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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.

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

EADI/ISS Series | Digitalizing agriculture in Africa: promises and risks of an emerging trend by Fabio Gatti and Oane Visser

The potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute to food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas is being increasingly claimed by international development actors, and reflects in growing investments in digital technologies that are supposed to help small-scale farmers to ‘upgrade’ the way they farm. However, these technologies should not be considered panaceas from the get-go and require critical scrutiny to ensure that they will benefit who need it the most. There is a strong need for independent and in-depth social science research able to go beyond the surface of international donors and policy makers’ discourses and assess the effectiveness ‘on the ground’ of such new and greatly emphasized developing trend.

Drones used to map the boundaries of fields and monitor plant health, ground sensors to measure soil moisture levels, air temperature and humidity to prevent crop diseases, digital apps to provide farmers with localized weather forecasts, market price information and agricultural advice—these are just some examples of an emerging rural development trend called digital agriculture.

Assuming different guises (‘digital agriculture’, ‘smart farming’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’, ‘precision agriculture’), digital technologies and ICTs have started to penetrate the agricultural sector in the Global South in the past few years. Africa, with more than 60% of the population employed in the rural sector and relatively low agricultural yields, has become the main target of this ‘development’ strategy. For some, this is ‘the new Green Revolution’, an opportunity which Africa, having failed to seize before, cannot afford to miss this time.

These technologies, however, are not without concerns and limitations. Our ongoing research on digital agriculture in Africa draws out some of the hidden dimensions of the digitalization agenda, showing that we need to be aware of the risk that digital agriculture – when implemented without critical debate – might primarily benefit tech companies and multinational input providers, rather than smallholders or the environment. In the next section, therefore, the purported benefits of digital agriculture are discussed, along with some concerns.

Drone flying above beautiful landscape with vineyards

A triple-win strategy

Most proponents of digitalization in agriculture—governments, international donors, development agencies, and high-tech companies—convey the idea that it represents a triple-win solution which could be used to ‘feed’ a rapidly growing population while at the same time reducing rural poverty levels and mitigating the environmental impact of farming.

In terms of food security, digital and mobile technologies promise to deliver better yields and reduced losses arising from bad crop management. The rural poor will purportedly benefit from better market integration from being able to sell their product at higher prices, for example by being able to guarantee the traceability and origin of the product or to reduce the time between crop harvesting and selling, therefore enabling a shift toward more perishable (and profitable) crops (Asad 2016). In addition, the environment would benefit from a reduction in the use of pesticides and wasteful irrigation practices. Nevertheless, the mechanisms that enable achieving such promises remain a ‘black box’.

An expanding market

Digital agriculture seems to be first of all an appealing business opportunity for companies. According to some recent estimations, the market for precision and digital farming products has been growing at 12% per year and is expected to reach €10 billion by 2025. ‘Big tech’ players like Microsoft, Google, IBM, Alibaba, as well as big agribusiness companies like Bayer, Syngenta and John Deere have started to move into the market by making preliminary acquisitions, forging partnerships, and developing new products. In 2013, for example, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation, a data analytics company specialized in weather forecasting technologies, for US$1.1 million.

Food security

The most intuitive effect of digital innovations in agriculture is an increased food production that would boost farmers’ income. A better reach of agricultural extension services and real-time information (for example regarding short-term weather conditions or market prices), combined with improved access to high-quality inputs and the reduction of losses due to unexpected weather events or bad pest management, are believed to allow small farmers to improve agricultural output both in terms of quantity and quality. Post-harvest losses could also be reduced with the improved monitoring of storage conditions. Additionally, an increasing ability of smallholder farmers to sell to larger markets by allowing buyers to track crops to source (certification and provenance) would allow countries and governments to achieve food security targets due to the much wider availability of lower-cost and more nutritious food products.

Poverty reduction

In mainstream discourses, smallholder farmers are considered the main target of such digital innovation policies. In terms of poverty reduction, easier access to credit and improved traceability of agricultural products, together with better integration into the supply value chain, are believed to eventually increase selling prices and consequently boost smallholder income, therefore contributing to lifting people out of rural poverty. Aker et al. (2016) found, however, that there is limited evidence to support this claim and that farmers do not always manage to sell their products at higher prices when making use of digital market information systems.

In order to make the services economically affordable, one of the solutions offered resides in the ‘Facebook model’: a digital platform collects farmers’ data and gets revenues from using and/or selling this data. In exchange, the users don’t pay (see for example this post). In this way data becomes the ‘exchange good’ with which the farmer effectively pays for the services provided by the company. This opens questions related to data ownership and which arrangements can be put in place to protect farmers’ sensitive data.


