Tag Archives humanitarian aid

How Europe’s (anti-)migration policies are fuelling a humanitarian crisis

How Europe’s (anti-)migration policies are fuelling a humanitarian crisis

When some one million people crossed the Mediterranean in the course of 2015 to seek refuge, European countries called it a crisis. Yet the real crisis was created by European ...

When the storm subsides: what happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

When the storm subsides: what happened to grassroots initiatives assisting refugees?

Back in 2015, cardboard placards bearing the words ‘Refugees Welcome’ that were shown in public spaces became an important way for ordinary European citizens to demonstrate solidarity with refugees and ...

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

In recent years, humanitarian spaces have become technologized as aid agencies have turned to digital technologies to improve aid allocation. Wearables and other forms of digital humanitarian artifacts can foster improved surveillance of aid beneficiaries, their needs, and aid distribution, but raise serious ethical concerns. Through tracking devices, aid beneficiaries risk becoming the producers of commercial data extracted from emergency settings under the pretext of a reciprocal ‘gifting’ relationship between benefactor and beneficiary, writes Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.


Operating at the interface of bio and sensor technology, wearables such as activity trackers and smartwatches facilitate the measurement, selection, screening, legibility, calculability and visibility of data associated with human bodies. Tracking operates through and upon multiple layers: general biodata, such as height, weight, gender, age and race; bodily fluids, including blood, sweat, sperm and tears; and the capture of individual characteristics, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice and face recognition. These are conceptualized as smart devices that can be placed on or inside human bodies for many purposes, including tracking and improving health, safety, and nutrition.

Wearables for tracking and protecting health, safety and nutrition offer interesting possibilities for the humanitarian aid sector due to their ability to monitor the needs and movements of aid beneficiaries that can improve the efficiency and timeliness of aid allocation. By tracking aid beneficiaries, aid agencies are able to deliver or monitor reproductive health services, strengthen security and accountability through more efficient registration of wearers, or ensure adequate nutrition to those who need it.

However, while the sociological literature on tracking devices focusing on individual self-tracing and consumer behaviour is large and growing, little critical scholarly attention has been paid to the use of tracking devices in the Global South, and none at all to their use in the humanitarian context. The deployment of wearables in emergencies entails deployment in contexts where there are deep, extra-democratic power differences between beneficiaries and structurally unaccountable humanitarian actors, donors and private sector actors—something that requires urgent attention.

Worryingly, increased surveillance of human bodies through human wearables and other digital humanitarian artifacts points to the commodification of the human body. While digital humanitarian goods such as human wearables are hailed by private sector actors and humanitarians as ‘game changers’, their use is not only leading to improved aid allocation. The game is changing in a different way: beneficiaries wearing tracking devices are becoming data producers.

The postcolonial past still shapes and limits what a wearable can be and do. The humanitarian sector has long used wristbands to control and care for beneficiaries. In the past, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to avoid multiple registrations by using stamps, wristbands, photographs, fingerprints, or biometrics. The historical use of wristbands raises questions about potentially repressive aspects of contemporary humanitarian use of wearables. According to the UNHCR, wristbands identify each individual claiming to be a refugee, limit the recycling of the refugee population, serve as distribution ‘cards’, and give everyone better access to food and other assistance. At the same time, wristbands are also commonly used in extreme registration contexts, such as those involving enclosure systems—the herding of people into a confined space for registration. These types of uses indicate that complicated historical baggage calls into question the idea of humanitarian wearables as a uniquely benevolent technology.

Moreover, wearables are part of a process of miniaturization of the communicative architecture of aid:  As observed by Collier et al. (2017), the grand aid schemes of yesterday are today found as gadgets. Small technologies of government now permeate the field of international aid.  Wearables are part of a general trend in aid, whereby “tremendous intellectual and moral energy, as well as the financial and organizational resources, is being devoted to inventing and disseminating … micro-endeavors”. However, the literature on humanitarian goods has so far given little attention to how the incorporation of international aid into the global data economy, dominated by tech giants in the global East and the Global North, changes this equation. No attention has been paid so far to the ‘gift’ element of data production and its implications for how we think about the nature of aid.

