UDHR: A historical record of the drafting process


It’s websites such as the new UN archive on the drafting process that led up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that showcase the potential of the web to make information otherwise inaccessible instantly available globally.

The UDHR 60 years on continues to be a bedrock for democracy. The documents archived on this site from the UN’s discussions leading up to the final version offer a unique insight into the workings of the UN.

More broadly, similar projects such Google’s already mammoth newspaper archives (see Old news is good news) and the British Library’s Turning the Pages initiative indicate the breath and depth of a library that a little over a decade ago simply could not have been imagined.

A library called the world wide web.

How can, nay, how must we ensure that the information and knowledge on the web is used to build peace?

Public-Private Collaboration for Humanitarian Action – OCHA Guiding Principles

OCHA Document

In the section titled Corporate branding vs. humanitarianism – The imperatives of sensitive aid delivery on my final and detailed post on Strong Angel III, I placed on record the concerns I had with private enterprise entering into humanitarian aid.

For example, I vividly recall the representative of an extremely well known GIS solutions provider at the end of SA III who challenged what I said about the problems of corporate branding in disasters by stating that they would simply not be interested in humanitarian aid were it not for the fact that visibly branding their involvement gave their services and products greater visibility.

I was extremely pleased to receive intimation from UN OCHA today of the release of a new document, Guiding Principles for Public-Private Collaboration for Humanitarian Action. As noted in their Press Release,

The text is the result of broad consultations which started with a first draft being circulated to the OCHA-IASC Working Group for comment in December 2006. The revised text takes into account additional comments from IASC partners, NGOs and private sector. The guidelines have been further reviewed during the WEF-OCHA meeting which took place on 28 June in Geneva.

The Guiding Principles will be launched this week, on 25 January 2008 at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. We hope that this framework will reduce obstacles for private sector engagement in humanitarian action and encourage better public-private partnership.

Read the document in full here.

ICT4Peace and Humanitarian FOSS featured in PeaceIT!


The latest issue of Peace IT!, a journal for conflict and crisis management professionals published by the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) is out and can be downloaded here. The journal explores how ICTs can be used effectively to prevent, manage and resolve crisis to the benefit of peace and security.

This issue features an article on ICT4Peace I wrote in my capacity as Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation on the launch of ICT4Peace: An International Process for Conflict Management at the United Nations, New York, on 15th November 2007.

The issue also contains an excellent essay by Chamindra de Silva on Humanitarian FOSS, a field of research and practice that he and his team, responsible for Sahana, have helped define globally.

Related articles and posts

On ICT4Peace launch at the UN in New York: 

On Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response using ICT

On Humanitarian FOSS:

Prevention Web: a new tool to increase knowledge on disaster risk reduction

Prevention Web

The UN/ISDR secretariat is launching PreventionWeb.net, a new website for increasing knowledge sharing on disaster risk reduction (DRR) issues, for both the general public – including media and teachers – and DRR specialists, on 15 November.

“Information and knowledge are key to reducing disasters, and this new tool will facilitate the sharing of information, expertise and experience. Prevention Web will be a reference for experts, practitioners and all people interested in building resilience to natural hazards,” said Salvano Briceño, Director of the UN/ISDR secretariat in Geneva.

For the first time, a website will provide a common tool for both specialists and non-specialists interested or working in the area of disaster risk reduction (DRR) to connect, exchange experiences and share information at all levels of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction:  local to global, UN, international and non-governmental organizations to citizens and companies. Prevention Web is a product of many months of user research, information architecture, visual and technical design, and testing, to meet the needs of target audiences in this field.

Prevention Web relies on contributions from the DRR community and includes: disaster risk reduction news, country reports, publications, good practices, fact sheets, networks and communities, and more. The beta release period will emphasize content development by calling for contributions from the community at large – UN, international, non-governmental, academic, and civil society partners. The website will be managed by a dedicated team of seven information managers between Geneva, Panama City, Nairobi, Cairo, Bangkok, Kobe and Bonn.

DRR practitioners are invited to submit their contents online at: www.preventionweb.net/english/submit/

Craig Duncan, senior coordinator of the project, said “Prevention Web is expected to become an indispensable tool for practitioners working to build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters, much like Relief Web has served the humanitarian response community in the effective delivery of emergency assistance.”

For more about the project, visit: www.preventionweb.net/english/about/ or contact: Craig Duncan, duncanc@un.org. Prevention Web will organize a press briefing later this year to explain to media and the public at large how they can use the tool to facilitate their coverage and understanding of disasters.

New media mantras

The UN +5 OCHA Symposium was another instance where the power of new media (Web 2.0, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, wikis, SMSs and that sort of thing) was repeatedly touted as an innovation that would change the face of humanitarian response as we know it.

