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A humanitarian duty to integrity

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / New Technologies 7 mins read

A humanitarian duty to integrity
The digital transformation of humanitarian operations raises (at least) two existential issues: one, how do humanitarians preserve what is unique about their work amidst growing dependence on uncontrolled commercial partners; and two, how do humanitarians avoid being exploited for their qualified immunity? The answer is to make an implicit assumption in humanitarian law explicit: humanitarian organizations have a duty to integrity. As part of a growing debate around the humanitarian use of digital cash assistance, Sean Martin McDonald, CEO of FrontlineSMS and co-founder of Digital Public, highlights the importance of organizations’ responsibility to ensure that partners operating under their license abide by their humanitarian duties.

There’s been some debate, recently, about the role of humanitarian cash transfers in building markets for financial and digital exploitation. The core of the debate is that, essentially, the digitization of cash transfers intermediates a range of technology and financial services providers in ways that, at best, don’t commit to enforcing humanitarian values. Some of the counterpoints are that cash serves an immediate need, has performed well in impact evaluations, and disintermediates humanitarians from paternalistically prioritizing needs on behalf of others.

The debate is a microcosm of an existential conversation in the humanitarian community and, arguably, a call to action for making a historically implicit humanitarian duty explicit: a duty to integrity.

The problem is: while humanitarians have never fully ‘controlled’ their environment, their license to operate assumes that humanitarians can control their operational footprint. We expect humanitarian organizations to be able to manage the things and people they bring into a complex emergency, but the more that humanitarian operations intermediate non-humanitarian service providers – especially digital and financial service providers – the less control they have over the impacts of their intervention.

Cash vs. control

Humanitarian digital cash interventions are a perfect example of that tension; one of the core arguments made by their advocates is that cash gives beneficiaries agency over how to make the most of the limited support they receive. It’s worth noting that humanitarian organizations still choose who receives money, based on assumptions about what markets they have access to, and, often, which digital platforms acquire the beneficiary/customer relationship – so it’s not exactly ‘hands-off’; it’s just less deterministic. Cash interventions are also – and this is important – effective at achieving a number of outcomes indicators, especially in the kind of exigent circumstances that necessitate humanitarian response. As long as you stop the analysis at short-term effectiveness, humanitarian digital cash interventions make a lot of sense.

If you don’t stop the analysis there, though, the digitization of cash assistance gets a lot more complicated. Not because there have been a huge number of scandals or because things are running perfectly, either – the truth is, most humanitarian organizations have very little control over the way the technology companies and financial service providers go on to leverage their work. In many cases, they don’t have any visibility into impacts of their use of digital tools or relationships beyond their immediate programmatic indicators. And while there’s a lot of bombast in focusing on the nuances of specific technologies, the significantly larger problem is the one that’s harder to see: the erosion of humanitarian integrity.

The less control humanitarian organizations have over the footprint of their interventions, the less integrity humanitarian actors have as negotiators for license to operate. And, importantly, the less control they have over their qualified immunity from accountability. Humanitarianism is predicated on the idea that the people and organizations involved bear a duty to those they serve – and they also bear a duty to the political neutrality of their work. When humanitarian interventions intermediate commercial actors, without creating direct accountability to beneficiaries, they extend their immunity to actors who have no obligation to uphold humanitarian duties. And, often, without giving humanitarian actors or stakeholders any means to hold them accountable for cumulative or long-term harms.

Boiling humanitarian frogs in digital standards pots

Humanitarian actors understandably struggle with cumulative harms – there’s a strong cultural motivation to respond to exigency and the opportunity to serve the needs of the present. And so, intervention by digital intervention, the humanitarian sector prioritizes its duty to action over its integrity – even with warning signs flashing clearly.

The humanitarian sector has already found itself as a proponent of a number of failed, immature technology interventions with strong international pushback – from biometric records to algorithmic modeling to blockchain for, well, anything. The humanitarian sectors’ inability to critically evaluate the implications of the technologies it’s using, considering the frequency of their use, should be an industry defining concern.

Instead, much of the humanitarian sector adopts governmental regulatory standards, like data protection, as a standard of care, without the same oversight or liability. The idea that self-enforced, pre-existing standards are sufficient to fulfill humanitarian duties, when the sector is directly involved in creating novel digital rights problems in some of the least institutionally stable environments in the world, is negligent. The idea that beneficiaries of humanitarian response are in a position to participate in formal data protection enforcement actions, let alone that there’s an infrastructure with the authority to adjudicate those standards against humanitarian organizations, all deserve more interrogation. To be clear – these aren’t privacy or security or surveillance capitalism concerns, these are questions about how, amidst increasing dependence on external, variably aligned partners, the humanitarian sector preserves its integrity. An integrity that the world has always assumed, implicitly.

A crisis of duty

It is then, perhaps past time, to be explicit. Humanitarianism should require a duty to integrity – to be able to articulate, if not control, the actions taken by people and organizations operating under its license in an emergency. The practical work that it will take to implement a duty to integrity is more important, both practically and culturally, than any single intervention. That, unfortunately, isn’t an argument for or against digital cash assistance – it’s an effort to recognize that until humanitarian organizations can articulate the true boundaries of their intervention, cash assistance will just be one wave in digital transformation’s erosion of humanitarianism.

Digital cash will likely continue to grow – both because it works and because it feeds the non-humanitarian interests that would exploit it. Until the humanitarian system grapples with both sides, it can’t know whether its work is upholding its existing duties to being human-centered, impartial, neutral, or independent. In other words, until humanitarian organizations can articulate the limits of their technology interventions and partners, they can’t know whether digital cash assistance is humanitarian at all.

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