From Principle to Practice: Humanitarian Innovation and Experimentation

Essay by Sean Martin McDonald, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, & Katja Lindskov Jacobsen in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Humanitarian organizations have an almost impossible task: They must balance the imperative to save lives with the commitment to do no harm. They perform this balancing act amidst chaos, with incredibly high stakes and far fewer resources than they need. It’s no wonder that new technologies that promise to do more with less are so appealing.

By now, we know that technology can introduce bias, insecurity, and failure into systems. We know it is not an unalloyed good. What we often don’t know is how to measure the potential for those harms in the especially fragile contexts where humanitarians work. Without the tools or frameworks to evaluate the credibility of new technologies, it’s hard for humanitarians to know whether they’re having the intended impact and to assess the potential for harm. Introducing untested technologies into unstable environments raises an essential question: When is humanitarian innovation actually human subjects experimentation?

Humanitarians’ use of new technologies (including biometric identification to register refugees for relief, commercial drones to deliver cargo in difficult areas, and big data-fueled algorithms to predict the spread of disease) increasingly looks like the type of experimentation that drove the creation of human subjects research rules in the mid-20th century. In both examples, Western interests used untested approaches on African and Asian populations with limited consent and even less recourse. Today’s digital humanitarians may be innovators, but each new technology raises the specter of new harms, including biasing public resources with predictions over needs assessment, introducing coordination and practical failures through unique indicators and incompatible databases, and significant legal risks to both humanitarians and their growing list of partners….(More)”.