Data extraction through aid: beneficiaries as data producers

In The Gift, Marel Mauss explores how reciprocal exchanges of objects between groups—gifting—build relationships between humans. The obligation is articulated as a moral contract to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. A significant body of literature has explored aid as ‘gift exchanges’, focusing on aid as a form of symbolic violence or a source of asymmetric power differences in which gifting is seemingly based on reciprocal, equal relationships, but in reality is not (here, here, here and here).

In the humanitarian aid sector, gifting, at least by donors and humanitarian actors, is presented as a one-directional activity premised on notions of charity and financial generosity. With the rise of wearables, this relationship is turned on its head if we recognize the central premise of the global data economy: that beneficiary data is the product, not the tracking device, and that human bodies become data-producing units—aid beneficiaries become data subjects.

The prevailing attitude among proponents of digital humanitarian technologies seem to be that this is neither an extractive relationship nor an inverted one: beneficiary data logically constitute a reciprocal gesture in return for humanitarian aid, ‘the original gift’. But data of commercial value produced through the bodies of aid beneficiaries is not a gift, and will likely not be seen as such. However, given the continuing failure to characterize data transfer properly, it is useful to hold on to the gift concept as an analytical device for developing critiques of digital humanitarian goods in the age of data colonialism. This entails considering what kind of gifts data represent, the relationships ‘data gifts’ emanate from and create, and the costs and types of revenue generated, how and for whom.


References
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Wearables for something good: aid, dataveillance and the production of children’s digital bodies.” Information, Communication & Society (2020): 1-16. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2020.1753797
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Digital Dead Body Management (DDBM): Time to Think it Through.” Journal of Human Rights Practice (2020). https://academic.oup.com/jhrp/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jhuman/huaa002/5822573
Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora. “Making wearables in aid: Digital bodies, data and gifts.” Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 1.3 (2019): 33-41. https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/journals/jha/1/3/article-p33.xml

Kristin SandvikKristin Bergtora Sandvik, SJD Harvard Law School, is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo.  Sandvik teaches robot regulations, legal technology and AI, legal sociology and ethics. Her widely published socio-legal research focuses on criminalization, technology and the struggle for accountability in humanitarian action. Most recently, she has published on humanitarian wearables and digital dead body management.

 

 


Title Image Credit: World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr

COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

It is widely known that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect developing countries and impoverished peoples. Many of these countries are already affected by conflict and disasters including humanitarian crises, making the ...

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Localization has become a buzzword among promoters of development aid following a recent shift in focus to the sustainability of development projects after the withdrawal of donors from contexts where ...

Counter-terrorist legislation is threatening independent humanitarian relief, and is set to get worse today by Dorothea Hilhorst and Isabelle Desportes

The Netherlands has recently joined a handful of other Western countries in developing counter-terrorism legislation with the hope of stifling terrorist activity and threats. The new legislation on counter-terrorism recently passed by the Dutch Parliament (Tweede Kamer) will be discussed in the Senate (Eerste Kamer) today. Thea Hilhorst and Isabelle Desportes warn that the effects of such legislation should be examined critically, in particular implications for humanitarian actors whose work risks to be criminalized when they operate in areas with high levels of terrorist activity.


The formulation of counter-terrorist regulations has proliferated ever since the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York that served as a major wakeup call on the potential impact of terrorism. Aiming to prevent terrorists’ mobilization of new members and resources, such regulations forbid any form of direct or indirect support to armed groups designated as terrorist organizations. Although legitimate in themselves, the regulations can come with negative political and human rights implications, in particular for humanitarian aid.

A key historical example there is the worst drought in decades that hit the Horn of Africa in 2011. In Ethiopia and Kenya, state, non-state and international actors managed to respond in time to prevent mass casualties resulting from a lack of water and food security. In Somalia, however, the drought resulted in an estimated 260.000 deaths. This was partly down on the long-time conflict that rendered Somalians extremely vulnerable to drought, and the ongoing operations of Al Shabaab, that restricted people’s mobility to migrate to safer areas. However, it is now becoming apparent that the death toll was also exacerbated by donor counterterrorist measures, especially from the United States. Fearing that aid would fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, restrictions were put on international agencies that wanted to come to the rescue of Somalians in need, leading to lower humanitarian financing, non-access to people in need, aid delays, suffering, and death. Similar developments are now happening in Yemen.

