The International Humanitarian Studies Association is a network engaged with the study of humanitarian crises caused by natural disaster, conflict or political instability.

Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Reduction of Humanitarian Independence

Submitted by Martin Searle
For panel Responsible Innovation: One Step Forward-Two Steps Back

Fourth industrial revolution technologies are being tested and adopted at a significant rate in humanitarian emergency response. However, the crossing of physical, biological and informational domains that characterises these technologies threatens the independence of humanitarian organisations. This is occurring in an environment in which the value and purpose of independence is already seriously questioned both in practice and in principle. This paper argues the loss of independence stems from two related trends. First, several fourth industrial revolution technologies are improving the capacity of humanitarian organisations to gather, synthesise and analyse data, resulting in the production of information of increasingly strategic political or military value. Second, the cyber component of these technologies simultaneously renders that information more vulnerable to unauthorised access by third parties with relevant political, military or economic agendas. This parallels the “capability/vulnerability paradox” identified in literature discussing cybersecurity in relation to the military or so-called Smart Cities. In humanitarian settings, this paradox increases the likelihood of humanitarian actors functioning as appendages of other organisations. This loss of independence potentially has operational implications relating to access, and material impact on the ongoing debate around the importance of independence in humanitarian work.