In the end, market and economic considerations seem to prevail, so far, over concerns about sustainability and environmental change. A recent report by the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in Wageningen states that “hard evidence of the impact of [such innovations] on climate resilience has yet to emerge”. The main climate change-related use case so far seems to be the highly localized weather forecasts, combined with the fact that “by increasing their productivity, [they] can help farmers earn additional income needed to invest in adapting to climate change”. Similarly, for the FAO “the effectiveness of these tools for advancing sustainability goals is unknown”. What are the real implications for the environment, then?

Other challenges and obstacles

From a socio-cultural point of view, there are other aspects that need to be taken into account. Agricultural knowledge transfer is a highly social process based on ‘on-field’ experience: human-to-human interaction might not be easily reduced to blocks of data analyzed by external algorithms (see for example Stone 2010). Also, what Friends of the Earth in a recent position paper calls the ‘erosion of tacit knowledge’ must not be overlooked: the risk is that delegating all farm-management decisions to an ‘expert app’ would reduce farmers’ autonomy and lock them into a dependency relationship with data analytics companies. Last, the lack of infrastructure, the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural areas, and the high costs of telecommunication services in some countries represent obstacles which should be overcome before digital agriculture would be able to deliver the promised benefits for the rural poor.

In conclusion, the potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas still requires a proper assessment based on empirical evidence. More research is required in order to go beyond initial overoptimistic accounts and to facilitate the bridging of local barriers and yet unknown or unexpected effects.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

photo_cvFabio Gatti is a graduate from the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies (AFES) major at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS). Together with dr. Oane Visser, he is currently investigating the impact of digital innovations on smallholder agriculture in Africa.

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international Toyota Foundation-funded research project on the socio-economic effects of – and responses to – big data and digitalization in agriculture.


COVID-19 | Increased surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the emergence of a new architecture of global power by Jacqueline Gaybor and Henry Chavez

Central to efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has been the monitoring and prevention of the spread of the virus. To do so, governments need to keep discipline amongst their populations and limit their movements. While new big data, artificial intelligence technologies and control mechanisms are being implemented, we are witnessing the emergence of a new global structure of power built with our digital traces. As the intertwined history of epidemics and states shows, the utility of these new trends and devices should not be solely evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in controlling the spread of the virus, but also in terms of their consequences for the global structure of power and the future functioning of states.

History is replete with deadly contagion episodes that have decimated populations. Viruses, these little “insignificant” beings  (Žižek 2020), have created the conditions for the emergence of several devices and institutions that have become the very bases of modern nation states. Looking back, censuses, quarantines, hospitals, biometric registers and even punishment for disobedience were first conceived to be necessary to shorten the chains of infections and control the spread of diseases.

But once the crises were over, these devices were kept and instrumentalized by governments to better control their populations and territories and exercise their sovereignty. They became what Foucault called a disciplinary model of power (Foucault 1975). This model, based on a panoptical architecture (Bentham 1995) of societies and institutions, has been working, improving and spreading around the world since the 19th Century. In this panoptical model, found for instance in prisons, hospitals, or schools, a watchman position creates a feeling of constant surveillance among the population, which triggers them to ‘behave themselves’ (assert self-discipline).


  1. Marseille in quarantine. A naval officer with his family
  2. The man who brought the plague to Milan
Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF (National Library of France)

The unprecedented scale and speed of responses to the COVID-19 crisis we face have unveiled a process of profound transformation in the architecture of power around the world. The panoptical disciplinary model from the 19th and 20th centuries seems insufficient to retain order in an increasingly interconnected and complex global system. The global lockdown we are part of is a step backward that reveals the weakening of the disciplinary model that supports modern nation states. At the same time, it reveals the emergence of new trends and devices with an unprecedented capacity to reshape, in a short period of time, human practices, imaginaries, and policies around the world. A huge transformation is taking place without a prior careful analysis, mostly based on new forms of population control and surveillance.

Mass harvesting of biometric data

An important distinction from other historical health crises is the largely unquestioned mass harvesting of biometric data—what Yuval Noah Harari (2020) has called a transition from ‘over-the-skin’ to ‘under-the-skin’ surveillance. Through this transition, largely sustained by contactless technologies, such as cameras measuring body temperature in airports, or at the entrance of Buddhist temple (as shown in the picture below), we have come to normalize images of temperature, breath, and heartrate screenings. But also, any actions that bear a resemblance to coughing, sneezing or blowing our noses can be collected and reported. This data is being used to identify possibly infected persons and control their mobility.


Buddha tooth relic temple, Singapore. 09 March 2020. Credits: Peter van Leeuwen.

The public seems to be rapidly accepting the risks involved with providing biometric data for prevention purposes, but caution is needed: While these devices may help solve urgent public health concerns, we do not know how they will be used afterwards.