Both counter-terrorism legislation and International Humanitarian Law are aimed at protecting people, especially civilians. Yet, counter-terrorism legislation, as well as accompanying donor requirements, can stand in the way of impartial life-saving humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian action should always be needs-based and non-discriminatory. A humanitarian doctor’s first question to a patient should be “Where does it hurt?”, not “What group are you from?”. Counter-terrorism laws can shift the focus in the humanitarian sector to the labelled identity of those in need, resulting in the refusal to help victims who are extremely vulnerable and whose survival is dependent on humanitarian assistance based on their (religious) identity and the fear of ‘supporting terrorist organizations’.

A 2018 survey of aid agencies conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council identified numerous problems resulting from counter-terrorism legislation. This includes difficulties in channelling funds to areas requiring humanitarian assistance because banks fear being seen as supporting terrorist organizations. In addition, humanitarian actors feel restricted because negotiating with terrorist organizations controlling specific regions could be viewed as an act of support. Last, international agencies find themselves cut off from local implementing partners because of the possibility that they might have been in contact with terrorist organizations, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The ultimate consequences are that humanitarian actors risk being detained and held personally liable for doing their job, and that impartial care for people in need gets blocked.

Blanket bans on presence in entire geographical areas

Most recently, we are seeing a new wave of legislation that steps away from only branding organizations as terrorist and criminalizing support to these groups. Instead, new counter-terrorism laws are applied to entire geographical areas. Such bills, covering humanitarian action as well as independent journalism and academic research, have been passed in 2018 in countries including Australia and Denmark.

The new legislation is an answer to the situation of people who travelled to Syria to join IS. But experience in Syria also shows how assistance is affected by these types of measures. The Assad government has been criminalizing aid since 2012, and aid workers report in the above-mentioned Norwegian report that this meant, for example, that banks were not allowed to transfer their money and that they sometimes had to travel with more than half a million Euros in cash through difficult areas, which was of course much more risky than wiring the money.

Yet, another route can be taken. An EU package of measures that proposed restrictions for travelling to designated terrorist-dominated areas adopted in 2017 therefore made an exemption for humanitarian action. Following advocacy efforts of INGOs amongst others, similar exemptions were made in the UK’s Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill in January 2019.

Dutch legislation needs to exempt independent humanitarian action

Today (12th November), the Dutch Senate will discuss a law already passed in Parliament that does not make exemptions for independent humanitarian action, apart from the Red Cross. Its proponents argue that exemptions would be too complicated, not least because wannabe terrorists often pose as humanitarians. However, it would be possible to incorporate more nuance and make sure that exemptions are extended to humanitarian agencies who operate following International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles, as done by the EU and argued by international law specialist Piet Hein van Kempen. As academics working on humanitarian issues, we call for a more engaged and thorough discussions between policy-makers, practitioners and scientific experts from the fields of both counter-terrorism and humanitarian aid. We call for counter-terrorist measures to ensure that they avoid hurting some of the world’s most vulnerable people, thereby creating further grievances in areas already under the influence of terrorism.


This post was simultaneously published at From Poverty to Power.


Image Credit: European Union 2018 (photo by: Peter Biro). The image was cropped.


TheaAbout the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here. isa

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD candidate working on the governance of disaster response, in particular the interplay between humanitarian and local actors.

 

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

Questioning the ‘local’ in ‘localisation’: A multi-local reply by Samantha Melis

The localisation agenda, which aims to localise funds and responsibilities to local actors in humanitarian responses, retains an ambiguous concept of ‘the local’. The inclusion of power relations at multiple ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | How to defend a common humanity? by Khaled Mansour

IHSA Conference 2018 | How to defend a common humanity? by Khaled Mansour

In a gripping account of his witnessing of the gross human rights violations inflicted on others, Khaled Mansour asks why aid workers are becoming apathetic toward the crimes against humanity ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | Aid behind walls? A spatial view of humanitarian security by Janine Bressmer

The humanitarian aid community in reaction to security risks facing its staff is slowly but surely building a Fort Knox around itself. This article details only some of the risks associated with the building of physical and psychological walls, showing that ultimately, this act negatively influences the relationship between humanitarian staff and local populations. Humanitarian aid workers and scholars must actively investigate how they manage the security of humanitarian staff to prevent this from happening.


