Digital humanitarianism: old logics, new networks

Reflections on the digital turn in humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian aid is often at the centre of debates about efficiency, corruption and costly bureaucratic procedure. Digital technology seems to offer an alternative to centralised aid governance by allowing people to take direct initiative such as in the case of crowdfunding; participate in decentralised peer-to-peer systems allowed by blockchain technology; and create platforms and mobile applications that add an humanitarian allure to people’s everyday transactions. But what are these new forms of digital humanitarianism? Are they effective? And effective according to whose values and interests?

Humanitarian crowdfunding

Crowdfunding refers to technology-enabled online financial channels, instruments and activities that allow individuals and organisations to participate in capital formation and allocation process emerged outside of the mainstream banking infrastructure. The origin of crowdfunding is often linked to Joseph Pulitzer’s campaign to invite people to fund the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1885. Interestingly, this demonstrates how technology allows but not determines the phenomenon, which requires awareness and support for a particular cause as well as the entrepreneurial ability to promote the funding campaign. Technologically mediated crowdfunding has been used for humanitarian reasons such as helping people in the wake of a natural disaster, as it happened for the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 and Italy in 2016, or supporting vulnerable groups such as refugees. Sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Generosity act as intermediaries to realise these aims and the ‘crowd’ is now considered a major, although unaccountable, actor in humanitarian actions.

Also well-established social media platforms such as Facebook, Internet providers like Google and e-commerce companies such as Amazon rely on the crowd to promote humanitarian initiatives. Facebook has introduced fundraising tools and donate buttons for pages to allow users to invite and collect donations on the one hand, and to support and contribute to humanitarian causes on the other. Google has set up Google for non-profit to provide communication, networking and advertising tools to facilitate the work of charitable organisations. Amazon has an AmazonSmile page which allows customers to donate 0.5% of the price of selected products to US-based charitable organisations.

Blockchain technology’s decentralisation

Blockchain technology denotes peer-to-peer systems originally devised for Bitcoin by Satochi Nakamoto, pseudonym of the inventor of the cryptocurrency. These systems are complex, but relatively easy to use for customers, examples are popular platforms such as Uber or AirBnB. Blockchain is a digital ledger that provides a safe way of making and recording transactions, agreements and contracts, ensuring that they are shared securely and not altered. The ledger is not kept in one place, but shared across a network of computers and grows over time, listing the transactions that have taken place since the beginning of the network.

In addition to financial transactions, blockchain technology can be used for any transaction where there are disputes or trust issues, with the aim of bringing more transparency and accountability. For example, blockchain technology has been used as a peer-to-peer notary service to manage land titles and transactions. Honduras was the first country to announce such an initiative in 2015 followed by Ghana and Georgia, but these projects have not been fully implemented yet. However, it is also important to say that any evaluation of how blockchain technology could improve the management of land requires a contextual analysis of the global and local power relations and structural inequalities affecting land distribution and rights.

Blockchain technology is resource-intensive by its nature, requiring many servers, computers and people and a great amount of electricity. This requirement could be problematic in countries with poor energy infrastructure and raises questions about sustainability and dependency, as blockchain projects in poorer countries would need to be subsidised (and consequently controlled) by donors, private companies and development institutions. Considering that blockchain technology has been developed exactly to create digital property without the control of a central authority, the limits of blockchain’s decentralised governance are very important to ponder.

Philantrocapitalism and its limits

The digital turn in humanitarian assistance has also resulted in projects set up by companies, development organisations and technology consultants such as Aid:Tech, Benetech, International Rescue Committee, GSMA Mobile for Development, Development Alternatives Incorporated, Start Network often with the philanthrocapitalist aim of improving aid management while creating profits for the private sector.

Digital humanitarian initiatives also include a variety of apps such as Instead, which tries to encourage users to ‘become philanthropists’ by donating money when buying their daily coffee. Donate a Photo, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, with which for every photo shared through their platform, they donate $1 to a cause of user’s choice including education, environmental issues, women’s and children’s health and emergency relief. ToastBack allows users to send drinks to friends and each drink contributes to bring water to ‘people in need’, with no much details about the projects and their outcomes. Other apps have been developed to support humanitarian workers by providing information on disasters and crises, examples include ReliefeWeb, Humanitarian Kiosk, the platform Global Emergency Overview and iGDACS, a cooperation framework between the United Nations, the European Commission and disaster managers worldwide.

All these forms of digital humanitarianism promise a quick and easy fix to humanitarian crises, long-term development problems and offer aid management solutions, also benefiting from the lack or little regulation in the field. Digital technologies, however, often amplify broader problems: ideas related to humanitarianism are riddled with imperialist assumptions and narratives such as that of the ‘white saviour’, which can be reinforced and not challenged by technology. Technology is not neutral and reflects the bias, values and interests of their human originators and platform owners.

While technologies such as blockchain can create possibilities for organisational decision-making to become more transparent and verifiable, they also raise questions about the limits of a decentralised aid governance in which platform owners play a key role and about the legitimacy and fairness of humanitarian providers such as the crowd, corporations and technology consultants. Further, some forms of humanitarian payments and apps seem to be particularly problematic, as they acquire a huge amount of data from users and employ them for commercial rather than non-profit purposes.

The politics of elsewhere

Besides turning humanitarian intents into an obscure for-profit industry, fingertips platforms risk to promote a politics of elsewhere by encouraging people to show their most humanitarian side, which represents an apolitical solidarity rather than a deep interest and engagement with what happens elsewhere in the world. Differently from grassroots practices of everyday philanthropy or what Martha Nussbaum defines as a ‘politics of humanity’ – namely the practical and emotional participation in the lives of others – a politics of elsewhere can reproduce imperialist and nationalist feelings and ideas, creating barriers instead of connections.

Digital technology is altering the infrastructure and dynamics of humanitarian assistance and creating new networks, but a truly transformative change needs a reconsideration of the same idea of humanitarianism and the politics underpinning it. Humanitarian sentiments should not be the result of a charitable trend, but driven by the consideration that we all, as part of a shared world, have the obligation to help those people whose lives have been made precarious by natural disaster or particular political decisions. This should not be an act of charity but an act of social justice, and digital technology should be used towards this aim.

Human RightsOpinion
Serena Natile

Serena is a Postdoctoral Researcher at King’s College London and an Associate Lecturer at Kent Law School, University of Kent. Her research interests lie in the areas of law and development, feminist political economy, gender politics, financial inclusion and digital humanitarianism. She is currently working on a monograph based on the PhD thesis 'Mobile Money, Gendered Walls: The Exclusionary Politics of Digital Financial Inclusion'. Besides academia, Serena has worked for the Permanent Representation of Italy to the EU and for the UNDP in Brussels, served as a pro-bono lawyer and collaborated with gender rights organisations in Italy, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda.
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