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Technologies in crises: Politics of inequality or empowerment?

By Ahad Mustafa, Chloe Prior, Lama Chmayaah, Lauren Howie, Valentina Coló

In the last few decades, technological developments have presented increasing possibilities for humanitarian responses to crisis situations. Although new technologies are largely seen as neutral, and there is a great sense of optimism about what they can enable humanitarian groups to achieve, attention is also due to their potential to threaten the core principles of humanitarianism. Relying on three of the seven fundamental principles conceived by the Red Cross, namely, impartiality, humanity, and neutrality (, 2018), we aim to focus on the social and political effects of new technologies rather than their instrumental use.

Focusing on three uses of technologies in humanitarian responses to crises – family tracing, mobile phones and drone-delivered aid – this blog entry asks: Can technologies bridge the accountability gap? Do they empower affected populations or do they make them even more dependant on external intervention? What do new vulnerabilities created by technological developments mean for the humanitarian principle not to do harm?

For the case of family tracing, we have chosen to focus on the Red Cross’ operations in the field. Since its inception, the ICRC has intensively worked for the reunification of families in times of crisis and the advent of the Internet has enhanced their capabilities. Where a paper format was once used to track missing family members (mostly war prisoners), the new Restoring Family Links (RFL) website and the Red Cross Messages have allowed far greater circulation of information (Dubois, Marshall and McNamara, 2012).

However, some of the problems that family tracing initially presented have persisted and new ones have emerged. Both in the case of letters and videos, texts and phone calls, messages that are seen as a threat to the sovereignty and the security of the State might not reach their destination. As the Red Cross report noticed in 2003 (, 2003), messages between the two Koreas still struggle to go through. Under the Trump administration, migrant children arriving in the US can be separated from their families, with little that humanitarian organisations can do to trace them (Bachega, 2018).

Furthermore, with any use of the Internet come concerns about security and privacy. Sharing personal information in times of war could be dangerous, and ‘illegal’ migrants may not want to expose themselves to the attention of the media. Humanitarian organisations working with family tracing have developed systems of filtering information, but then the question emerges of whether these systems do not reduce the possibilities to actually find the missing person. For a family tracing network to be effective, people need to trust it; documentation comes from the knowledge of locals and their willingness to share it with humanitarian actors. Finally, we should still be aware that people do not have equal access to signal and technological devices.

That said, the widespread proliferation of mobile phones has enabled humanitarian organisations to establish a two-way connection with people who find themselves in crisis situations. SMS technologies such as the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application, used by the Red Cross, are aimed at receiving real-time reports and sending out warnings or awareness messages in order to facilitate disaster recovery (Ifrc, 2018). Accordingly, affected populations are able to express their own voice and participate in the change along with aid workers (Madianou et al., 2015). Mobile phone technologies are also a key way in which these organisations can improve their accountability. Madianou et al. (2016) studied their use in the response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, where SMS was used as a feedback tool.

However, in this particular case, they found that this feedback was mainly used to demonstrate accountability to donors, rather than being fed back to the affected communities. The request for feedback did not have any malicious intentions, yet it created the impression that it was forcing gratitude out of those responding. We can see a similar creation of power asymmetries in Kalkman’s (2018: 1) study, which looked at the use of technologies in ‘volatile countries’ as a means for humanitarian agencies to ensure the safety of their workers. He found that the risks mitigated by technologies, in fact highlighted the remaining risks to which the ‘relatively powerless local staff’ (2018: 10) is unequally exposed. He also refers to the political ‘origins and consequences of technology use’ (2018: 10) which deny the neutrality of technology. This is due to the fact that technologies require the government’s approval and influence the political lives of those affected. Accordingly, despite the noble intentions of using advanced technologies, organisations have not been able to fully surpass these difficulties.

Finally, the withdrawal of human beings from humanitarian aid in favour of new technologies seems to undermine one of its core principles, namely that of humanity. As in the example of Guantanamo, where authorities are thinking about replacing actual family visits with video calls (Dubois, Marshall and McNamara, 2012: 1465), the expansion of technological tools may actually constitute a threat to the physical encounter of people, which is central to the humanitarian spirit. Likewise, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) prevent the actual encounter between humanitarian actors and affected people.

Moreover, despite UAVs having countless potential uses for humanitarian organisations, particularly in ‘post-conflict settings’ (Choi-Fitzpatrick, 2018: 24), their use brings concerns about privacy and security. While it is important that people are protected from the increasingly all-seeing eyes of the State, it is worth noting that actors from civil society (i.e. non-state actors) would themselves in all likelihood generate sensitive data from the use of UAVs for surveillance or other purposes. There is also the risk of hacking or hijacking, as anti-drone technologies develop, which could have untold consequences.

There is no doubt that new technologies represent exciting possibilities for humanitarian organisations in times of crisis. They have already demonstrated an ability to provide humanitarian organisations with better disaster response (empowering local populations, minimising risks and providing instant care). However, it is important that these organisations do not assume that such tools are neutral. We have outlined some potentially negative consequences technology can have, finding that in some cases the results can actually be counterproductive. Hopefully, by noting that technology is not inherently neutral, humanitarian organisations can work effectively to mitigate the potential complications that new technologies may bring.


Bachega, Hugo. 2018 (27th July). ‘Inside the chaotic effort to reunite separated families’ In: BBC News [online]. Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2018]

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. 2014. ‘Drones for Good: Technological Innovations, Social Movements, and the State’ In: Journal of International Affairs 68(1). 19-36.

Dubois, Olivier, Marshall, Katharine and McNamara, Siobhan Sparkes. 2012. ‘New technologies and new policies: the ICRC’s evolving approach to working with separated families’ In: International Review of the Red Cross 94(888). 1455-1479. 2003 (25th July). ‘Fifty years after cease-fire agreement: Korean families still separated’ In: [online]. Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2018] 2013. ‘Improved access to technology can save lives in emergencies says new Red Cross Red Crescent Report’ In: IFRC [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 November 2018]. 2018. ‘The Seven Fundamental Principles’ In: IFRC [online]. Available at: [Accessed 4 December 2018].

Kalkman, Jori Pascal. 2018. ‘Practices and consequences of using humanitarian technologies in volatile aid settings’ In: Journal of International Humanitarian Action 3(1). 1-12.

Madianou, M., Longboan, L. and Ong, J.C., 2015. ‘Finding a voice through humanitarian technologies? Communication technologies and participation in disaster recovery’ In: International Journal of Communication, 9, p.19.

Madianou, Mirca, Ong, Jonathan Corpus, Longboan, Liezel and Cornelio, Jayeel S. 2016. ‘The appearance of accountability: communication technologies and power asymmetries in humanitarian aid and disaster recovery’ In: Journal of Communication 66(6). 960-981.