Ahead of 2018 World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, organisations are again pushing for recognition of the safety of their staff and operations in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and the DRC. In 2017, 313 aid workers were victims of major attacks, of which over 90% were national staff.[1] The perception of this type of violence is hugely influential for how the humanitarian community engages with and responds to the environment where aid work aims to alleviate suffering.

The discourse on violence in humanitarian work, and specifically that of severe violence, has helped exaggerate existential threats and foster a climate of heightened fear.[2] It is in this context that humanitarian risk management found significant traction.[3] Although the delivery of aid has always been in areas experiencing severe violence and suffering from natural disasters or conflict for example, humanitarian security is increasingly seen as a vital part of protecting both the concept and practice of aid.

The need for ways to assess humanitarian security risks

However, there exists no common framework for assessing and responding to risks for humanitarian programming and staff. Ideally, such frameworks are used to identify harm, the probability and severity of the impact, and the development of an appropriate response by the organisation.[4] However, the widespread use of “standard” risk management approaches in humanitarian work represents an increased reliance on standardised assessments and “expert” opinion. The knowledge of staff on the ground, whether in senior management positions or not, arguably no longer feeds into the creation and implementation of security protocols and manuals.

Blanket approaches to the management of security, including both operational and staff security, may mean that stringent restrictions on the movement and visibility of aid workers results in their distancing from those they aim to help. Building concrete walls, setting up barbed wire fences, and posting a security guard in front of the main gate may be a way to deter violence, yet this approach to security can do more harm than good in the long run.

Humanitarian organisations must do more

Presently, the international community approaches security from a reactive stance, often putting in place measures only after major incidences have occurred and without institutionalising dedicated security advisor roles. Yet, and indeed, while aid will never be delivered in entirely “peaceful” spaces, humanitarian organisations must do more to approach their security in ways that neither threaten their own existence, nor that of their staff and the local population.

The current environment of risk management does not allow for the consideration of individual decisions based on available information.[5] This “new” risk management approach is, arguably, institutionalised in aid organisations and erodes individual and local autonomy in favour of distant security experts.[6] Further, the use of security protocols and fortification procedures, in combination with continuous attacks against aid workers, continues to push organisations to react by putting up walls, setting up perimeter lining of their buildings, and reducing the movement and visibility of staff.

This discourse of fear poses significant problems for the future of humanitarian action:

“Risk” leading to invisibility, separation, or absence: Approaching risks in humanitarian programming from a reactive stance can result in the visible separation of aid workers from the local population through their withdrawal into fortified aid compounds. Beyond the visible separation, security protocols can generate a discourse of fear of the “Other”, and can even lead to the absence of humanitarian aid programmes or a transfer of risk to local partner organisations without an accompanying transfer of capacities.

Top-down and divisive approaches to security: Not only does a blanket approach to security fail to consider local information and experiences, but it also can significantly hinder the communication between HQ and the field, as well as between the senior positions on the ground and the national staff. This divide can lead to a loss of trust between the two, resulting in a stop of reporting on security incidences to protect jobs and the program as a whole.[7] The stark divide between both the number of national versus international staff affected by violence, as well as the different security procedures for each, significantly contributes to this.

Materiality of reactive security management and its impact on everyday life inside and outside the compound: The materiality of the actual fortification can serve to enable and hinder, shape and change the way in which aid workers inhabit the space inside the compound. Daily routines of requiring permission to exit the compound, using armored vehicles when doing so, and physically and visually reducing ‘seeing’ the beneficiary are results of existing security measures. This can not only have implications for how aid workers act inside the compound, but also for how they perceive their own security, positionality in the local context, and their relationships with other organisations and actors in the space. The compound’s spatial manifestation itself can also influence the local economy. Building materials required for fortification (or even the building of an office space) can impact and alter demand, potentially resulting in price inflation, a reduction of available goods, and an undermining of both local building practices and businesses.

