GPS humanitarianism: Technology makes it easier to bring aid to war-torn countries—but harder to connect to people.

What's to come?
Sept. 28 2011 6:11 AM

GPS Humanitarianism

Technology makes it easier to bring aid to war-torn countries—but harder to connect to people.

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Technology can also be instrumental in changing U.N. policy. When Tim arrived in Amman in 2007, the United Nations prioritized funding the needs of internally displaced populations and refugees. Tim observed that often the most vulnerable communities in Iraq had not moved; they simply did not have the resources to leave their homes. Yet because they were not displaced, these communities were excluded from humanitarian programs. Tim created a database to track living conditions with a wider range of variables over a greater period of time. When he arrived in 2007 he had $700,000 to support humanitarian programs. Within two years of building the database, Tim raised $75 million to assist communities based not on status, but need.

While these technologies have been immensely valuable, there are critical downsides that trouble NGO and U.N. workers. Perhaps most troubling: It can expose on-the-ground facilitators to danger. One U.N. staffer based in Nairobi told me about using GPS technologies to direct Somali national employees to work in particular locations. In these situations, GPS must be used cautiously. Being caught with a fancy gadget could publicly expose Somalis working secretly for international organizations. Such collaboration could be deadly in al-Shabaab controlled territory, as it has often been in Iraq: In 2007, Iraqis working with the United States and with international organizations braved kidnapping, threats and intimidation, and office raids by militia.

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On a more fundamental level, remote management can result in disconnect between those on the ground and those elsewhere. In 2006 and 2007, I conducted Ph.D. research on a remotely managed NGO project to restore Iraq's southern marshes. Early on, I visited a U.N. partner program in Geneva that used remote sensing (satellite diagnostics of the earth) to map and evaluate the ecosystem's recovery. There, U.N. scientists, who had never been to Iraq, trained young Iraqi nationals to run the project. Iraqis struggled to master in two weeks a complex science typically taught over several university semesters. At the same time, they had to cope with anxieties about whether family and friends were surviving daily explosions. U.N. scientists reached out to their Iraqi colleagues, but had no personal context to understand their anguish and emphasized how important it was to finish the training. One Iraqi student exclaimed in the middle of class, "This is really bad. There's no way we are going to learn like this." Her teacher, equally frustrated, replied, "It's impossible!"

Today the U.N. and international NGOs are moving back into Iraq in greater numbers. But technology remains critical to their operations. Under U.N. mandate, these foreign workers must use an armed military convoy every time they leave International Zones. These convoys blur the lines between military and humanitarian operations, further limiting the ability of foreign humanitarians to work safely outside of compounds. It is a vicious circle: U.N. policy itself underscores the need for technologically enhanced remoteness. So agencies are expanding technological initiatives. IOM programs will upgrade to an Android-based integrated phone, high-resolution camera, and GPS device at $700 apiece to speed the collection and dissemination of field data. Fortunately, GPS is no longer so dangerous for Iraqis to use.

Lately, the technology blogosphere has hyped the expansive use of unmanned aerial vehicles for humanitarian purposes: For instance, a proposal called Matternet would use drones to deliver aid to locations that are difficult to reach, whether because they are dangerous or physically inaccessible. But humanitarian endeavors in Iraq and Somalia suggest that virtually any technological innovation that facilitates remote operations will require nationals to play a vital role in distributing aid, identifying needs, and mediating relationships between locals and distant international organizations. It is nationals who bear the burden of violence associated with extending humanitarian initiatives throughout high-conflict areas. Even in the most altruistic of programs, this structure supports the power of foreign leadership in areas of conflict and sharpens existing inequalities between nationals who live and work in war zones and the foreign staff who direct them. Humanity has not been erased from this system; it is managed. Should cheaper technology make such remote humanitarianism more common, international groups will have to continue the work begun in Somalia and Iraq to keep intact the personal connection between those on the ground and those far away.

Bridget Guarasci completed her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan earlier this year. She will return to Jordan this fall as a postdoctoral fellow to investigate the rise of regional environmentalism and its relationship to development campaigns.

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