Disarmament Insight


Monday, 6 August 2007

0800-HOW-IS-MY-DIPLOMACY? Technology and humanitarian action

Regular readers of the Disarmament Insight blog will have gathered that, among many things, we're interested in the impacts of technology on international decision-making. Patricia Lewis, for instance, has offered some of her personal observations about the changes mobile phones and Blackberries have wrought on interactions in multilateral meetings she's attended (See "Zapped! Mobile technology in the conference chamber").

There seems little doubt that continued improvements to wireless communications have radical implications for the coordination of international activities at many different levels.

For instance, The Economist newspaper ran a story on 26 July entitled "Flood, Famine and Mobile Phones". In it, the Economist argued that technology is transforming humanitarian relief - and shifting the balance of power between donors and recipients.

It all sounds great. But the Economist conceded that - beyond anecdotal evidence - there isn't a definitive verdict yet on how much of a difference such new technologies have made in achieving more effective humanitarian aid delivery.

Nevertheless, the evidence has been compelling enough to result in a brace of new initiatives. Non-Governmental Organizations have begun forming consortiums like NetHope, which spreads the cost of satellite communications and internet links. UN agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Programme have taken a particular interest in trying to achieve practical benefits in aid delivery from better communications, activities which should (in principle at least) result in superior coordination.

Meanwhile, even in the poorest parts of the world, technologies like mobile telephony are increasingly widespread. It's likely that such technologies really do have the capacity to transform aid delivery in some disaster situations - if donors and deliverers of aid are willing to listen to feedback from aid recipients and, of course, if the technological infrastructure itself still works or can be made to work in the midst of the disaster (a big "if" indeed, and glossed over by The Economist).

There's also another, deeper, point here. Quite often, there's a temptation to think of disaster victims as passive beneficiaries of aid, who should be grateful for anything they get. This attitude has to change: the ability of affected people on the ground (or in the flood water) to contribute to the information loop and decision making about their own welfare is crucial to improving responses to disasters, whether natural, man-made or conflict-related. Packages dropped to people from relief helicopters are only aid if they're what those people actually need. (The Economist noted the NGO Save the Children's finding that, in some recent humanitarian relief situations, victims would prefer cash help to food hand-outs.)

In other words, accountability is important, even in apparent situations of altruistic giving like disaster relief. Accountability is something we would do well to bear in mind in disarmament and arms control. In a recent book, former British diplomat Carne Ross argued that diplomats are a largely "unaccountable elite", who often don't take into account the interests of those they are supposed to be helping or representing, drawing on his personal experiences in the UN Security Council setting.

It's possible Ross over-states his case in parts. But in multilateral arms control there does sometimes seem to be a considerable distance between negotiators and those affected by lack of multilateral results, for instance on controls on small arms or the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions.

It's a bit like the white van driver who may not care if she drives inconsiderately or even dangerously. The vehicle she drives belongs to the business she works for - it's hard to identify her or make her accountable. So in places like the United States, lots of business vehicles now come with a "how am I driving?" sign on them along with a hotline telephone number. Is 0800-HOW-IS-MY-DIPLOMACY? connected to a television hotline or Parliament maybe?

One question we perhaps need to ask is this: How - beyond their convenience - can new technologies make decision makers more accountable, and therefore more effective in achieving disarmament and humanitarian goals? Domestic electorates know remarkably little about what their diplomatic representatives do on their behalf overseas, and might be surprised at the degree of preoccupation of multilateral practitioners with process. Voices from the field therefore need to be heard and heeded more often.

John Borrie


The Economist, "Flood Famine and Mobile Phones", 26 July 2007

Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches From an Unaccountable Elite, London: Hurst: 2007.

Photo (Namibia: Helicopter rescues people from flood hit areas, Image ID: 20044304) courtesy of IRIN.