The translation of security protocols and manuals into the everyday: Whereas the generation and implementation of security manuals and protocols is most likely not going to be phased out anytime soon, the way in which aid workers interact with these structures and guidelines every day can greatly improve or undermine how humanitarian aid is carried out and perceived on the ground. Protocols become operationalised through their interpretation, use and adaptation in the context in which they are employed. Restrictions on movements and strict reporting chains can lead to aid workers not only experiencing the local environment in very “securitised” ways, but can also visibly signal to the local population that the organisation sees their space as insecure outside the walls of their own “safe” compound.

Rather than ignoring some of these issues, the humanitarian community must actively investigate its own security management and understand how their actions, materiality and visibility can contribute to safely delivering the assistance they are set up to do. This involves recognising their complicity, through their own discourse and everyday actions, in generating an environment that would rather build walls than find ways to safely integrate themselves in the local society they aim to serve.


[1] Humanitarian Outcomes, “Aid Worker Security Report: Figures at a Glance” (London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018), https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AWSR%20Figures%202018.pdf.
[2] Larissa Fast, Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 51.
[3] Important to note here that there is a distinction between risk and security management of aid organizations. Risk management encompasses, as one of its dimensions, the management of security.
[4] Victoria Metcalfe, Ellen Martin, and Sara Pantuliano, “Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach?,” Policy Brief, HPG Commissioned Paper (London: Overseas Development Institute: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2011), 2.
[5] Mark Duffield, “Risk-Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010): 463, https://doi.org/10.1080/17502971003700993.
[6] Duffield, 463.
[7] Ashley Jackson and Steven A. Zyck, “Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On” (Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council; UNOCHA; Jindal School of International Affairs, 2017), 41, https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/presence-and-proximity_to-stay-and-deliver—five-years-on_final_2017-web-version.pdf.

References
Duffield, Mark. “Risk-Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 4, no. 4 (2010): 453–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/17502971003700993.
Fast, Larissa. Aid in Danger: The Perils and Promise of Humanitarianism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Humanitarian Outcomes. “Aid Worker Security Report: Figures at a Glance.” London: Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018. https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AWSR%20Figures%202018.pdf.
Jackson, Ashley, and Steven A. Zyck. “Presence and Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On.” Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council; UNOCHA; Jindal School of International Affairs, 2017. https://www.nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/reports/presence-and-proximity_to-stay-and-deliver—five-years-on_final_2017-web-version.pdf.
Metcalfe, Victoria, Ellen Martin, and Sara Pantuliano. “Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach?” Policy Brief. HPG Commissioned Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2011.

Bressmer_photoAbout the author: 

Janine Bressmer is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Her research examines how humanitarian organizations approach the security of their operations and staff, the spatial manifestations of security in terms of fortified aid compounds, and the implications for the practice and concept of humanitarian action. The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

IHSA Conference 2018 | (Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response: introducing the 2018 International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference by Dorothea Hilhorst

IHSA Conference 2018 | (Re-)Shaping Boundaries in Crisis and Crisis Response: introducing the 2018 International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference by Dorothea Hilhorst

Today, in a rapidly changing world, humanitarian crisis response and humanitarianism is increasingly confronted with boundaries that are dissolving, displaced, or resurrecting. The bi-annual International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) Conference taking ...

Technological solutions for socio-political problems: revisiting an open humanitarian debate by Rodrigo Mena

Technological solutions for socio-political problems: revisiting an open humanitarian debate by Rodrigo Mena

The use of technology in the humanitarian aid sector is showing a steady increase based on a sense of hope that technology could help to improve the delivery of aid ...

(How) should scholars say what humanitarians can’t? by Roanne van Voorst and Isabelle Desportes

In January this year, a long day of interviewing aid workers involved in the Myanmar Rohingya crisis revealed that these aid workers often refrain from talking about the human rights violations in Myanmar. Out of fear to be forced to cease operations or to get fired, they keep silent and carry on. This raises the question: should the scholars engaging with them speak up in their stead? This blog provides a reflection of whether and how scholars can get involved in the entanglements of humanitarianism and conflict. It also provides insights into the ethical and practical reasons why both aid workers and scholars sometimes hesitate to become more engaged.


