New technologies are changing humanitarian action, but don’t assume they're inclusive

29 November 2019
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Drones in humanitarian action, Malawi, 2018.© European Union/Anouk Delafortrie. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The promise of new technology to meet the needs of people in humanitarian crises has been in the news recently, but not always for the right reasons.

What stories such as non-functioning ‘food computers’ and dubious assertions of being an early adopter of drone technology in disaster response  have in common is that their advocates successfully tapped into the sector’s enthusiasm towards, and often uncritical adoption of, new technologies that often promise a lot, but deliver little.

Humanitarian organisations have long sought to apply the latest technologies to better meet the challenges of disaster and conflict response, and this eagerness has only increased in recent years. Various technologies promise more accurate targeting and a reduction in fraud and corruption to ensure that aid is going where it’s needed most.

The seductive appeal of tech-based solutions

Perhaps more cynically, tech-based solutions are also attractive because they make competing organisations look ‘innovative’ and ‘high-impact’ in the eyes of donors and the public. Some are presented as a ‘quick fix’ to the challenges of humanitarian response – fixes that don’t require grappling with the long-term, complex political, social and economic drivers of crises.

The result has been a proliferation of technology-based tools and approaches in humanitarian contexts. The vast majority come from a genuine desire for positive change in the way assistance is delivered. However, their users often make ambitious promises and assumptions about who benefits, particularly when it comes to including the people most vulnerable in a humanitarian crisis.

Inclusivity in the digital age

Inclusion is an important goal for the humanitarian sector, but it has proved difficult to achieve in practice.

While careful adaptation of existing tools has been used to increase coverage and inclusion – such as participatory mapping of communities by residents of informal settlements, training drone pilots in affected countries or messaging applications disseminating information to displaced people – these benefits are still too often assumed as a natural consequence of adopting technology-based approaches.

In reality, differences in access to and use of technology, often along gender, income or racial lines, constitute a ‘digital divide’ that means the benefits of these approaches are not evenly distributed, and leave many excluded.

Inclusion is also limited by in-built biases in many applied technologies – for instance facial recognition software, whose ‘coded gaze’ has not been taught to recognise diverse datasets of faces, or automated mapping technologies without the contextual understanding to recognise houses in disaster-affected areas.

These examples reinforce the idea that technologies, like the humanitarian organisations using them, are not ‘neutral’, but a product of the perspectives, priorities and biases of their developers.

Technology can entrench power inequalities

Uncritically adopting technologies in crises may reinforce the ingrained power dynamics of the sector or violate humanitarian principles, either through a shift to digital registration unintentionally excluding those most in need, or humanitarian independence being compromised through partnerships with the private sector, including the surveillance and security industry.

Instead, these new tools will require active correction and contextual knowledge to be adapted to particular humanitarian crises, in order to include and protect the people humanitarian assistance is intended to serve. In some cases, tools such as biometric registration or mapping of improvised settlements may not be appropriate, with poor data protection practices presenting unacceptable risks to populations made vulnerable by persecution, conflict or displacement.

Learning from past experience is crucial

The missing part of the story of technology, inclusion and humanitarian crisis is learning the lessons of previous initiatives and assessing the impact of technologies that have been implemented at scale. Tools such as spatial mapping increased in prominence following the volunteer mapping movement in the Haiti earthquake response a decade ago, and five years have passed since UNCHR began the roll-out of its biometric identification system.

The widespread adoption of such technologies since then has already significantly changed humanitarian responses, including how needs are identified and assistance is distributed.

While these tools have also created new considerations for humanitarian protection, many in the sector still misunderstand the magnitude of the risks involved, and the implications such technologies present for the power dynamics of the sector remain under-analysed.

At the Humanitarian Policy Group we’ve considered these issues in a new working paper. It marks the beginning of a research programme on inclusion that will explore the impact of these technologies, how they have changed the design and delivery of humanitarian responses – and whether their promise to reach the most vulnerable in crises is borne out in practice.

Authors

Senior Research Officer
John Bryant is a Senior Research Officer with experience of a broad range of international [...]