in a sobering reflection on migrant deaths at sea after attending a funeral ceremony at Lampedusa, NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri reminded us all of the immense human tragedy which lays the foundation for this politicized debate. In his words, “A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make it, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it”.

It is not only European migration policies and refugee protection means that have been put under and analytical lens this past year. In 2019, NCHS associates have debated Turkey’s Syria policy in light of the refugee question, historical perspectives from South America in light of Venezuelan displacement, outsourcing of border control to militia groups in the Sahel, and the Cartagena Declaration and refugee protection in Latin America.

As large movements of people are likely to continue shaping policies, humanitarian response and academic debates also in 2020, we remain committed to gather different types of interlocutors to learn from each other’s experiences.

The triple nexus and humanitarianism in conflict.

Initiated at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the triple nexus refers to the need to coordinate humanitarian, development and (at times appropriate) peacebuilding efforts to more effectively reach those most in need. While the concept is by no means without criticism (e.g. Louise Redver’s report on what implementing the nexus looks like from the field, or Kristoffer Lidén’s argument against merging humanitarianism with development and security post the 2016 WHS), the years following the World Humanitarian Summit has seen a push for policies attempting to enhance synergies between emergency and longer-term relief efforts, as an effort to bridge the gap between humanitarianism, development and security. Yet, we are very much still in the implementation phase in terms of nexus-programming. From an analytical point of view, the concept opens interesting trajectories in terms of where ‘the humanitarian’ ends and where other disciplines and fields of practice begin. Further, when placed in highly politicized contexts of insecurity and peacebuilding efforts, how does the upholding of the fundamental humanitarian principles fare?

The political role of humanitarian aid and the relationship between security, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts was the main thematic focus of the NCHS Research Network mid-year meeting at NUPI in August 2019. Gathering researchers from various disciplines with different entry-points to what ‘humanitarianism’ means, in particular when applied in a situation of conflict, we were able to engage in a rich debate about concepts, definitions, and their interpretations by various actors. Amongst these, an important point of view is how policies developed by actors external to the country where the conflict takes place are interpreted by local populations, as highlighted by the seminar on the EU’s engagement in external conflicts in the Sahel led by Morten Bøås.

The politics of humanitarian action was also the topic of a special issue of Disasters on humanitarian governance, edited by Dennis Dijkzeul and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. Sandvik and Dijkzeul have later written two blog posts based on the introduction to the special issue, titled “Humanitarian governance and localization: What kind of world is being imagined and produced”, and “New Directors in Humanitarian Governance: Technology, Juridification and Criminalization”. Amongst the authors contributing to the special issue were several NCHS associates, analyzing humanitarian policy making as a form of governance from different entry points. Kristoffer Lidén’s article titled “The Protection of Civilians and ethics of humanitarian governance: beyond intervention and resilience” explores how the principle of Protection of Civilians in conflict has ethnical repercussions in actions undertaken by states and international organizations related to humanitarian, development and security practices. Jacob Høigilt’s article titled “The futility of rights-based humanitarian aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories” argues that the Occupied Palestinian territories provides an example suggesting that rights-based approaches in humanitarianism might be futile if not backed by political power.

Humanitarian assistance has traditionally been delivered in situations characterized by instability and insecurity. In order to reach vulnerable populations, humanitarians have thus had to establish lines of communication with local, regional and national actors. Importantly, how these relationships are formed and maintained risk affecting the way the humanitarians are perceived in terms of upholding the principles of neutrality and impartiality. This balance, including the concept of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ and whether independent humanitarian assistance is possible in today’s conflict, were discussed at length during the NCHS annual meeting at CMI in November 2019. NCHS co-Director Antonio De Lauri brought up some of the same themes when he gave the NMBU Annual Lecture in Global Development in December 2019, titled “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: Militarization, Diplomacy, Compromise”.

As violent conflicts continue to cause an immense need for humanitarian assistance, and reforms on reducing silos and enhancing cooperation between humanitarian, development and security efforts continue to play an important role in humanitarian policy, so too will we continue to focus on analysis on what the implications of the interlinkages may mean theoretically and in practice.

