Critical Humanitarian Technology

Led by Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert

May 2013 – Dec 2013

​The humanitarian enterprise is characterized by considerable optimism regarding the possibility of improving humanitarian action through technology.

The humanitarian enterprise is characterized by considerable optimism regarding the possibility of improving humanitarian action through technology. The uses of cell phones, social media platforms, geospatial technologies and various forms of crowdsourcing have fundamentally altered how humanitarian crises are detected, analyzed and addressed. Biometric identification technologies are also increasingly taken into consideration as possible tools for emergency support. Such technologies have been used in a variety of UN humanitarian and development programs, for refugee registration, cash transfers and food distribution in relation to post-conflict environments and natural disasters, as for example to over 1.5 million flood-affected households in Pakistan.

All this has changed possibilities for resource mobilization for humanitarian actors as well as for affected communities. While the “new humanitarianism” of the period 1995-2005 was about human rights based approaches, the contemporary “new humanitarianism” is about technological innovation. At the horizon, a proliferation of increasingly autonomous robot technologies and tools developed from nanotechnology will further transform the humanitarian landscape and the delivery of relief in new and exciting ways. Yet, despite the great potential and many positive effects of technological innovation, it can also compromise humanitarian action and humanitarian decision-making, and obscure issues of accountability and legality.

Of particular interest is the potential humanitarian use of drones – so called disaster drones – for a range of missions that are today undertaken by volunteers and rescue dogs, or manned ships, airplanes and helicopters. Drones offer the humanitarian community a range of new possibilities with relation to crisis mapping, search and rescue, and yet some way off into the future, relief drops. At the same time, the UAV industry increasingly attempts to market itself as “humanitarian”, and little attention is given to legal issues such as data protection and privacy, or ethical issues related to surveillance or provision of assistance from afar. How should the humanitarian community grapple with the evolving development of drones for humanitarian purposes? What are the potential dilemmas and challenges?

While the Norwegian government acknowledges that technological innovations offer new possibilities as well as ethical, legal and practical challenges, Norwegian humanitarian policy has so far engaged with the issue in a very limited manner. The Critical Humanitarian Technology Project 2013 is a pilot-project aiming to begin to develop a forum for discussion on these issues and further develop already existing competences, in order to provide up-to-date and relevant policy input.

This project will examine the influence of new technologies upon humanitarian action, and aim to inform the development of a Norwegian policy on humanitarian technology. This will partly be done by pursuing new developments in the field, and partly by situating these developments in the context of broader scholarly debates on the contemporary humanitarian regime.

This project is placed under the umbrella of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies(NCHS).

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