Paper: Outsourcing accountability: Private firms, extractive practice and digital distancing in the humanitarian sector

Paper details

Paper authors Stephanie Diepeveen, John Bryant, Mahad Wasuge
In panel on Ctrl Shift? Exploring the impacts of digital change on power and accountability in humanitarian aid
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person & Online


Over the past decade, as part of a wider concern for accountability on humanitarian delivery, donors have increasingly contracted private third-party firms to monitor and evaluate humanitarian activities. This paper interrogates power dynamics surrounding data-driven third-party monitoring in humanitarian activity, and their normative implications within a sector aimed at wellbeing. Its contribution is twofold. First, taking a political economy perspective, it maps practices and justifications around contracted monitoring firms’ use of data, looking across the data lifecycle in the case of humanitarian delivery in Somalia. Second, it examines the implications of these practices in the context of humanitarian principles. By contrasting practices and power dynamics around data use, with humanitarian aims for accountability to communities, this paper suggests there are fundamental contradictions between current practice and the sector’s commitments to be accountable to aid recipients. We discuss four key ways this tension is materialising: i) mistrust of human relationships as innately ‘biased’ and compromising objectivity; ii) distancing of data interpretation from the local actors that collect it and the contexts from which it is extracted; iii) effective de-humanisation of locally sub-contracted firms and enumerators, as nodes in data collection exercises; and iv) externalisation of risks to under-supported local actors.