Data and ‘the digital’.

Technological developments have shaped all corners of society over the past decades, including humanitarianism and the delivery and governance of humanitarian aid. Yet, uncritical application of new technologies in the humanitarian field risk unintended negative consequences that may be harmful to local populations and aid workers alike. In 2019, NCHS associates have continued examining the effects of emerging technologies in the humanitarian field. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s paper on technologizing the fight against sexual violence is a good example, where Sandvik asks critical questions about the turn towards technology in humanitarian aid, and the rise of ‘digital bodies’. In 2019, Sandvik has contributed to developing the concept of ‘digital bodies’ further, including related to children’s rights, and ‘humanitarian wearables’ at a lecture at Oxford University.

However, the relationship between the humanitarian sector and technology does not have to be one sided. In a blog post, Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry in terms of data governance, with the caveat of the latter being willing to learn from the former’s century of experience in building organizational structures. As technological developments continue to make its way into humanitarian operations, our main encouragement to academics and practitioners alike is to make thorough ethical considerations to help avoid misuse and potential negative implications.

Top 3 highly attended events co-organized by NCHS in 2019 (click on link to access seminar recording)

1. “Assisting and protecting refugees in Europe and the Middle East – politics, law, and humanitarian practices”. 19 September 2019, at PRIO, Oslo.
2. Humanitarian lunch seminar: SYRIA”. 7 October 2019, at the Norwegian Red Cross, Oslo.
3. “Redningsoperasjoner i Middelhavet: en pull-faktor?”. 25 November 2019, at Litteraturhuset, Oslo.

Looking towards the new year.

Although 2019 has without doubt been a successful first year for the NCHS Research Network on Humanitarian Efforts, we see no reason to rest on our laurels. In late 2019, The Research Council of Norway awarded several projects related to humanitarianism with funding starting from 2020, four of which are led by colleagues associated with NCHS. This year, we vow to continue engaging with academics, practitioners, policy makers and the broader public on questions related to humanitarianism. As stated above, we believe migration, the triple nexus and technological developments will continue to shape the humanitarian agenda in 2020, but these are by no means the only topics on which we will focus our efforts. As the year progress, we hope to engage with actors involved in the field of humanitarian studies on all topics of interest that may arise, and bridge practical and analytical knowledge by connecting research conducted on specific crises with practitioners’ own experience. Stay tuned and follow our web page and social media channels on Facebook and Twitter for more news.

Wishing you all the best for 2020.

Andrea Silkoset

Coordinator Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies

What Can Data Governance Learn from Humanitarians?

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Sean McDonald argues that the humanitarian sector has much to offer the technology industry, and explores the relationship between the two. This article first appeared on Centre for International Governance Innovation, and is reposted here.

About the author: Sean Martin McDonald is the co-founder of Digital Public, which builds legal trusts to protect and govern digital assets. Sean’s research focuses on civic data trusts as vehicles that embed public interest governance into digital relationships and markets.

World Food Programme (WFP) aid arrives in in Aslam, Hajjah, Yemen. The programme recently accused the government of redirecting aid to fund the war and insisted that aid recipients participate in a biometric identity-tracking system, sparking a data governance standoff. (AP Photo/Hammadi Issa)

Over the summer, the World Food Programme (WFP) — the world’s largest humanitarian organization — got into a pitched standoff with Yemen’s Houthi government over, on the surface, data governance. That standoff stopped food aid to 850,000 people for more than two months during the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Essentially, the WFP accused the Houthi government of redirecting aid to fund the war and insisted that aid recipients participate in a biometric identity-tracking system. The government responded by accusing the WFP of being a front for intelligence operations; this was opportune, given the recent controversy over their relationship with Palantir. In the end, the parties agreed to use the WFP’s fingerprint-based biometric identity system, despite reported flaws. The dispute, of course, wasn’t just about data — it was about power, trust and the licence to operate.  