The time we were doing fieldwork relating to the governance and the accountability of aid in Myanmar coincided with a massive exodus of the Rohingya Muslim minority fleeing persecution and the destruction of their homes in the northwestern Rakhine province. Yet, as we asked broader questions relating to the accountability of aid, the stories of humanitarian aid workers resounded with us. Stories of frustration and powerlessness, as they felt barriers were posed to their work not only by authorities, but also by their own organisations. As scholars, we felt determined that we wanted to ‘do something’. But along with this urge to act came insecurities and concerns.

Providing aid in restrictive settings

Local and international relief agencies that work in restrictive conflict settings are doing something that is intrinsically difficult. Often perceived as a threat by authorities involved in violence, agencies need to make sure they remain tolerated and even supported by these same authorities in order to operate effectively and deliver aid to those in need. In practice in Myanmar, aid agencies are stuck in the middle of two discourses: that of the United Nations that from afar qualifies the military offensive in Rakhine as a « textbook example of ethnic cleansing », and that of Myanmar authorities, who claim they were fighting Rohingya militias only and deny targeting civilians.

Faced with the overwhelming need for support to continue operating in the field, most humanitarian agencies refrain from being overtly critical of human rights violations and prefer to assert their position as impartial and neutral aid providers. Only very few are allowed by the government to work in Rakhine, and those who may, generally keep silent about what they observe. No wonder: when in 2014 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that it was deeply concerned about the tens of thousands of people it was treating, the government forced it to cease operations in Myanmar. In order to avoid that for their own organisations, most aid agencies active on the ground thus strictly do and say what they’ve agreed to in (obligated) memoranda of understanding with the government—even if that does not match needs on the ground.

The personal dilemmas of humanitarians

These strategic decisions, however understandable, can have major consequences for the people whom agencies come to assist, but also have psychological implications for relief workers. Many suffer from what Hugo Slim has termed ‘bystander anxiety’. And this was also evident during our interviews: many of those we talked to in Yangon felt anxious and frustrated by the violence they observed in the field and the self-censorship they observed within their own organisations.

One field officer of a large international organisation felt that his agency was « sacrifying its principles and moral authority » in exchange for Rakhine field access and status, which was not even alleviating suffering on the ground because the government forbade actual activities. After he anonymously spoke to journalists, the whole team received a serious warning never to speak to the press again. He lamented the complete lack of internal discussions on these dilemmas, even as many of the staff, including Rohingya, « begged the organisation to speak out ».

We heard many similar stories from humanitarians working for INGOs or the UN. They could not openly discuss, let alone act upon, what they observed in the field. Particularly in meetings attended by the government, they knew « not to be critical ».

Here is where the scholars could come in, but often don’t do so.

Four broad arguments can motivate scholars to engage in the humanitarianism-conflict debate. First, as independent researchers in the field, scholars have more freedom to speak up. Second, many will argue that ‘speaking the truth’ is a scholarly duty. Third, scholars’ voice might carry differently than that of human rights organisations or journalists, as scholars are supposed to adhere to rigorous scientific and ethical standards that grant their research some credibility. Last, academics increasingly vary their channels to seek ‘societal impact’. Newspaper articles, debate evenings, social media and blogs such as this one can help convey to a wider audience what would otherwise remain obscured.

But this freedom comes with responsibilities. Scholars, somewhat like humanitarians, tread a fine line between engaging in effective action and making their own work—or worse, that of relief agencies or local research partners—harder or even impossible to carry out. Discussions about the role of researchers are by no means new. Take the discussions on scholar activism and action research (combing research and social change work), or the divide in the field of anthropology, amongst others, between those who believe they should retain distance in the field and those who support local activism or other types of involvement.

