Digital Developments: Harbingers of Humanitarian Change?

WRC Research Paper No. 15

June 4, 2019

Refugee crises, with millions of people seeking safety by fleeing across national borders, are unfolding amid increasingly intensive use of information and communication technologies. Mobile phones are indispensable digital companions to many people forced to flee their homes. Humanitarian organizations use biometrics, database and mobile payment systems, and artificial intelligence, aiming to streamline their services, enhance accountability and reduce costs.

These technologies have arguably improved refugees’ lives, and by some measures, improved assistance, yet they can also generate harms. While people are fleeing, information stored on their phones can make them targets for interrogation and torture. Easy access to disinformation can increase their vulnerability to fraud. The phones themselves can become infected with viruses and spyware, compromising sensitive information or impinging upon privacy. Humanitarian agencies’ use of complex information systems can create other vulnerabilities.

The author analyzes three digital trends with the potential to create profound changes, perhaps even to redraw the boundaries of what constitutes “protection,” a notion upon which the humanitarian system is based. Understanding these developments is critical for humanitarian leaders, public policy makers and academics to successfully inform and manage the shared responsibility of the protection of refugees and internally displaced people.

Part of Series

World Refugee Council Research Paper Series

Research papers are policy documents commissioned by the World Refugee Council from world-renowned experts to help inform the work of the Council and its final recommendations. The measures and concepts in these documents do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Refugee Council.

About the Author

Carleen Maitland is an associate professor and a co-director of the Institute for Information Policy in Pennsylvania State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology. She is an internationally recognized expert in humanitarian informatics, examining the socio-technical systems shaping flows of information in international aid.