While they may seem worlds apart, the humanitarian sector has much to offer to the technology industry. One of the things humanitarians and technologists have in common is an extraordinary power to operate. For humanitarians, power takes the form of an internationally agreed-upon right to intervene in conflicts – for some, with legal immunity. And technology companies have the ability to project themselves into global markets without the need for traditional government approval.

In one sense, they’re opposites. Humanitarians have had to meticulously negotiate the conditions of their access to conflict zones, based on non-intervention principles, the terms of host country agreements with governments and, increasingly, data-sharing agreements. In contrast, technology companies have mostly enjoyed the freedom to operate globally without much negotiation, taxation or regulation of any type. But, in recent years (as illustrated by the WFP example) humanitarian organizations are starting to face the political and regulatory implications of collecting, using, storing, sharing and deleting data. Technology companies, it seems, are following the same path; they face significant public pushback from nearly every corner of the world, from international standards bodies and antitrust investigations to privacy fines and class action lawsuits.

Humanitarian organizations have considerable history and experience negotiating for the licence to operate in political and unstable contexts – which should inform the people and companies designing data governance systems. Here are five places to start:

Licence to Operate

Humanitarians and technology companies can, and sometimes do, operate in places where the government is actively resistant to their presence. While the stakes are often lower for technology companies, the costs involved in negotiating licence to operate country-by-country, and the technical complexity of maintaining product offerings compatible with divergent political contexts, are high. As a result, most technology companies launch offerings, and then react to, or defend against governmental and public concerns. That approach is decidedly opportunist, sacrificing long-term goodwill for short-term gains. Humanitarian organizations have extensive debates around their right to access affected populations, and under what conditions they earn that mandate. One thing humanitarians can teach technology companies is the importance of contextual negotiations and compromise to improve medium-term sustainability and long-term growth.

The Political Complexity of Neutrality

The technology industry has become a popular political scapegoat, often coming under fire for all kinds of bias. Technology companies arbitrate complex social, commercial and political processes, some without any dedicated operational infrastructure. The larger companies have built trust and safety teams, content moderation units of varying types, and online dispute resolution systems — all of which are designed to help users solve problems related to platforms’ core functions. Each of these approaches has grown significantly in recent years, but largely to mitigate damage created by the technology sector itself – and often without transparency or the ability to shape rules.

Humanitarian organizations, in contrast, are defined by their commitment to several core, apolitical principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence and to do no harm. The major humanitarian organizations have built organizations and reputations for upholding those values, often amid violent conflict, that scale globally. The technology industry, and in particular those seeking the licence to provide public digital services or to govern public data — has a significant amount to learn from the organizational structure of complex humanitarian operations. 

Federation

Federation is an organizational structure that manages common infrastructure and operational hierarchies. Federation is second nature to technology companies when it comes to code, but they are just learning how to federate and devolve their organizational structures. Humanitarian organizations have been working through devolved, federated organizational structures for decades — the International Federation of the Red Cross, for example. There is a natural, and well-documented tension between independence and upholding common standards across networks – especially in technology systems. Yet, humanitarian organizations have built federated organizations that enable them to operate globally, while availing themselves of the two most important aspects of building trust: investment in local capacity and accountability.

Localization

In addition to negotiating a licence to operate with governments, humanitarian organizations often invest in domestic response capacity, and in recent years, localization has become a driving strategic imperative. Humanitarians increasingly realize they need to offer value beyond direct emergency aid, in order to foster more durable solutions and earn the trust of communities. Technology companies often make their products available internationally — and they often invest in countries where they maintain a physical presence, but they rarely set up a presence for the purposes of investing in local communities or in ways that extend beyond their business interests. Technology organizations looking to build trust and public approval in the ways they govern data could learn from the humanitarian sector’s investments in local capacity, resilience and independence.

Accountability

While the humanitarian sector faces a lot of controversy over accountability, their typical operating practice is to engage in direct negotiations with local parties, which is different than technology companies, who generally start with one set of terms they apply globally.  The default terms of the technology industry’s cardinal data governance contracts — terms of service agreements and privacy policies — enable them to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement. It’s impossible to rely on the terms of a contract that can change at the whim of one party – or when the underlying goes bankrupt or gets acquired. The actors within the technology industry seeking public trust in the way they manage data can learn from the humanitarian sector about the need for credible parity between negotiating parties and distributed accountability.

