July 2019

Platform Humanitarianism

By Karl Steinacker

Too often, the world is facing natural or man made disasters, such as earthquakes and wars. When this happens humanitarian aid kicks in and the victims receive life saving assistance. The ongoing digital transformation is about to change traditional ways of aid delivery: a sack of rice was yesterday - today smart cards and cash machines take over. In the following article the author will argue in favour of a functioning trust management system that provides sufficient levels of assurance of identities and serves as an important pre-requisite for the effective delivery of aid.

The world is changing and everybody is noticing it. What is not so clear is what is it changing to? The internet, new technologies, and artificial intelligence are main drivers of the ongoing transformation. Many attempts have been made to label the newly emerging situation: we have heard of the new economy, or digitalization. Enthusiasts call it sharing economy while more sceptical observers prefer the term gig economy.

Across a wide range of sectors, big firms are transforming themselves into platforms: businesses that provide the hardware and software foundation for others to operate on. Hence, I join those who use the terms platform capitalism or digital platform economy to describe this transformation. Companies operating as platforms are coordinating supply and demand of products and services that in their present form were previously unavailable on the market. But they are more than just internet marketplaces since they connect customers to whatever and wherever. That’s why these platforms are also called ‘ecosystem’ able to link potential customers to anything and anyone, from private individuals to multinational corporations. Everyone can become a supplier for all sorts of products and services at the click of a button.

With some delay, States and governments are also creating platforms that link their citizens to services. At the national level these platforms can be run as PPP and give access to both public services as well as local businesses. Internet marketplaces and digital platforms reduce (in most cases) transaction costs and replace the power of middlemen by even more powerful gatekeepers, i.e. the platform operators. This power, and the revenues it generates, is based on three key elements: data provided by the members and users of the platform, an ongoing algorithmic revolution and cloud computing.

Nick Srnicek, one of the main thinkers on the matter, observed that platforms are often criticized in the language of values which obscures the fact that the platform operators are first and foremost economic actors within the global economy. Likewise, Humanitarianism is defined in moral terms, as an informal ideology of practice that is purely value driven. However, humanitarian aid takes place in the same context of a globalized capitalist economy and a political landscape dominated by States and their strategic, economic, political, and sometimes military, interests. Thus, with platform capitalism and humanitarianism being part of the same reality, what is their relationship – both conceptually and practically?

The aid industry has developed a few inter-active portals, mainly for aid workers, such as OCHA’s Reliefweb and Devex, at times even a dating platform. There are only a few platforms that are relevant for the delivery of protection and aid, none of which really has a global reach. The most important one seems to me REFUNITE, with more than one million registered users, which helps refugees in finding missing family members. The ICRC and the national red cross and red crescent societies run a similar platform for which there are no user statistics available.

The foregoing examples are important showcases on how digital tools can contribute to protection objectives. However, they fall short of what commercial internet platform logic attempts to deliver: multi- purpose access and usages, linking demand and supply in scalable networks in order to interact and transact by using set of technological solutions on which other applications, processes or technologies are developed and built.

There are institutions that hold millions of personal data sets for humanitarian purposes, such as ICRC, WFP, and UNHCR. However, they are kept within the closed loop of each agency’s terms of reference and constitute a linear business model whereby their operations follow are well-described process of selection and delivery, using the agency’s linear supply chain. The data generated in this system is normally not even open and visible to the data subjects, i.e. the persons concerned and on which data has been collected. Where data has been used in a collaborative manner in order to deliver humanitarian assistance, such as in the Middle East, the platform logic and related technology was not applied. Rather, linear processes are run in parallel.

Platforms - as a commercial business model - generate revenues by facilitating exchanges between two or more interdependent groups, usually consumers and producers. Platforms – in a variation that suites the interests of both the aid recipient and the aid industry – should in addition aim at contributing to the objectives set in the “Grand Bargain” of the World Humanitarian Summit that took place in Istanbul in 2016, and which explicitly calls for a “global data platform to provide open and transparent data would help reduce transaction costs and increase effectiveness”. However, thus far, in the humanitarian industry, there is little tangible data available that is not based on delivery.

That is no to say that there is no data. Think of refugees: Any application that collects geodata can locate refugee camp residents, and so can GSM network operators that have built their towers in those camps. Wire transfer companies may obtain data on refugees and those who support them while, depending on the sophistication of the algorithms used, both social and commercial platforms will be able identify refugee places and individuals.

One might argue that technologies should not dictate the future and that, as a matter of principle, the aid industry is able to operate in different types of economies. However, I firmly believe that technological, economic and political imperatives eventually also frame the choices that will determine how humanitarian protection and assistance will be delivered in five, ten, or twenty years from now. The questions are, thus, on the table: If the aid industry were to apply the platform logic, what would the benefits be, in particular for the recipients of protection and aid? Can an algorithmically driven delivery of humanitarian assistance be compatible with the values the aid industry has adopted for itself? Hence, the need to define the key paradigms of the newly emerging Platform Humanitarianism, and the reorganization it portends:

  1. Free and voluntary membership. Potential recipients of protection and humanitarian aid have to give their informed consent to be included into the data bases on which the platform will be built. They must be able to scope and manage their membership. There must be clear and simple opt-in and opt-out possibilities and no disclosure beyond zero identity proofing. Aid recipients should have agency over their data. Ombudspersons and recourse systems should be available to mitigate conflicts and ensure the rights of the individual.

  2. The platform must have interfaces in a language that is mastered by the potential recipients of protection and humanitarian aid. For illiterate persons the use of icons and audio must eliminate the involvement of middlemen. Community centres assist those who would otherwise be unable to use the platform, in particular persons with disabilities, children, etc.

  3. From a user point of view, the platform should offer real choices, on what assistance they wish to receive. As a public-private partnership, it should provide opportunities to the recipients of aid to move beyond the confines of charity and to interact with private sector actors, academic institutions, etc. The platform should foster competition in the aid industry that improves services and outcomes for the potential recipients of aid and protection.

  4. A system of open algorithms and identity tokens should guarantee transparency as far as the identification and selection of potential recipients of humanitarian aid is concerned and at the same time protect the identity and privacy of the individuals concerned.

  5. A humanitarian platform should be linked to a trust framework10 whereby platform members could be able to obtain certifications of their legal and digital identities.

  6. As a managed and regulated platform, there must be effective enforcement of rules, constant monitoring and supervision of interaction between powerful institutions and companies on the one hand and aid recipients on the other hand. Legal and legitimate peer to peer interaction should not be restricted.

  7. The organizing principle of federation (rather than a system of central data storage), should help to avoid the amassing of data about potential recipients of humanitarian aid. In any event, no data on an identifiable person should be kept by any institution or company without sharing that very same data with the individual in question.

  8. But is the fact that business models promoting the platform economy are prevailing in the commercial world reason enough to predict that the same transformation will and should happen in the humanitarian world?

The current fragmentation of the aid industry is a result of the interests of their main actors which are pursuing mandate and turf driven exclusive relationships with a subset of persons in need of protection and assistance. There is little evidence that the objectives of the Grand Bargain are being implemented since that would require the application of the logic of the platform economy to those populations that have no purchasing power of their own and are dependent on hand outs. And it is exactly this lack of power by those who would benefit from competition and extended services which requires that the necessary disruption is imposed on the aid industry from the outside. There are prospects that once the current digital gold rush is replaced by more regulated approaches, the recipients of aid and protection can benefit from the logic of digital commercial platforms and digital citizens’ portals.

Karl Steinacker, is an experienced aid worker and currently the Digital Advisor of the International Civil Society Centre (www.icscentre.org) in Berlin, Germany.