GPS Humanitarianism

Technology makes it easier to bring aid to war-torn countries—but harder to connect to people.

Humanitarian programs are increasingly relying on GPS in places like Somalia

In the summer of 2007, Tim, a veteran U.N. humanitarian specialist, began a daunting new job: to help people caught in the mounting violence of Iraq.   But instead of moving to Iraq, he was dispatched to the dusty Jordanian capital, Amman, 500 miles away from Baghdad. From 2003-08, the U.N. highly restricted the Iraqi travel of any “nonessential” foreign national staff. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and these limitations prompted swift innovation in technologies that enabled remotely located U.N. employees to work in Iraq from afar.

Today in Somalia, as then in Iraq, high-intensity violence limits the ability of U.N. and international NGO workers to move around the country safely. Enter Skype and GPS, which have become critical tools for advancing humanitarian and development programs. Yet while technology ensures the safety of U.N. foreign national staff and allows aid to reach more people in need, it complicates the relationship between international workers and the locals contracted by these organizations to carry out fieldwork in war zones.

Amman was once jokingly referred to among U.N. staffers as “Iraq west.” Concerned about safety following the Canal Hotel bombing in August 2003 that killed U.N. Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others, the organization withdrew most of its staff. By October, it relocated the majority of its 600 foreign national employees to Amman, leaving behind a skeleton crew of fewer than 50 staff ensconced in International Zones in Baghdad (formerly the Green Zone), Basra, and Erbil. International NGOs followed the U.N. lead. This was not the first time the U.N. launched a campaign from a neighboring country: Various degrees of remoteness characterized operations in other high-conflict areas historically, as in the late 1990s when U.N. operations in southern Sudan were based in northern Kenya, or in Congo when U.N. staff lived in the country but worked remotely in certain zones. Today, Nairobi is the hub of humanitarian operations in Somalia.

In Jordan during the first five years of the Iraq war, U.N. administrators directed more than 4,000 Iraqi nationals—called “facilitators”—to implement projects on the ground. In Somalia now, as it was in Iraq then, it is the national “facilitators” who collect the data to populate housing-survey databases by talking with village residents and visiting schools, who use GPS to follow movements of the internally displaced as they flee erupting violence, and who dole out the blankets, water purifiers, and mattresses according to the Skype-communicated plans. Humanitarians I consulted for this story unanimously referred to Iraqi and Somali nationals as “the eyes and ears” of their operations. They alone can sit with newly homeless families to ask about their personal experience of flight, and they alone can convey to remote humanitarians the wrenching experience of life under fire. Technology facilitates remote management, but it is the human quality that national staffers bring to bear in the field that underwrites its effectiveness.

Using GPS means that humanitarians like Dana Graber Ladek, a former Iraq displacement specialist at the International Organization for Migration (a U.N.-affiliated NGO), can document specific needs, pinpoint them on a map, and disseminate this information broadly across agencies, thereby increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian operations overall.

Technology can also be instrumental in changing U.N. policy. When Tim arrived in Amman in 2007, the United Nations prioritized funding the needs of internally displaced populations and refugees. Tim observed that often the most vulnerable communities in Iraq had not moved; they simply did not have the resources to leave their homes. Yet because they were not displaced, these communities were excluded from humanitarian programs. Tim created a database to track living conditions with a wider range of variables over a greater period of time. When he arrived in 2007 he had $700,000 to support humanitarian programs. Within two years of building the database, Tim raised $75 million to assist communities based not on status, but need.

While these technologies have been immensely valuable, there are critical downsides that trouble NGO and U.N. workers. Perhaps most troubling: It can expose on-the-ground facilitators to danger. One U.N. staffer based in Nairobi told me about using GPS technologies to direct Somali national employees to work in particular locations. In these situations, GPS must be used cautiously. Being caught with a fancy gadget could publicly expose Somalis working secretly for international organizations. Such collaboration could be deadly in al-Shabaab controlled territory, as it has often been in Iraq: In 2007, Iraqis working with the United States and with international organizations braved kidnapping, threats and intimidation, and office raids by militia.

On a more fundamental level, remote management can result in disconnect between those on the ground and those elsewhere. In 2006 and 2007, I conducted Ph.D. research on a remotely managed NGO project to restore Iraq’s southern marshes. Early on, I visited a U.N. partner program in Geneva that used remote sensing (satellite diagnostics of the earth) to map and evaluate the ecosystem’s recovery. There, U.N. scientists, who had never been to Iraq, trained young Iraqi nationals to run the project. Iraqis struggled to master in two weeks a complex science typically taught over several university semesters. At the same time, they had to cope with anxieties about whether family and friends were surviving daily explosions. U.N. scientists reached out to their Iraqi colleagues, but had no personal context to understand their anguish and emphasized how important it was to finish the training. One Iraqi student exclaimed in the middle of class, “This is really bad. There’s no way we are going to learn like this.” Her teacher, equally frustrated, replied, “It’s impossible!”

Today the U.N. and international NGOs are moving back into Iraq in greater numbers. But technology remains critical to their operations. Under U.N. mandate, these foreign workers must use an armed military convoy every time they leave International Zones. These convoys blur the lines between military and humanitarian operations, further limiting the ability of foreign humanitarians to work safely outside of compounds. It is a vicious circle: U.N. policy itself underscores the need for technologically enhanced remoteness. So agencies are expanding technological initiatives. IOM programs will upgrade to an Android-based integrated phone, high-resolution camera, and GPS device at $700 apiece to speed the collection and dissemination of field data. Fortunately, GPS is no longer so dangerous for Iraqis to use.

Lately, the technology blogosphere has hyped the expansive use of unmanned aerial vehicles for humanitarian purposes: For instance, a proposal called Matternet would use drones to deliver aid to locations that are difficult to reach, whether because they are dangerous or physically inaccessible. But humanitarian endeavors in Iraq and Somalia suggest that virtually any technological innovation that facilitates remote operations will require nationals to play a vital role in distributing aid, identifying needs, and mediating relationships between locals and distant international organizations. It is nationals who bear the burden of violence associated with extending humanitarian initiatives throughout high-conflict areas. Even in the most altruistic of programs, this structure supports the power of foreign leadership in areas of conflict and sharpens existing inequalities between nationals who live and work in war zones and the foreign staff who direct them. Humanity has not been erased from this system; it is managed. Should cheaper technology make such remote humanitarianism more common, international groups will have to continue the work begun in Somalia and Iraq to keep intact the personal connection between those on the ground and those far away.