The good news is that the humanitarian sector and the technology industry are well on their way to forming deep alliances; the heads of several major humanitarian organizations have placed private sector coordination and co-creation at the centre of their strategies. The World Economic Forum is laying the foundation for private companies to participate in international governance bodies. And, private foundations and investors increasingly play a role in shaping response efforts. 

Unfortunately, these relationships may be a double-edged sword. Technology companies can take advantage of humanitarian organizations’ unique licence to operate to work in regulated spaces, test new products without repercussions and even justify the creation of invasive surveillance. This new generation of relationships between the humanitarian organizations and technology companies offer opportunities for each group to learn from the other’s structural solutions on problems relating to shared issues of trust, neutrality and global scale. Let’s hope that the technology industry chooses to learn from the organizations that have spent the last century building, testing and scaling organizational structures to deliver the best of humanity.

Penal Humanitarianism: Introducing a new blog series (Part I)

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This is the first post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. The series start with an introduction to the concept ‘penal humanitarianism’, and an outline of the blog posts to follow.

Introducing the New Themed Series on Penal Humanitarianism

Humanitarianism is many things to many people. It is an ethos, an array of sentiments and moral principles, an imperative to intervene, and a way of ‘doing good’ by bettering the human condition through targeting suffering. It is also a form of governance. In Border Criminologies’ new themed series, we look closer at the intersections of humanitarian reason with penal governance, and particularly the transfer of penal power beyond the nation state.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010, in Lira, Uganda. (Photo by Whitney Curtis).
The image is from the ICC’s social media ‘shareables’ portfolio to ‘Help raise awareness of these issues by sharing these visuals with your friends, family and networks’.

The study of humanitarian sentiments in criminology has mainly focused on how these sensibilities have ‘humanized’ or ‘civilized’ punishment. As such, the notion of humanism in the study of crime, punishment, and justice is associated with human rights implementation in penal practices and with normative bulwark against penal populism; indeed, with a ‘softening’ of penal power.

This themed series takes a slightly different approach. While non-punitive forces have a major place in the humanitarian sensibility, we explore how humanitarianism is put to work on and for penal power. In doing so, we look at how muscular forms of power – expulsion, punishment, war – are justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason.

In the following post, Mary Bosworth revisits themes from her 2017 article and addresses current developments on UK programmes delivered overseas to ‘manage migration’. She shows that through an expansion of these programmes, migration management and crime governance has not only elided, but ‘criminal justice investment appears to have become a humanitarian goal in its own right’. Similarly concerned with what happens at the border, Katja Franko and Helene O.I. Gundhus observed the paradox and contradictions between humanitarian ideals in the performative work of governmental discourses, and the lack of concern for migrants’ vulnerability in their article on Frontex operations.

However, in their blog post they caution against a one-dimensional understanding of humanitarianism as legitimizing policy and the status quo. It may cloud from view agency and resistance in practice, and, they argue, ‘the dialectics of change arising from the moral discomfort of doing border work’. The critical, difficult question lurking beneath their post asks what language is left if not that of the sanctity of the human, and of humanity.

Moving outside the European territorial border, Eva Magdalena Stambøl however corroborates the observation that penal power takes on a humanitarian rationale when it travels. Sharing with us some fascinating findings from her current PhD work on EU’s crime control in West Africa, and, more specifically, observations from her fieldwork in Niger, she addresses how the rationale behind the EU’s fight against ‘migrant smugglers’ in Niger is framed as a humanitarian obligation. In the process, however, the EU projects penal power beyond Europe and consolidates power in the ‘host’ state, in this case, Niger.

