Tag Archives humanitarian crises

Humanitarian implications of sanctions to end the war in Ukraine

Humanitarian implications of sanctions to end the war in Ukraine

The sanctions package against Russia is expanding every day as the main strategy to end the invasion of Ukraine. While it is inevitable that ordinary Russians will suffer from these ...

Rethinking Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections for the way forward

Rethinking Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections for the way forward

Transactional Sex (TS) is often used as an umbrella term to encompass a wide range of practices ranging from sex work to sexual exploitation and abuse. TS is typically framed ...

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 immigration and asylum policies and by the challenges they posed for aid providers. We discussed these issues at the  conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) in August 2018 that was held at the ISS in The Hague. In this blog we highlight some of the key issues from our just-published conference special issue and show how the issues raised back then are still of concern today.  The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the violence experienced by people seeking safety in countries such as Italy, Greece, France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, and the UK.

Photo: European Commission DG ECHO. Available at: https://euobserver.com/opinion/136333

Back in 2018, the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s migration policies were a key theme at the IHSA conference. We’ve just published some of the conference contributions in a special issue of International Migration entitled ‘Politics, humanitarianism and migration to Europe’. The issue seeks to unpack how European governments and the EU are creating a policy-induced humanitarian crisis, how this works in the micro-practices of migration politics, and what this means for humanitarian and political action. This blog article provides a brief overview of the key themes in the special issue.

Crisis-creating policy developments

In the issue, we observe many policy developments that are of humanitarian concern. European governments view migration as economically driven or as a threat to their national security. As such, migration has been criminalised for years. Policies such as strengthening border controls, the externalisation of borders, and a focus on smuggling and trafficking rather than on the causes of forced migration all result in humanitarian crisis. In addition, the EU or its member states (and the UK) have made agreements with Libya, Turkey, and Sudan to contain those seeking protection, which risks violating the human rights of those who flee. Support for Libyan coastguards or for Sudanese paramilitary border forces leaves migrants stuck in conflict- and crisis-ridden countries and/or in appalling conditions in migrant detention centres. The UK’s externalised border in France leaves those seeking asylum in the UK stuck in France without basic assistance and vulnerable to police violence. Border restrictions on the Italy-France border have a similar effect. And the closure of legal routes means migrants have to take more dangerous routes and use smugglers or traffickers. Preventing people from leaving or from coming to Europe amounts to a policy of letting die.

Micro-practices and the politics of exhaustion

Border restrictions, mass detention, and forced returns are complemented by a number of less visible deterrence tactics and strategies. The humanitarian crisis in Europe is characterised by these regimes of micro-practices, which include 1) migrants sleeping rough or in makeshift camps with little or no shelter, food and health care, 2) regular police violence, confiscation of possessions, and evictions, and 3) slow, confusing, and inconsistent asylum procedures. The latter make it difficult or undesirable to claim asylum. Migrants who are ‘illegalised’ in this way can be exposed to more violence and can be deported.

Combined with constant uncertainty, these regimes of micro-practices lead to a politics of exhaustion aimed at influencing people’s resolve to claim asylum or to make them leave. Camps and migrants stuck on borders in desperate conditions itself also acts as a deterrent and at the same time highlights action to defend national security for domestic audiences.  Another advantage is that regimes of less visible forms of violence make it difficult to identify intent or overtly illegal practices.

The restriction of humanitarian response and a shift to political action

In terms of humanitarian response, we identify a number of issues, including the criminalisation of assistance provision and the constraints faced by traditional organisations in Europe, as well as the rise in resistance and activism by newly created volunteer groups.

Here’s what been happening in the European countries covered in the special issue: In Italy, accusations by far-right organisations that NGOs are assisting in trafficking made it possible to develop legislation against the docking of ships carrying migrants and to restrict their protection once they have reached land. In Calais, France, local authorities have repeatedly tried to restrict assistance to refugees. In both the Italy and the France cases, providing assistance is deemed illegal and showing solidarity with refugees has become a crime. Examples can be found in many other European countries. As a result, new volunteer groups quickly became politically engaged – not only through assistance as a political act, but also by providing legal assistance, preventing police raids (for example in Belgium), gathering information, and lobbying politicians.

