From humanitarian response to sustainable development?

Response to humanitarian disasters is a field that is being revolutionised by communication and information technologies.

From hundreds of digital volunteers creating a crisis map during the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, to responses during the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Meier (2015) has analysed how ICTs have transformed the face of emergency relief, as well as giving rise to what he calls digital humanitarians: people volunteering from around the globe, managing Big Data to bring help to suffering populations. “Disaster-affected communities are increasingly becoming “digital communities” as well […]. Moreover, not only do more and more people around the world turn to social media to communicate during disasters, but they also use these and other platforms to self-organize in response to crises” (Meier, 2015, p.27).

However Corpus Ong (2016) for The Guardian argued that innovation can come at a cost. Handling Big Data and processing vast amount of information (from tweets and Facebook posts to SMS and emails) in emergency contexts, sometimes create ‘digital sweatshops’ with a virtual assembly line of digital labourers on short-term contracts – people whose lives are anything but empowered. Yet these tech workers are part of the population that technologies are supposed to help.
Disasters require aid agencies to quickly make sense of masses of information (Meier, 2015, p.129), so in a world where aid budgets are tight the choice is either to do nothing at all or maybe strive to better integrate ICTs into the lives of target communities – the communities that the technology is try to help, as Corpus Ong (2016) seems to suggest.

So, how in practice do we move from a short-term humanitarian response to a structural and sustainable development that is truly at the service of the beneficiaries?

DuBois (2016) argues that any response to a humanitarian crisis should be seen as an opportunity for long-term development. Humanitarian endeavours often generate business, but this rarely translates into the sustainable development of local economies. And acknowledging the fact that highly-skilled services are too often outsourced to Westerners, NGOs and international organisations could instead try to use local expertise and therefore help to transform local communities over time (DuBois, 2016).

This could range from working with a local group to create, for example, a transport or cleaning business and replace the services owned or managed by humanitarian themselves (Dubois, 2016) to transforming ‘digital sweatshops’ into local tech startups. In many case, the local expertise is there, as Corpus Ong (2016) suggests. This may not always be feasible (DuBois, 2016), but it would certainly provide a more just framework.

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