Ethics aren’t the only reason scholars often don’t speak up. Many of the issues that came up during our Myanmar discussions were practical, concerning safety, future access to visas and research permits, academic integrity, and access to non-academic channels, both in terms of networks and skills. Myanmar is a complex setting to work in, not only for humanitarians. Scholars and journalists also face difficulties in accessing the field, while some have been deported or arrested.

Moreover, the ‘hard evidence’ was thin. There would not be enough informants allowing for the rigorous cross-validation of statements. Interviews could not always be recorded and informants insisted that they, their agency and the locality where they operated should remain confidential to avoid raising colleagues’ or authorities’ suspicions. Were these stories even convincing enough for people who hadn’t been here, let alone fulfilling academic standards? Wouldn’t journalists after all be a better fit to relay them?

The answers might differ for each scholar, for each person. We share them to stir up a conversation and to share our doubts with researchers and (inter)national practitioners alike. Even with intentions to change local realities for the better, it’s not easy to take the leap from scholar to messenger. Yet, who else would fulfil that role?

This blog is a first attempt to support humanitarians who can’t speak up.


chantal-ariens-portret-high-res.jpgAbout the authors:

Roanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher involved in the research projectisa”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios” at the ISS.

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD candidate working on the governance of disaster response, in particular the interplay between humanitarian and local actors.

 

Women’s Week | Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims by Dorothea Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon

Women’s Week | Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims by Dorothea Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon

Problematic assumptions related to women's position and role in humanitarian crises are unpacked in a special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence. The main lesson drawn ...

Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change by Dorothea Hilhorst

Aid agencies can’t police themselves. It’s time for a change by Dorothea Hilhorst

The spreading "Oxfam scandal" will affect the entire humanitarian sector painfully. It brings into plain sight what observers of the internal workings of NGOs have known for a long time: ...

Eight years after Haiti shook: where has all the money gone? by Avagay Simpson

UntitledAbout the author:

Avagay Simpson is a recent graduate of the International institute of Social Studies with a Master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy. Prior to studying at the ISS, she worked with Office of the Contractor-General, one of Jamaica’s key anti-corruption organisations. She also worked for several years in project implementation focusing on enhancing governance locally and nationally in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She also holds a graduate degree in International Relations.


Eight years after the earthquake that in 2010 crippled the small country of Haiti, scores of Haitians still have not been able to rebuild their lives despite billions of dollars pledged in the form of humanitarian aid. Recent research on the dynamics of the Dutch partnership SHO for humanitarian assistance in post-disaster Haiti shows that an overreliance on trust within partnerships decreases operational effectiveness and transparency, and that more checks and balances are needed to ensure that financial aid reaches those Haitians still in need.


The struggle continues

Eight years have come and gone since an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale on 12 January 2010 devastated Haiti and ripped apart its community. The earthquake caused the displacement of millions of Haitians and the death of over 300,000 people, although this number remains inconclusive. It was labelled as the first major urban disaster in recent history, leading to humanitarian aid pledges totalling over US$13 billion.

While eight years have passed since this tragic event, the United Nations reported that by 2017, many Haitians were still residing in camps and more than 2 million people were still in need of humanitarian assistance. Given the disjuncture between the total amount of aid pledged and those Haitians still requiring help, a burning question that scholars, journalists, and humanitarian practitioners have sought to answer is: “Where has all the money gone?”

Partnerships: Too untransparent?

Multiple explanations have arisen for why responses to the Haitian disaster were ineffective and produced a chaotic post-disaster environment. One of the many views is that the coordination of international relief efforts posed a major challenge to relief efforts, in addition to the lack of accountability in the disbursement of received donations. Partnerships forged between NGOs and international organisations have become commonplace particularly in the humanitarian relief sector due to the belief that such partnerships could maximise economic benefits for partners and strengthen organisations’ individual efforts through collaboration.

However, a number of scholars, such as David Lewis in his book Non-Governmental Organisations, Management and Development, have suggested that civil society partnerships receive less respect than intended due to the degradation of the term ‘partnership’ following extensive scrutiny over the past years. Considering this tainted image of partnerships, Lewis argues that the management of NGOs and the inter-agency partnerships they create need to be reviewed.