The politicisation of humanitarian action has complicated the role of more established organisations, who are bound by principles of neutrality and impartiality. In Germany, for example, room for manoeuvre for traditional state and non-state actors was legally restricted, but different political narratives enabled some flexibility. In Norway, some volunteer groups shifted to political action and others found ways of working with more established organisations. The greatest frictions between established agencies and volunteer activist groups are often found in humanitarian advocacy. An examination of the activities of these groups in Greece, Turkey and Libya, however, shows that complementarity between negotiating and confrontational strategies is required.

More unwelcome than ever

In the Europe we are living in today, security and political concerns continue to override obligations to respect human rights and to address humanitarian concerns. Crises among migrants and asylum seekers in Europe continue to unfold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the new EU Migration and Asylum pact. Covid-19 is by now known to have a disproportionate impact on displaced people. Even in Europe, many migrants live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, in informal camps, on the streets, or in detention and asylum centres where the health risks are acute and conditions abysmal.  But besides the exacerbation of the appalling living conditions a number of other pandemic-related measures make the current asylum procedure more alienating than ever. These include:

Can the trend be reversed? We hope so. As Europe’s humanitarian crisis continues and worsens, the political nature of humanitarian action is becoming ever more apparent. It will require a concerted effort by all concerned actors to monitor, research, advocate, and resist crisis-inducing policies, and to demand that states uphold international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Dr Susanne Jaspars is an independent researcher and a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London.  She has researched the social and political dynamics of famine, conflict and humanitarian crises for over thirty years, focussing particularly on issues of food security, livelihoods, and forced migration.

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

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 ...

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

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 ...

Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Social researchers at times apply certain terms without critically reflecting on their use. For example, the word ‘humanitarian’ is used to refer to specific crises, while responses to such crises may move beyond humanitarianism. This article details the problematic of the application of certain research terminology and calls for a changing of lexicons in war-to-peace transitions.

Over the last two decades, the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crises’ have come, one after another. There was eastern Congo, then Darfur, South Sudan, Libya, and Syria, now Yemen, and more are in between. These are indeed man-made disasters and emergencies, causing untold suffering. But in 2007, David Keen advised that care should be taken when applying the word “humanitarian” to these crises, because, first, it implies that the solution lies with humanitarian relief. Though humanitarian response may alleviate suffering, it will not solve problems. Second, the word ‘may prejudge the motives of interveners as altruistic, when they can be much more complicated’ (Keen, 2007: 1).

Other terms are increasingly less applicable these days. Take “civil war” or “internal war” – does it still apply to the growing number of conflicts today with no clear front lines, where protagonists are not internal to any single country, and with no clear beginnings and possibly no definite endings, too? A war is aimed at a political or military victory, or at gaining control of territory in the conventional sense. Yet many of today’s “wars” are different – in some, protagonists have even developed an interest in instability as they profit from the war economy. There are more cases today of peacebuilding efforts failing, but not because of the complex constraints faced by peacebuilders. Rather, certain powers want them to fail.

Battles today are fought not just by armies with chains of command, but also by all sorts of irregular militias, criminals, or armed civilians with little discipline or no structure at all. “Soldiers” today include children kidnapped from communities with disintegrating social networks or youngsters peer pressured to join armed gangs.

The “end” of civil wars did not necessarily mean an end to violence. Rather, it merely marked a shift from militarised to other forms of social violence, as disputes over land, resources, and local rule continued. Severine Autesserre, who documented the violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the peace agreement has been signed, is intensely critical of the widespread use of the term “post-conflict”, because it obscures the primacy of land and other micro-level issues causing violence and producing anguish that were kept invisible and never resolved by the peace talks. She unpacks the methodological shortcomings of peacebuilding in the DRC that led to serious policy failures (Autesserre, 2010: 2).

In Central America, the end of militarised conflict often meant the beginning of criminalised violence. Monitoring by local and international groups such as the Geneva Declaration on Armed Conflict and Violence suggest that two countries with UN-brokered peace agreements in the 1990s – El Salvador and Guatemala – have more people dying today from violent crime (homicide and murder) than those killed in combat or incidents related to fighting during these countries’ civil wars. “Post-conflict” El Salvador suffers more violent deaths today than conflict-affected Iraq. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for a country that is officially not at war.

