Different “Humanitarianisms,” Differing Appraisals of Humanitarian Innovations

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Jodi Hilton/IRIN

This guest blog comes to us from Martin Searle. Martin is Associate Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief programme, Non-Traditional Security Centre at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. He has several years of experience working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). His most recent publications are “Is Use of Cyber-Based Technology in Humanitarian Operations Reducing Humanitarian Independence?” and “Humanitarian Technology: New Innovations, Familiar Challenges, and Difficult Balances”.

Critical questions regarding the use of new technologies in humanitarian emergencies often invoke the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, and the additional principle of “do no harm.” These arose out of a particular European historical experience that led to humanitarianism’s focus on people excluded from state protection. Yet other regions, particularly China and Southeast Asia, have more state-centric views on the universal humanitarian imperative to help those who need it most. As humanitarian actors in these contexts are getting heavily involved in technology-driven humanitarian innovation, this poses additional questions for the use of new technologies in humanitarian operations and implications for the humanitarian principles. 

For instance, China is arguably on the forefront of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in disaster response, and was an early adopter of cyber-based technologies in such contexts. Indonesia was one of the first countries to use social media to create real-time maps for urban flooding and Singapore is currently exploring the use of cyborgs in post-disaster search and rescue.

Some new technologies already exist in clear tension with the core principles. Consider Big Data, the Internet of Things, or biometric registration, which each increase humanitarian responders’ production of potentially useful data for their operations. This includes real-time dashboards and maps of disaster affected areas; software that segments and analyses localised disease-burdens; and even individualised vulnerability analysis. But these valuable insights also rely on increased collection of potentially sensitive data and an expanded presence in cyberspace that makes them vulnerable to leaks, whether through poor data management or aggressive targeting by belligerents, states, or even private economic actors.

Where unauthorised access to sensitive data furthers the agenda of any political, military, or for-profit entity, questions of independence arise. Where it provides strategic benefit to a belligerent, questions of neutrality arise. And when it harms people, questions arise from the “do no harm” principle. But whether these questions inform critical discussions on humanitarian innovation depends on whether their underlying principles are shared. Often, they are not. 

Many readers will be familiar with the challenges to neutrality and independence from Western thinkers in the 1990s, who argued that adherence to these principles could actually prolong suffering by stymying efforts to address the underlying causes of humanitarian crises. Such critics would prefer aid to serve development or peace-building and human rights, i.e. political agendas they think would help resolve the underlying causes of humanitarian emergencies over the longer term. Proponents of neutrality and independence countered that these principles remain crucial to convincing parties who can block access that humanitarians organisations pursue no agenda other than the alleviation of suffering. This builds the trust necessary for decision-makers to allow aid into areas they control.

Elsewhere, efforts in China to “liberate” contemporary humanitarianism from its perceived imperialist roots have drawn from principles such as “people-oriented” governance and state duties of benevolence and charity. This constructs humanitarianism as an element of a state’s responsible exercise of sovereignty. Philosophically then, if those duties are fulfilled independently of the state, it is an abnegation of state responsibility. Fully independent humanitarian organisations, therefore, appear undesirable, suspicious, and perhaps even inconceivable. Measures to prevent independent coordination between non-state disaster responders in the country, and so maintain state centrality, are one result of this. To do otherwise risks state legitimacy. If we frame this in terms of “do no harm,” we might say it implicitly expands the referent – the entity whose wellbeing should not be harmed – beyond the individual to include the state.

In Southeast Asia, the inclusion of humanitarianism within the category of “non-traditional security” (NTS) creates a comparable outcome. NTS focuses on non-military security threats – pandemics, environmental degradation, or natural disasters, for example. This already stands in stark contrast to humanitarianism’s genealogy in Europe. These challenges are transnational rather than interstate, and are conceptualised as threats to individuals, communities and, again, state institutions. This has resulted, for instance, in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) humanitarian arm, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), fulfilling its role hierarchically under the direction of the affected state during any humanitarian response. Indeed, much of the AHA Centre’s success in disaster response has been attributed to this. On the one hand, this meant the AHA Centre was able to negotiate direct access to victims of violence in Rakhine State this year ahead of any other humanitarian responder. However, maintaining the trust it enjoys due to this NTS approach meant it did so in line with the Myanmar government’s instructions.   

What does this mean for technology? For one example, consider the many innovations allowing humanitarians to better collect and synthesise data that can simultaneously increase state surveillance of vulnerable populations. This creates new risks to those people, largely due to the potential of losing control of that data (see, for instance, here and here). But if one presumes that humanitarian action gains from state centrality, then this dilemma changes since state centrality will also likely benefit from any improved surveillance capacities. From a state-centric perspective on humanitarianism, therefore, these data-based technologies produce additional benefits to counterbalance the new risks created for populations in need. This is not to suggest that there is necessarily lesser concern here over the negative impacts of data loss on vulnerable people; rather, it highlights that critical appraisal may consider different elements before reaching a conclusion.

There are some important implications here. Broadly speaking, discussions of the permissible uses of new technologies in humanitarian operations that focus on notions of independence, neutrality, and “do no harm,” may struggle to engage innovators who operate within a conception of humanitarianism that is suspicious of those values or understands them differently. However, complicating this substantially, neutrality and independence have clear operational benefits that are under particular threat, especially from technologies relying on cyberspace.

Hitherto, debates on neutrality and independence have sought to balance the priority of immediately accessing those in need with reducing future suffering by addressing the causes of that suffering. Now, new technologies mean that relying on these two principles to access people in peril can undermine our ability to help them once we are there. This represents a new tension between immediate access and immediate effectiveness. Essentially, those who eschew traditional notions of independence and neutrality are freer to insert themselves into cyberspace to pursue this effectiveness. But the increased risks that come with this of leaking sensitive data that can serve the agendas of other relevant actors complicates negotiating access to certain places. Meanwhile, those maintaining access through independence and neutrality must solemnly weigh the implications of increasing the role of cyberspace in their operations. However, choosing to limit that role may in turn reduce the effectiveness of the aid they can offer. This makes it more important than ever to critically examine the relationship between neutrality, independence and emerging technologies.

It is to everyone’s benefit that innovators from diverse backgrounds explore new ideas for getting more and better aid to those who need it most. From diversity flows an exponentially richer discourse. The challenge is to continue the critique that must accompany new ideas to ensure they prove beneficial, but in ways that recognise the different frames of reference that exist for guiding the universal humanitarian imperative of alleviating suffering.

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