Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design

Missing entirely in the discussions I was part of at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium and also the draft statement current on the Symposium website for public review is the manner in which complex political emergencies  (CPEs, herein used to also cover violent ethno-political conflict) influence the design and deployment of ICT support architectures and systems for humanitarian aid.

While there is a large existing corpus of literature that examine CPEs and the challenges it poses to humanitarian aid (also looking at the challenge of aid in response to the “natural” disaster in the midst of CPEs) , there is very little to my knowledge written on the manner in which ICT systems also need to respond to and be shaped by the realities of violent conflict on the ground in theatres of humanitarian aid. As I note in Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding:

In cases such as Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, regions affected by the tsunami were also regions affected by years of violent ethno-political conflict. Without question, any humanitarian system designed to support aid work in such regions needs to be sensitive to the added complexity of ethno-political strife. This added layer of complexity cannot be ignored as it directly influences humanitarian aid decisions and actions.

and go on to note that:

One notes with interest the features in Sahana’s Missing Person’s Registry that are no doubt tremendously useful in aid deployment, but is cognisant that the same features may also be used by less savoury individuals and organisations to track information of people affected by the disaster – say for instance children who have been orphaned as easy fodder for guerilla movements. 

In another article that looks deeply at information security in humanitarian aid support systems, I aver that:

The emphasis on accountability, transparency, trust, right to information legislation, equity and holistic, inclusive frameworks I believe under gird any appreciation of information security in humanitarian aid systems. As I note in a monograph written a few weeks after the tsunami that captured InfoShare’s information architectures for the humanitarian response, the first days & weeks of the relief efforts brought to light the following information needs:

  1. Information on the type of the disaster – what a tsunami was, how it formed, the dangers of further tsunamis during the severe after shocks that continued for many days etc
  2. Information on missing persons, including foreign nationals. This included details of those internally displaced by the tsunami
  3. Information on immediate needs of survivors (shelter, food & medicine)
  4. Information of resources available to deliver aid – from 4WD vehicles, to trucks and helicopters
  5. Information of organisation to give money and donations in kind to – collection centres, bank account details, wire transfer instructions
  6. Information on contact numbers for emergency services, relief agencies, regional offices of large NGOs, country representatives of INGOs and donor agencies, number for key agencies in the UN
  7. Dissemination of requests for help, channelling aid to appropriate locations, mapping resources and taking inventories of aid received
  8. GIS data on Sri Lanka post tsunami and pre tsunami, including accurate and up-to-date maps of affected regions and satellite imagery to pin point where aid was needed in communities which had been isolated after the tsunami.
  9. Coordination of local and international volunteers involved in the relief efforts – what their skills were, where they were needed, what they were doing once assigned to a particular area
  10. News reports on key developments in the affected regions, including the details of money pledged for relief efforts and how to access this money
  11. Database of various NGOs operational after the tsunami across the affected regions who could be mobilised for aid and relief operations
  12. Information on the actual ground situation in the worst affected areas – with dysfunctional mobile communications, the national telecom provider’s PSTN infrastructure badly affected, transport infrastructure washed away, there was an urgent need to ascertain the status of survivors

As the reader will recognise, some of this information is extremely politically sensitive – that which was captured in the relief effort could be used to target communities and ethnic groups in a renewed war effort, and given the Sri Lankan’s state’s pathological inability to engage in a serious peace process, we were faced with the acute problem of having on the one hand the need to collect, store, analyse and disseminate sensitive information and on the other hand the need to maintain control of who and where this information was used.

The closest I came to discussing some of these issues was in a side meeting during the +5 Symposium with representatives from OCHA and the US State Department. In general however, the assumption seems to be that aid support systems, especially using ICT, are applicable irrespective of the timbre of social, cultural, political and religious relations present in the context of the humanitarian intervention.

This is a tremendously dangerous assumption and I hope that in the fullness of time, the larger community of humanitarian ICT systems developers take a page out of InfoShare’s experiences in this regard.

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