In addition, over 10% of the violent deaths recorded each year around the world are also attributed to manslaughter – a figure that includes the thousands of refugees and migrants from post-conflict countries who drown or are killed in attempts (labelled “illegal”) to move across territories, or to escape the transitions that are supposed to make life better for them.

So perhaps a first step in better framing war-to-peace transitions is to improve the lexicon in use. Caution is necessary when applying the terms so far listed. But more importantly, assumptions need to be seriously questioned. The expression “senseless violence” for example is a misnomer that divorces acts of violence from its context and ignores the telling details. Violence makes sense to its perpetrators – it could bring reputation, status, and meaning, not just utility.

Mark Duffield once posited that more recent examples of violence could simply be new and innovative ways of projecting political power. As Keen pointed out, famine and hunger, too (not just wars), could be politically manufactured to serve political and economic ends. Hence, violence is anything but pointless. Keen also rejected defining large-scale violent conflict in terms of a “breakdown of authority”. Citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he pointed out that ‘the problem was not so much that authority had broken down; rather, it was being imposed with ruthless and vicious efficiency.’ Hence, he argues that to automatically claim that authority has broken down where large-scale violent conflicts take place could be extremely damaging because it risks endorsing the dubious alibi of governments that have cleverly manipulated and exacerbated ethnic tensions (2007: 2-3).

Changing lexicons is not just a matter of semantics. Dropping some terms and using new ones can help frame the problems, and the responses, differently. A report on “Challenges in the Sahel” by the development agency Christian Aid, published in late 2017, used the term “perfect storm” to refer to that extraordinary combination of poverty, violent conflict, corruption, criminality, and climate change that drive the crises in the region. This implies that stand-alone security interventions not coordinated with development actors or other state actors, and vice versa, may not deliver desired results, or can even cause inadvertent outcomes. Solutions need to be smarter.

Also introduced was the term “unusual actors”, to characterise politicians who are corrupt but nevertheless get genuinely elected, or smugglers hunted by the law that may be the only providers of employment in disintegrating local economies. They may also spoilers of the peace who are predators to some but are protectors to others. “Unusual”, because though they may be “bad guys”, they are somehow tolerated, or even considered “good guys” by others. It posits that dilemma – how should humanitarian and development agencies deal with “unusual actors”?

To conclude, working differently on war-to-peace transitions may require changing lexicons, or at least requires more circumspection in the application of certain terms. We need to become better at bracing for perfect storms, and in preparing for, or at least recognising, the presence of rather “unusual actors”. Finding more comprehensive solutions means laying all options out, including decisions to walk away at certain moments.

Image credit: ECHO/H. Veit

About the author:

Eric Gutierrez is a researcher at the ISS. 


IHSA Conference 2018 | A failing UN and the prospects of world citizenship by Antonio Donini

IHSA Conference 2018 | A failing UN and the prospects of world citizenship by Antonio Donini

The UN in its current form does not serve the citizens it promises to protect. Is it time for a UN 2.0 that puts citizens at the centre? This article ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

Today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe. If widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right ...

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 that are still occurring today. He shows how genuine change is made possible by a group of aid workers that are countering worrying trends in the humanitarian sector by means of a global movement called United Against InHumanity. This post is based on his keynote address for the 5th conference of the International Humanitarian Studies Association that took place at the ISS on 27 August 2018.

Fifteen years ago, I survived the attack against the UN headquarters in Iraq, but the explosion killed 22 of my colleagues, also demolishing a personal barrier that I have had for years. This barrier ostensibly had helped me to cope with the scenes of abject poverty and degradation; violent deaths and inexplicable violence; and the looming menace that I have had to live close to for years.

For months, I stood at the brink of an abyss of dark and bloody recollections. Memories came flooding back: a flattened refugee camp in Jenin; small tombs for children that had died of malnourishment in Hirat; stories of torture inflicted on political prisoners or suspects from Syria to Pakistan, to name but a few.

