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Cyber-Humanitarianism…

May 17, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Mark Duffield’s talk at DIIS bemoans the slow loss of “ground truth” in humanitarian operations and introduces new thinking and concerns over the role new technology (e.g. GPS, Geospatial technology, computer-based mapping, satellite…) is playing in increasing the distance between aid workers and the realities of those in need of aid.

IMG_0590Mark Duffield, Emeritus Professor of Development Politics at Bristol University, has provided much provocative analysis and critique on the evolution and current issues surrounding the application of development aid by (predominantly) Western nations operating in failed state areas of the (predominantly Third) world.  In his “Development, Security and Unending War”, he looked at the macro-level; the post-colonial concepts behind, and the diverse applications of, development aid across large parts of the world.  I took his ideas and those of Peter Uvin to look at the militarisation of development in Afghanistan.

Cyber management

At DIIS he gave a talk about what he described as the rise of “cyber-management” in humanitarian affairs.  He said that this was a new area that he had started to look at and was just developing his ideas.  He sketched out the notion that aid workers were increasingly confined (or confining themselves) to protected compounds and making greater use of high tech tools to map, understand and solve humanitarian problems, such as a refugee crisis.  He suggested that “Remote Management” was in part due to the desire to reduce exposure to risk and leads to an increasing the number of layers of local intermediaries between the humanitarian worker and those in need of aid.  International managers of humanitarian aid were increasingly based outside the country of concern and working through locally recruited staff and other intermediaries.  The result is an increasing dependence on technology over “ground truth”.

human beings not featured...

human beings not featured…

Geo Spatial information: The concept for collection, information extraction, storage, dissemination, and exploitation of geodetic, geomagnetic, imagery (both commercial and national source), gravimetric, aeronautical, topographic, hydrographic, littoral, cultural, and toponymic data accurately referenced to a precise location on the earth’s surface. These data are used for military planning, training, and operations including navigation, mission planning, mission rehearsal, modeling, simulation and precise targeting. Geospatial information provides the basic framework for battlespace visualization. It is information produced by multiple sources to common interoperable data standards. It may be presented in the form of printed maps, charts, and publications; in digital simulation and modeling databases; in photographic form; or in the form of digitized maps and charts or attributed centerline data. Geospatial services include tools that enable users to access and manipulate data, and also includes instruction, training, laboratory support, and guidance for the use of geospatial data. Also called GI&S.

Duffield presented the idea of “resilience” – the ability of Third World communities to be self-maintaining and self-repairing in a crisis – as a “neo-liberal business plan”.

Duffield noted the increasing emergence of military technology into the public domain.  It was becoming easier, with the Web 2.0 revolution, for organisations to cheaply access technology that was developed in the end of WWII and during the Cold War by the military – particularly satellite imagery:

  • 1993 saw military GPS systems opened up to the civil sector
  • 1994, Bill Clinton declassified much military imagery (with DOD retaining “shutter control”)
  • Late 1990s – UNHCR started to use satellite imagery to look at refugee camps
  • 2001 –  US military agreement with civilian sector

But humanitarian sector lacked funding and expertise to take full advantage of Geo-Spatial Technology (GST).  Duffield is concerned that people in a humanitarian crisis are now being reduced to the role of an environmental problem – technology now mapping the nearness of water, firewood, viable transport routes, etc.  Refugee camps and refugees are now part of the environment and human beings as biological organisms.

IDPs part of the environment

He noted, as an example, Darfur, which was increasingly dangerous for aid workers, with a volatile IDP population.  GST was reducing the need for ground truth in areas that were too dangerous.  Duffield’s major concern was that this new technology was normalising the absence of ground truth – it was becoming increasingly acceptable.  In this way, GST was simultaneously “solving” the problem of remoteness by providing an alternative solution but also reinforcing remoteness.

There is therefore a tension here – GST is clearly helpful – it helps international organisations predict IDP patterns, identify suitable sites for refugee camps, routes in and out, resources to aid and assist (water, firewood…).  The vision midway through the first decade of the 21st century was of increasing command and control centralisation – now perhaps this is giving way to decentralised control.  Google Earth emerged in 2005 and is a viable planning tool for most humanitarian planning needs (UNHCR collaborated with Google Earth Outreach – Darfur was the biggest visualisation project thus far).  The public are now able to access information as well – but does it really give people a genuine “intuitive understanding” of what is happening on the ground?

“Face to Face” is being replaced by “Face to Screen”

There is a “cyber-optimism” being pushed by technological experts (Silicon valley expertise that does not understand humanitarian issues and sees the state as absent) that it is possible to create self-managing, self-organising aid efforts at the local level.  “Big Data” was now a major part of the Military/Industrial/Academic complex.  But the “cyber business plan” was now having to deal with a data deluge – information was getting “younger” – the humanitarian community and the general public are now able to access near-real time information – paralleling the military desire for and efforts towards “Total Battle Space Awareness”.  There is a growing assumption that “face to face” is equal to “face to screen”.

Technology is now promising immediate and nuanced information to assist policy decisions for humanitarian aid – but the humanitarian community needs to think carefully before buying into it.

Anders Ladekarl (Sec Gen for Danish Red Cross) was the discussant and made the following observations:

  • These tools have thus far been under-utilised
  • Loss of innocence with the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad
  • Will it really make traditional humanitarian work redundant?  GST might improve the way we do things
  • Syria is now the most prominent example of remote humanitarianism

Questions, Answers and Discussion

How to distinguish between civilian and military data is difficult

Duffield: “Post Language cultures” – with these new technologies we are moving into an environment where move and more issues are primarily visualised – we are losing the value of language.  Neo-liberalism is aiming for the Third World to be totally self-repairing

An NGO representative noted: we are using remote management because we have to, as a last resort before closing down a relief operation as too dangerous.

Duffield was asked – what is your point?   Should NGOs be using this technology or not?  I suggested to him that the technology is already here, like it or not – it might be instructive to look at the positive and negative experiences of the military – given they have had the lead in this field – to extract lessons.  Duffield said he was not a Luddite (i.e. resistant to technology) but suggested there were alternatives.  He drew parallels with the period of colonial rule, where political officers lived in the country for years, learnt the language and understood the culture.  He contrasted this with the modern aid worker, who did a six month tour and was required to have PR and IT skills but not language.  Six month tours are not sufficient.

Duffield is interested in the history of camouflage – camouflage techniques got better in response to improvements in aerial photo reconnaissance.  In this modern GST environment it is possible for people to hide (terrorists?) or get lost (refugees?) in “data exhaust” – in cities people can disappear into the data environment if GST is relied upon.

One comment suggested that surely the hope and object of the humanitarian aid effort was not to have to still be there in five years and therefore language skills were not so necessary.  Duffield replied that the aid “industry” (I am pretty sure that was the word he used) needs to acknowledge that it is in these countries for the long haul and start learning languages.

Very interestingly, he cited an example of an Afghan NGO working in Afghanistan for civilians and military alike.  He said that the Afghan NGO confessed they preferred working with the military because the civilian NGO was much too interested in finding the data that fitted their narrative!

Duffield: “I am exercised by these issues of remoteness”.

DIIS LogoDIIS will apparently put out the notes from this brief conference as a paper shortly.

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