Moving beyond nation-state borders and into the ‘international’, ‘global’, and ‘cosmopolitan’, my own research demonstrates how the power to punish is particularly driven by humanitarian reason when punishment is delinked from its association with the national altogether. I delve into the field of international criminal justice and show how it is animated by a humanitarian impetus to ‘do something’ about the suffering of distant others, and how, in particular, the human rights movement have been central to the fight against impunity for international crimes. Through the articulation of moral outrage, humanitarian sensibilities have found their expression in a call for criminal punishment to end impunity for violence against distant others. However, building on an ethnographic study of international criminal justice, which is forthcoming in the Clarendon Studies in Criminology published by Oxford University Press, I demonstrate how penal power remains deeply embedded in structural relations of (global) power, and that it functions to expand and consolidate these global inequalities further. Removed from the checks and balances of democratic institutions, I suggest that penal policies may be more reliant on categorical representations of good and evil, civilization and barbarity, humanity and inhumanity, as such representational dichotomies seem particularly apt to delineate the boundaries of cosmopolitan society.

In the next post I co-wrote with Anette Bringedal Houge, we address the fight against sexual violence in conflict as penal humanitarianism par excellence, building on our study published in Law & Society Review. While attention towards conflict-related sexual violence is critically important, we take issue with the overwhelming dominance of criminal law solutions on academic, policy, and activist agendas, as the fight against conflict-related sexual violence has become the fight against impunity. We observe that the combination of a victim-oriented justification for international justice and graphic reproductions of the violence victims suffer, are central in the advocacy and policy fields responding to this particular type of violence. Indeed, we hold that it epitomizes how humanitarianism facilitates the expansion of penal power but take issue with what it means for how we address this type of violence.

In the final post of this series, Teresa Degenhardt offers a discomforting view on the dark side of virtue as she reflects on how penal power is reassembled outside the state and within the international, under the aegis of human rights, humanitarianism, and the Responsibility to Protect-doctrine. Through the case of Libya, she claims that the global north, through various international interventions, ‘established its jurisdiction over local events’. Through what she calls a ‘pedagogy of liberal institutions’, Degenhardt argues that ‘the global north shaped governance through sovereign structures at the local level while re-articulating sovereign power at the global level’, in an argument that, albeit on a different scale, parallels that of Stambøl.  

The posts in this themed series raise difficult questions about the nature of penal power, humanitarianism, and the state. Through these diverse examples, each post demonstrates that while the nation state continues to operate as an essential territorial site of punishment, the power to punish has become increasingly complex. This challenges the epistemological privilege of the nation state framework in the study of punishment.

However, while this thematic series focuses on how penal power travels through humanitarianism, we should, as Franko and Gundhus indicate, be careful of dismissing humanitarian sensibilities and logics as fraudulent rhetoric for a will to power. Indeed, we might – or perhaps should – proceed differently, given that in these times of pushback against international liberalism and human rights, and resurgent religion and nationalism, humanitarian reason is losing traction. Following an unmasking of humanitarianism as a logic of governance by both critical (leftist) scholars and rightwing populism alike, perhaps there is a need to revisit the potency of humanitarianism as normative bulwark against muscular power, and to carve out the boundaries of a humanitarian space of resistance, solidarity and dignity within a criminology of humanitarianism. Such a task can only be done through empirical and meticulous analysis of the uses and abuses of humanitarianism as an ethics of care.

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.

Organizers: 

Carna Brkovic, Georg August University Goettingen

Antonio De Lauri, Chr. Michelsen Institute

Jens Adam, Georg August University Goettingen

Sabine Hess, Georg August University Goettingen

Do you speak humanitarian?

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By Simon Reid-Henry, Associate Professor in the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London & PRIO affiliate

I’m delighted to be invited to the launch of round two of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies today in Oslo, with the establishment of a new network on humanitarian efforts.

There are now over half a million humanitarian professionals and between 2,500 and 4,500 organisations. This according to the event plenary – “Unravelling Humanitarian Concepts” –  delivered by Doris Schopper, the director of CERAH in Geneva. Over the past few years, Schopper has been leading an initiative to develop an online “humanitarian encyclopaedia” to try and bring some coherence to this congeries of actors (you can read more about their work here). But does the humanitarian sector actually need more ‘coordinating’ and more uniformity, as we are often told? Well, yes and no. As Schopper points out, there is today more than ever before an almost unmanageable diversity of cultural, disciplinary and organisational backgrounds within the humanitarian sector (just compare the leviathan like ICRC with the niche ‘pop up’ outfits that have arisen in response to the refugee crisis). Her point is that humanitarianism lacks a common “language” by which means these actors might more usefully “communicate”. 