I no longer try to forget these scenes. The barrier that I had erected between myself and even harsher and more frequent atrocities in areas of conflict is gone. And for that I am grateful. Like many people who engage in humanitarian aid and the defense of human rights in situations of conflict, I have had to grapple with occasional attacks of depression and waves of sadness, but I see them as signs of a shared humanity and a healthy vulnerability.

They are also a call for resistance through writing, teaching, volunteering and, most important, working with others to defend the dignity and rights of people in conflict. It is a call for action to build and rebuild what our common humanity means and how we can work together to protect it.

The growing apathy of aid workers

However, there is a dominant sense among critics of the humanitarian aid system that the old has disintegrated while the new is not yet born, as Grasmsci said almost a century ago.

There is also a shocking indifference in global and regional centers of power as to the fate of hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are decimated in conflicts. Over the past few years, millions have been killed, maimed or forced to flee their homes because of such horrific violence. Civilians are suffering in what has become normalised military operations in Syria, Yemen, the Gaza Strip and many other places. The Assad forces have used indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians, while the Israeli and the Saudi forces simply disregard the concept of military advantage as they bomb densely populated areas or vital infrastructure installations, killing and harming far more civilians than members of the Houthi or Hamas militias. Armed non-state actors, ISIS for example, have also committed their share of spectacular atrocities.

Compliance with the laws of war and holding violators to account are becoming increasingly difficult tasks. The refugee law is not faring much better. The EU deterrence measures against possible refugees are an abomination that resulted in thousands of people seeking asylum drowning at sea.

This is fueling cynicism among aid workers as well as recipients. Aid agencies are reportedly jockeying for a bigger slice of the USD930 million promised by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the gigantic aid operation in Yemen. These two countries have led a merciless war against Yemeni Houthi militias, killing as many as 20,000 civilians. Starvation and blocking essential humanitarian supplies as a war tactic has been regularly used in Syria since 2012, predominantly by the regime, while aid agencies simply acquiesced as the authorities rejected one request after another to access besieged areas. And now, we face the criminalisation of both asylum seekers and those who help them in western countries.

These are disturbing trends.

What is more disturbing is how human empathy is eroding. With an unprecedented rise in populism, rights (legal and otherwise) are increasingly limited to citizens and then not even to all of them. Within societies from the US to India, more demagogue chauvinists advocate that all humans were not equal and that not all cultures can peacefully co-exist. They are not the majority yet, but their influence is mushrooming.

A need for greater political will

There is a glaring absence of political will at the state and intrastate levels. The cosmopolitan values that are at the root of much of the humanitarian and human rights movements seem to be in retreat. This absence of political will was very evident in the ICRC’s failure to introduce a new mechanism for compliance with the Geneva conventions in 2015, or in the miniscule outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, or the failure of the Refugee Summit in New York after two years of work to produce any real change to the grim reality.

So, to quote another Marxist, who was maybe luckier than Gramsci, what is to be done?

There is a large body of literature and policy studies that deconstruct the current aid system. There is a ton of policy papers and many think tanks that have ideas to reform/fix or change the humanitarian enterprise.

But what seems to be missing is sustained popular pressure to force a genuine change or quicken the pace of reform. There is a clear need for a movement of people to struggle alongside those who are affected in conflicts in order to ensure their rights to protection and basic needs.

United Against InHumanity: reason for optimism?

This is why a group of former and current aid workers, researchers, and activists have come together last year and started working to build such a global movement to produce action-oriented knowledge, engage in policy advocacy and, most important, organise and play an active political role against atrocities and the rising inhumanity in conflicts around the world.

United Against InHumanity (UAI) is still emerging, propelled by the outcome of extensive consultations with diverse groups and potential stakeholders in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and Europe since late 2017 to turn a common feeling of indignation into a repertoire of impactful actions.

The overall purpose of UAI is to initiate and facilitate joint action by civil society at global, regional and national levels to challenge warring parties, their sponsors, governments and relevant international organisations in order to reverse the normalisation of indiscriminate warfare and the erosion of the right to asylum.