Using apps to ‘manage the spread of the virus’

The emergence of mobile ‘coronavirus apps’ is another phenomenon that has become an integral part of collecting biometric data and limiting citizens’ freedom of movement during this pandemic. The Alipay HealthCode app was developed for the Chinese government to assign users three colour codes based on their health status and travel history, and a QR code that can be scanned at any time by law enforcement authorities. The app has specificities according to each city, but the three color codes[1] are a general commonality. The app relies on self-reporting by the user integrated with medical information provided by the government[2]. Yet, the app does not make clear to users what data is being stored, who can make use of it, and how it is used.

The global chaos has pushed different governments around the world to adopt approaches that have been conceived and designed under authoritarian regimes. For example, Andrus Ansip, Vice President of the European Commission, promoted Singapore’s TraceTogether Bluetooth-operating app as a key component for preventing COVID-19 spread in the EU. Countries like the Netherlands are looking at apps to trace the movements of citizens, but are facing resistance in light of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that prioritizes anonymization and privacy. Despite a strong common legal framework, we see the EU struggling to choose between ‘giving in’ and disregarding the complexities that the technological solutions impose on privacy rights in order to contain the spread of the virus, or protecting the rights of their citizens to privacy and the future of their democracies.

As the intertwined history of epidemics and states shows, the relevance of these new trends and devices should also be evaluated regarding their future consequences in the structure of power and the functioning of the states. Which of the array of devices, technologies, and policies imposed to us during this crisis will governments or corporations keep in the aftermath to exercise control over their citizens and reinforce their power? The reality in the Global South is even more complicated, considering their limited technical capacities and lack of privacy regulations.

 A new architectural power design

The current global quarantine reveals a weakened of the panoptical model, a lack of capacity of the states to keep discipline and order among their populations. However, the emergence of new trends and devices suggest that a new architectural power design is in the making: an omniopticon model. This model offers the same disciplinary advantages of the Bentham’s design, yet it is designed in a virtual space. In this model everybody can be seen, heard, localized, measured and predicted without the necessity of towers, walls, windows, or watchdogs. As in the panoptical model, it doesn’t matter who exercises power, or even if there is someone actually watching: the discipline is internalized by fear.

However, two differences can be identified. First, this new model is not limited to the actual existence of institutions or physical spaces that discipline individuals. It is diluted around us; we contribute to it every day through our digital traces, our physical movements, eye blinks, and heartbeats. It can be anywhere in the world at any time and therefore it cannot be contained or driven by limited entities as the modern states. We are facing the emergence of a global structure of power with no modern political entity capable of controlling it.

Secondly, the Bentham’s ideal model guaranteed that the watchman position is held by any individual and therefore anyone outside the panopticon could supervise the watchman. A form of accountability to prevent a tyranny. In the omniopticon, the feature of accountability is replaced by automation led by big data and artificial intelligence technologies. No human can hold the position of the watcher, neither can they supervise something they don’t understand. As in the quarantines of the 17th century, this new disciplinary model that is taking over will lock all of us (the watchdogs included) in our cells, leave the keys outside the doors, and will leave no-one to reopen them afterwards.

[1] Green allows individuals to travel relatively freely, yellow confines individuals to their homes for isolation, while red indicates individuals with a confirmed COVID-19 case who should be in quarantine.
[2] This comprises medical records, travel history records, and information regarding being in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Bentham, Jeremy. 1995. Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon Writings. Edited by Miran Bozovic. London: Verso.
Foucault, Michel. 1975. Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard.
Harari, Yuval Noah. 2020. “Yuval Noah Harari: The World after Coronavirus.” Financial Times, March 20, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2020. “Slavoj Žižek ‘el Coronavirus es un golpe a lo Kill Bill al sistema capitalista.’” Esferapública (blog). March 18, 2020. http://esferapublica.org/nfblog/slavoj-zizek-el-coronavirus-es-un-golpe-a-lo-kill-bill-al-sistema-capitalista/.
Title Image: The new medusa, “it’s a good thing i can’t see myself”. Credits: Richard Scott

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


About the authors:

Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies/Erasmus University Rotterdam, in The Netherlands. She holds a Ph.D. in development studies and has an interdisciplinary background in law, gender, social studies of science and technology, and sustainable development. She is also a lecturer at Erasmus University College.

Henry Chavez is a Research Associate at the Science, Technology and Society Lab (CTS-Lab) FLACSO, in Ecuador. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France. He has an interdisciplinary background in social sciences, economics, and politics; and is a specialist in social studies of science, technology and innovation; anthropology of global systems; public policy design and evaluation.

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.