The heady optimism of a revolution in humanitarian affairs using mobile phones is tempered by others who caution against seeing them as a panacea to all that ails aid work today. However, in general, there is consensus that mobile communications helps, in a way never possible before, the humanitarians speak with affected communities and vice versa. My colleague Nalaka Gunewardene has posted a hilarious account of a new media tsunami that is actually quite revealing in the attitudes of the humanitarian community represented at the +5 Symposium and their understanding of and approach to new media (save for a few on Panel 5, the rest were largely oblivious to the manner in which these technologies were changing crisis communications and emergency response).

Neha Vishwanathan, from Global Voices Online, made what I thought was a superb presentation on new media, the video of which on the Symposium website unfortunately does not capture her Powerpoint slides (though they are available separately here).

It’s not however an easy road to mainstream mobiles and new media into sustainable, timely and useful humanitarian action. As I note in Citizen Journalism and humanitarian aid: Bane or boon?:

However, success stories such as this run the risk of romanticising the gravity of problems that bedevil post-conflict democratic reform. The deep-rooted power of politicians in rigid social structures, casteism, a clientelist political architecture, rampant nepotism and corruption, among others, temper the progressive social transformation promised by the New Media and Citizen Journalism in particular. Scalability is another problem – projects that show great potential when funded often join a graveyard of well-intentioned initiatives when the funding dries up. Countries such as Sri Lanka are still bedevilled by the lack of standards based swabhasha data input frameworks that in turn strangle the awareness and growth of new media content, such as blogs, in Sinhala and Tamil. As a result, contrary to its moniker, citizen journalism today shows an urban bias, is mediated in English and, inescapably, elite. This will need to change and soon.

Nalaka’s proposed new (and traditional) media as a “conscience” of aid workers, which I broadly agree with. Given the traditional media’s own bias, constraints and ownership, I don’t know how effective it will be in this role, but citizen journalism that adheres to professional standards is certainly a way forward in this regard, particularly in holding aid workers and processes accountable to beneficiaries.

While repressive governments as well as many aid organisations can and will attempt to curtail the growth of content that criticises their work and service delivery, it is inevitable that beneficiaries are going to use technologies such as mobile phones to speak directly with the rest of the world. And while this conversation may be raw, it’s an important development that challenges the control of information by a few.

A conversation with one of the best known thought-leaders in citizen journalism, Dan Gilmor, during Strong Angel III brought out a number of points in the use of new media in humanitarian aid:

Dan emphasised the point that new media does not in any way take away from an emphasis of traditional media in disaster relief. Both old and new media he felt had equally important roles to play. He cautioned against the cacophony of citizen journalism – the tragedy of the commons as he called it, where information anarchy led to the distrust of citizen journalism driven information generation and dissemination and generally fed to the chaos in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Instead, he said, citizens journalism and new media needed to strengthen the relief process by providing decisions makers with information from the grassroots.

Listen to the full podcast of our conversation here.

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.

Also read:

Humanitarian information systems: Ethics, information protection and “information DNA”

One of the discussions that cropped up in the working group on Innovation and also at the Plenary at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium was the ethics of information sharing in humanitarian aid systems. I for one find it hard to believe that we are bereft of the information needed for timely and sustainable humanitarian action. The essential challenge is three fold – oftentimes the significant lack of progressive political will, information overload and its corollary, information exchange systems that are extremely poor in their ability to leverage information and transform data to knowledge.

Addressing the first is beyond the scope of this post and looking into the future, I was in particular concerned with challenges to information security posed by the ubiquity of location and presence aware devices, ranging from mobile phones with built with GPS to RFID tags that can now even be implanted inside humans.

As the article on RFID notes, the ethical use of technology such as RFID, particularly for humanitarian aid, is an area that is as yet ill-defined and for which there is little or no interest at present. This is fundamentally because of the growth of so many new technologies that need, in some way, to be tested amongst beneficiaries of aid before they are touted as proven technologies. The +5 Symposium’s Innovation Working Group recognised this and cautioned against the use of new technologies in mission critical scenarios:

We shouldn’t experiment with unproven technologies during the critical phases of the emergency response; and better preparedness of: personnel, systems, infrastructure, and data improves the effectiveness and timeliness of the response while allowing for innovation

Nigel Snoad, one of the best known thought-leaders of humanitarian information systems design currently with the Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group (LinkedIn Profile) and one time head of the UN Joint Logistics Centre in Rome, Italy and I had a fascinating exchange on the topic of ethical information sharing that to me still defines this emergent field of study.

Titled How much information should we share in peacebuilding and humanitarian operations? I proposed the idea of “information DNA”, akin to the semantic web and RDF:

Future technologies may also look into something akin to information DNA – invisible yet system wide meta-tags that clearly indicate when records were gathered, by whom, for what purpose. These tags can then be tracked, so as to ensure that information gathered for humanitarian relief is never used for active combat operations, however valuable such information may be for offensive / defensive operations.

My post was in response to one of Nigel’s posted on the Strong Angel III website and contains a number of points that will be of vital interest to humanitarian aid workers, humanitarian system architects and information protection experts based on my field experience of designing, deploying and managing complex, mission critical applications for peacebuilding, peace process support and human rights monitoring.