This is a tall order! But it is probably our only way to effectively stand against unbridled and murderous acts of inhumanity in conflicts instead of building barriers that we falsely think could save us.  

KhaledAbout the author: 

Khaled Mansour is a member of the emerging movement United against Inhumanity. He is a senior fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative. For the past 30 years he has been a writer in addition to working in aid, peacekeeping and human rights organisations around the world.

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

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 ...

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

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 and solve multiple systemic problems. Technological solutions alone, however, cannot properly address such complex problems. This blog engages in an ongoing debate among development scholars on some of the hopes and concerns related to the use of digital and web-based technology in this sector. The main conclusion: we need more case research on the use of technology and, in the meantime, the careful use of technology is invited.

The application of technology is gaining popularity in the humanitarian sector due to the series of perceived benefits and ‘solutions’ that it seems to provide. Increasingly, development scholars are warning of the unintended consequences that such technological ‘solutions’ can produce—some of them negative. Dr. Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB, in one of his blog posts, cautions us about the limits of technological solutions, saying that ‘just because technologies can allow us to collect, store, analyse and communicate data and ideas in unprecedented ways should not lull us to think they can address old, entrenched problems in unprecedented ways. The primary constraints for human action are non-technological in nature.’

Long-term research on the topic by Dr. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Dr. Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, and Sean Martin McDonald, from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), reminds us of how technology shapes humanitarian action; they also write in a blog post that technology is implemented in the humanitarian sector without adequate legal, ethical and methodological frameworks. Another warning comes from Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, who in a recent blog post shows how the use of blockchain technologies[i] by aid agencies to support people in need, especially refugees, is embraced with great hopes, but also brings along deep concerns. He highlights the complexity of certain socio-environmental problems that are unlikely to be sufficiently addressed by technological solutions alone. Sandvik, Jacobson and Korkmaz in deepening the debate then call for more research on specific cases of the applications of digital and web-based technology in the humanitarian aid sector.

The utility of technological ‘solutions

Is the use of more technology really making humanitarian aid and disaster responses better, faster or more efficient? Even though it is difficult to find a single answer to this question, the reality is that many believe that technology can fulfil this ideal. Let’s consider a few examples:

Satellite images are being used for data collection and project monitoring with the hope that this technology will obtain more accurate information, more quickly. Iris and fingerprint scanning for the registration of the recipients of aid bring the hope of reducing duplications on the delivery of aid and more focused assistance. The use of Skype, email, and cloud systems are essential for the day-to-day management of humanitarian aid, but the hope remains that they will also improve the coordination of disaster responses and humanitarian aid provision within and among organisations and agencies.

Technology, it is said, will also reduce excessive bureaucratic bottlenecks and could provide a solution to problems of access and increased insecurity in the field. The use of digital payment systems, e-transfers or “mobile money” revolutionised the ways of delivering economic aid, promising more flexible, faster and safer economic assistance as compared to moving and distributing cash. Finally, there is hope that the use of technology will help to avoid problems of corruption, power struggles, or inequality. It is believed that using technology is politically neutral, but this belief has proven to in fact be far from reality.

A panacea for deeper problems?

Despite the benefits that these technologies can bring, they cannot be used naïvely, as the use of any technology (and the use of the information obtained along with it) involves multiple political and social variables. New technologies interplay with the realities of the places where they are implemented, and in places requiring humanitarian aid, with the existing and emerging needs of people.

We must question how these technologies interact with the inequalities of these places or their political regimes. As Korkmaz warns in his blog, there is also risk of abuse —institutions can use digital identities ‘to track people’s choices and desires, which could lead to increased surveillance and the use of information against refugees.

Technology is also subject to instrumentalisation and can be used for purposes quite the opposite of those humanitarian purposes it is intended to serve. The way in which information is collected, analysed and presented, can also be motivated by other, non-humanitarian objectives. In other words, the use of technology is never politically neutral— it affects and is affected by actors and processes, in ways not always fully understood. Reflecting on this is as important as thinking about the benefits of using new data-collection technologies. And we must also identify when, how and which technology to use.