But diversity is key too. In a way that is what the humanitarian sector best does: it fills in the cracks. And to ensure that this effort to find a common humanitarian language doesn’t ultimately descend into the usual tropes of global ‘governance’ I think also this felt need for unification and professionalisation needs resisting to some degree. For example, Schopper points out that there are 63 different definitions of resilience. This is a problem, she suggests. Arguably the greater problem here, however, is that resilience, as a meta concept, is so broad and influential that it can sustain 63 overlapping definitions (John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum be warned). 

For my money, one of the more interesting things to come from Schopper’s talk was the way to which (a) disciplinary and institutional backgrounds shape the extent to which people agree on basic concepts (anyone who has done interdisciplinary research will confirm that!); and (b) that the sources of people’s conceptual knowledge are worryingly – and conversely – very similar. Over 35 per cent of respondents in the surveys that Schopper and her colleagues undertook in the process of building their encyclopedia, for example, took their understanding of the word “humanity” from Wikipedia (Humanity Journal’s editorial collective also be warned). That’s another away goal for Wikipedia contra the academy. 

Surely the more salient point here is that this conceptual confusion – a “lack of coherence” and “blurred messages” as Schopper puts it, or “boundary work” as those schooled in Science Studies would more likely say – is precisely what the humanitarian sector does want. It allows them to get on with their own work as they see fit, not as others see fit: least of all those they seek to assist. Interestingly, in a section on ‘salient concepts’ used by humanitarian actors there was no mention at all of concepts like ‘care’ or ‘assistance’ in the category of most frequently used concepts. Rather, everything was about organisational good practice and ‘accountability’. No surprises there, perhaps – but this is revealing all the same.

As one of the audience members observed at this point, this is also a powerful reminder of the power of institutions to shape the way that knowledge is used – a point my earlier work on institutions and innovation has emphasised. And it raises, in turn, the problem of intellectual language. An example of this, and it also cropped up in the discussion, is the following: is what we are after in humanitarianism more “convergence” or more “understanding”? The former is corporate prattle mostly; the latter is more socially-enframed – and stronger for it. In other words, the question is less ‘who speaks humanitarian?’ but ‘what they are speaking when they do so?’: what is the humanitarian agenda in other words? This was apparent from another question, which raised the point that the emergence and contestation of concepts is not always an intellectual but frequently an ideological process. Both practical issues (one’s institutional standing, the political associations of certain terms) and political matters (e.g. neoliberal demands for ‘efficiency’ or even geo-strategy) play a role. As the audience member added, you can define “civil society” however you want, but a Russian state interlocutor will still likely frown on the term from the get-go. 

Nonetheless these are some important findings here and I think this work is going to be a touchstone reference for debates over humanitarianism going forward (it certainly adds to recent scholarly discussions like those in Past & Present on the matter of humanitarian historiography). If you want to find out more you can do so here. The work is based on content analysis of an impressive 478 Strategy and general document publications between 2005 and 2017. One of the things they hope to come out of it is a Humanitarian Encyclopaedia. I can see how that sort of intellectual “field guide” could be extremely useful. Then again, the politics of conceptual knowledge goes somewhat beyond this. The fuller work is available here: at HumanitarianEncyclopedia.org and you can follow updates at @HumanEncyclo.

This blogpost was first posted on the authors’ own blog:
https://www.simonreidhenry.com/blog/

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.

Conclusions

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.

 

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[1] www.alnap.org/resource/9207
[2] See the IFRC World Disasters Report 2013 on Technology and Humanitarian Innovation.
www.ifrc.org/publications-and-reports/world-disasters-report/world-disasters-report-2013/
[3] www.unocha.org/hina

 


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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.

Abstract 

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.