With this in mind, my recent research* attempted to provide some answers to questions pertaining to this ‘black hole’ of humanitarian aid in Haiti by reviewing partnerships among civil society NGOs and organisations, with particular attention paid to partnership dynamics such as transparency and accountability. It comprised an analysis of the Dutch NGO emergency relief efforts in Haiti during 2010 by exploring the collaborative processes of Dutch NGOs through the Stichting Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties (SHO) partnership. Network governance theory allowed for a closer look at the governance of this network and the effect of governance dynamics on upward transparency and accountability.

The SHO: Too large to handle?

The SHO is a Dutch platform comprising nine development organisations such as Oxfam Novib, UNICEF and Save the Children that calls for and manages public donations for humanitarian aid following disasters. Following the Haitian earthquake, the SHO raised €112 million through public donations following extensive media campaigns. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs donated approximately €41 million, or one-third of the total, to the SHO for disaster relief efforts.

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However, the Dutch public and government, like the international community, questioned the efficiency and effectiveness of the use of donated money for the benefit of disaster-affected Haitians. The Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) with its mandate of checking the efficient and effective spending of public funding in its 2010 expenditure report found that “the funding flows in Haiti are not sufficiently clear and it cannot be determined what part of the aid funds is received by which international umbrella organisations, fellow aid organisations and the organisations’ own field offices” (Court of Audit 2011: 5). This report, alongside the IOB Evaluation Assisting Earthquake Victims: Evaluation of Dutch Cooperating Aid Agencies (SHO) Support to Haiti in 2010 by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB – Inspectie Ontwikkelingssamewerking en Beleidsevaluatie) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were the key foci of this study.

The research found that the SHO in its relief efforts in Haiti made use of a network of 36 organisations that excluded local Haitian civil society organisations, NGOs and government organisations. The member organisations operated in five different modalities. This resulted in a number of issues related to the coordination and implementation of programmes and relief efforts, including: extensive management chains; increased transaction costs; the duplication of activities; value clashes resulting in operational challenges; and multiple accountability disorder due to the presence of multiple principals and agents. This made it difficult to trace the funds and to assess whether they were effectively and efficiently expended.

Overreliance on trust

The SHO network and the independent functioning of each participating organisation in implementing their activities created a complex system that resulted in major challenges related to oversight and a lack of transparency regarding the spending of public funding.

The SHO and its member organisations relied on trust in each other to ensure that each activity was implemented in accordance with the principles of transparency and accountability and to the standards governing emergency humanitarian aid. This strong level of trust ignored the fact that individuals are rational beings that in group settings will not necessarily act in the common interest of the group, but may pursue certain objectives based on self-interest.

The study found that the interests of not only individual actors is of concern, but also those of the individual organisations in the extended network, as their interests may differ from that of the SHO and its members. The lack of strong oversight mechanisms by the SHO to determine if there was a breach and its inability to hold actors accountable or apply sanctions weakened the veracity of the reports and work done, resulting in the questions of transparency and accountability of the aid given in Haiti.

Conclusion

MILITARY RELIEF EFFORTS IN HAITI

The SHO’s example shows that heavy reliance on trust is a major issue requiring a thorough review by all organisations working in the humanitarian aid sector. The recent disclosure in October 2017 by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) of instances of fraud by officials involved in combating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-2016 amounting to €5.2 million heightens the need for NGOs as well as international organisations to review their approaches and to recognise the need for adequate checks and balances.

In an emergency humanitarian relief context that is complex, uncertain, and often political in nature, sound policies and transparent processes contribute to sound governance. Such measures also control unintended meanings and consequences while simultaneously acting as barriers against the purposeful exploitation of resources that ultimately prevents aid from reaching those in need.


Picture credit: RIBI Image Library


*In partial fulfilment of a recently attained MA degree in Development Studies at the ISS.
REFERENCES
Dutch Court of Audit (2011) ‘Accounting for Haiti Aid Funds 2010’, November 2011, The Hague: Netherlands.
Localization – according to whom?  by Roanne van Voorst

Localization – according to whom? by Roanne van Voorst

About the author: Roanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher of humanitarian aid and disaster, at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. On 30 November 2017, she ...