‘Humanitarian technology’ and ‘Technology justice’

by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah
2 November 2013

Sunday the 13 October was the International Day for Disaster Reduction 2013. Later that week on Thursday, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched its World Disasters Report 2013.

Between these two dates, Asia had a very busy week! Cyclone Phailin devastated the east coast of India (on the 12th), 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook the central Philippines (on the 15th), while Typhoon Wipha hit south-east of Japan (on the 16th).

The latest World Disasters Report explores the roles and impacts of technological innovations on humanitarian actions. Needless to say, ‘humanitarian technologies’ not only help in disaster response, but also in preparedness, prevention, mitigation, recovery and rebuilding efforts. Evacuation of nearly 1 million people from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh (India) before 220-km/h Phailin hit is the recent-most example of saving lives through disseminating early warnings and guiding people to safer places.

IFRC’s new report puts information and communication technology (ICT) at the heart of humanitarian technologies. It draws examples from recent major disasters − from Haiti to Bangladesh − where digital technologies effectively helped humanitarian responses. Successful management of recent calamities in India, the Philippines or Japan may make the similar list in the future.

When Henry Dunant established the International Committee of the Red Cross 150 years back, medical services without antibiotics or anesthesia and trained volunteers were the cutting-edge technologies in humanitarian actions. Although the IFRC took a technology-equals-ICT approach, its 283-page-long report shows that – by using text messages or satellite imagery or social media − we have come a long way since.

In this progressively digitized world, there remain other dimensions and perceptions of disaster-related vulnerabilities and technological solutions. Raising homestead plinth above the ‘last highest flood level’ still remains a crucial technology for a poor family living in the middle of a floodplain. Increasing uncertainty in timing and amount of rainfall in the recent years is making traditional flood preparedness techniques less effective.

IFRC’s latest report admits that discussions on technology in the humanitarian arena apparently do not contain accountability, transparency and efficiency − the key aspects of existing humanitarian governance. This absence is considered as one of the major limitations of humanitarian technologies. This may also make some humanitarian actors and disaster-affected communities being cynic about using new technologies in disaster situation.

This interaction among people, technologies and systems can also be seen from a ‘technology justice’ point of view. ‘Technology justice’ is the right of people to decide, to choose and to use technologies that help them to lead the life they value, but without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

Innovation and promotion of humanitarian technologies, therefore, always need to put people in the centre. There should also be a mechanism to receive feedback from the technology users. The technology development system, often led by non-humanitarian actors, should be responsive to these feedbacks to improve the technologies, thus the humanitarian efforts.

The latest IFRC’s World Disasters Report proposes an innovation-evaluation-diffusion cycle for deploying humanitarian technologies. The problems and contexts related to hazards give us the opportunity for technological innovations. But, before going for wider adoption and scaling up, evaluation of these innovations is an important step to pass through. This is expected to minimize the technological risks; and possible tension between traditional humanitarians and ‘tech-savvy’, new humanitarians.

With increasing dominance of technologies in our lives, I echo Kristin Sandvik of the PRIO, are we ready to redefine humanitarian actions and the humanitarians?

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at haseeb.irfanullah@practicalaction.org.bd                                                                     [This post was originally published on Practical Action Blog]