The need for more case studies

The expansion[ii] and international call[iii] for the use of technology need to go hand-in-hand with greater reflection and deeper knowledge of the real impact, benefits and consequences of technology’s use. As McDonald, Sandvik, and Jacobsen argue in their blog post, ‘humanitarians need both an ethical and evidence-driven human experimentation framework for new technologies.’

As the discussion on the need for awareness about the use of technology is already ongoing, it is important to start gathering information on specific cases showing how which technology is used in reality. Afghanistan presents a good case for examining the application of aid technology, as its use has increased here over the last decade4–6.

Ongoing research I’m carrying out as Visiting Scholar of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) on the (political) use and the introduction of data-collection technology in Afghanistan seeks to map this technology, also reflecting on who uses it, who can get access to the collected information, and how and for which purposes it is used. The research importantly also asks: does technology really fulfil the promises it carries?

The promotion of technology is still alive in Afghanistan and globally, as multiple new forms of technology are being implemented by the humanitarian sector, like bitcoin or blockchain technology9,10. However, the applicants of technology in the humanitarian sector should not be blind to its potential negative effects. Technology can be tremendously helpful, but must also pass the ‘do no harm’ test11,12 and should be applied in a reflective manner. In the meantime, the thoughtful use of technology and more research on the topic are invited.

[i] Blockchain technologies refers to a distributed and decentralized database of continuously growing records of digital information, ordered, linked and secured using cryptography.
[ii] The use technology in the humanitarian sector, if far from new, is a growing phenomenon since the late 20th Century1–3. The difference nowadays lies in its expansion and penetration at all levels of the humanitarian aid system.
[iii] There has been an international call to innovate and introduce more technology. For instance, two reports from 2013 reinforced the use of multiple communications and data collection technologies in the humanitarian system: the World Disaster Report from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), and the document Humanitarian in a Network Age from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

  1. Stephenson, R. and P.S. Anderson (1997) ‘Disasters and the information technology revolution’, Disasters 21, 305–334.
  2. Sandvik, K. B., M. Gabrielsen Jumbert, J. Karlsrud and M. Kaufmann (2014) ‘Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda’, Int. Rev. Red Cross 96, 219–242.
  3. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (2011) ‘Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies. UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.
  4. IRIN (2013) ‘Innovative ICT helps aid workers in Afghanistan’. Available at: http://www.irinnews.org/feature/2013/05/02/innovative-ict-helps-aid-workers-afghanistan.
  5. Boone, J. US army amasses biometric data in Afghanistan. The Guardian (2010). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/27/us-army-biometric-data-afghanistan.
  6. Zax, D. In Afghanistan, Cash Has Become The Most Effective Form Of Aid. Fast Company (2016). Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3065011/in-afghanistan-cash-has-become-the-most-effective-form-of-aid.
  7. Jacobsen, K. L. Experimentation in humanitarian locations: UNHCR and biometric registration of Afghan refugees. Secure. Dialogue 46, 144–164 (2015).
  8. Jacobsen, K. L. Humanitarian biometrics. In The Politics of Humanitarian Technology: Good intentions, unintended consequences and insecurity. 57–87 (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).
  9. DH Network. Blockchain for the Humanitarian Sector: Future opportunities. Digital Humanitarian Network (2016). Available at: http://digitalhumanitarians.com/resource/blockchain-humanitarian-sector-future-opportunities.
  10. Bello Perez, Y. Can Bitcoin Make a Difference in the Global Aid Sector? CoinDesk (2015). Available at: https://www.coindesk.com/can-bitcoin-make-a-difference-in-the-global-aid-sector/.
  11. Jacobsen, K. L. Humanitarian technology: revisiting the ‘do no harm’ debate. ODI HPN (2015). Available at: https://odihpn.org/blog/humanitarian-technology-revisiting-the-%c2%91do-no-harm%c2%92-debate/.
  12. The Sphere Handbook. Protection Principle 1: Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions. The Sphere Project Available at: http://www.spherehandbook.org/en/protection-principle-1-avoid-exposing-people-to-further-harm-as-a-result-of-your-actions/. (Accessed: 5th January 2018)


Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.

(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 ...

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 ...