Can Technology Make Humanitarian Workers Safer?

As the risk to humanitarian aid workers rises in volatile areas, aid agencies are employing innovative technological tools. A new paper examines the critiques.

Like Comment

“The areas in which aid workers are operating,” notes Jori Pascal Kalkman in “Practices and Consequences of Using Humanitarian Technologies in Volatile Aid Settings,” recently published in the Journal of International Humanitarian Action, "appear to be much more dangerous than a few decades ago." In 2016, for instance, 288 aid workers were victimized in 158 attacks. As conditions grow more risky, the humanitarian aid sector has risen to the challenge of providing more security to its workers, typically by introducing innovative technologies to humanitarian aid work.

Humanitarian technologies have been gaining traction in practice, and their potential to enhance security is immense. The author notes, “Publications on good practices of technology use abound.” Yet the ramifications of humanitarian technologies, especially when deployed for the security of aid workers, are subject to thoughtful debate by scholarly theorists and practitioners alike.

In this new paper, the author draws on the results of an exploratory study of 31 in-depth interviews, and critically engages with  major issues surrounding the repercussions of humanitarian action’s adoption of technological innovations for security. Ultimately, practical recommendations emerge.

What are "Humanitarian Technologies"?

Humanitarian technologies range from simple (online cash transfers, social media) to complex (biometrics identification, geospatial mapping, drones, big data-driven devices). Some are customized for security enhancement, including incident mapping, serious gaming for security training purposes, or simply systems for sending security alerts by text.

A Traditional “Triangle” of Security

When contemplating the implications of innovative technologies for humanitarian security purposes, one should consider the deep-rooted principles at play. To protect humanitarian aid workers from surrounding dangers, agencies have historically drawn on three principles: acceptance, protection, and deterrence. Acceptance strategies involve building support for agency projects and programs among the local communities, while protection measures reduce the agency’s vulnerability; picture "bunkers and armed vehicles or removing logos and going undercover.” Security tactics based on deterrence, such as stationing armed guards outside of an agency, usually are the last resort.

Technology can bolster security in all three categories. The longstanding humanitarian preference for acceptance-based approaches evinces the extraordinary value of local buy-in; it is, one can conclude, vital that workers aren’t seen as adversaries. Separating themselves from the local community in a conspicuous way can stoketension or even appear threatening.  Acceptance likely renders aid delivery most effective. It is against the backdrop of this longstanding “triangular” approach to security that novel technologies are introduced.

Assessing Humanitarian Technologies

At the heart of this paper is an exploratory study that yielded 31 in-depth interviews from respondents working in or on their agencies’ operations in one of the following five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria—all among the most dangerous of humanitarian aid settings. Data from these interviews inform the authors’ scholarly yet practice-oriented insights into the principal issues currently animating the debate around humanitarian aid agencies’ use of innovative technologies to augment their worker’s personal safety.

Among these issues: Instead of mitigating risks, does humanitarian technology merely transfer risks to more vulnerable actors? Can this technology be truly “neutral,” or must it invoke political ramifications? And, finally, does it create distance between high-level humanitarians and those on the ground as well as recipients of aid?

The author grapples with them all, revealing that the fast-evolving practice of deploying innovation technologies in volatile aid settings is fraught with challenges and open questions. The debate that surrounds it, too, is nuanced—fitting, perhaps, when we are literally talking about life and death.

Hearteningly, the author finds in the results of her exploratory study some assurance that “reliance on humanitarian technologies in unsafe areas is not necessarily as problematic as the critical literature often suggests.”

By Erica Gordon-Mallin, Development Editor, Journal of International Humanitarian Action


No comments yet.