Bhakti Shringarpure

Patrick Meier’s book, Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response, begins with an impressive seven pages of joyfully laudatory blurbs from a motley crew of professors, think-tank directors, heads of humanitarian organizations, policy advisors and media experts. The book is predicated on the notion that digital, computerized engagement with crises is going to completely change the lives-saving industry, so I thought it à propos to apply some computations of my own.

Within the seven pages of praise, the word “disaster” appears 15 times, the word “technology” 30 times, the words “explorer/exploring” eight times, the word “power” 10 times and our collective favorite, “revolution,” five times! 

It doesn’t take much expertise to discern the message of the book, as well as the tenor of its reception: a triumphant embrace of technological prowess and the deployment of a digital arsenal to change the face of humanitarianism today. Anyone engaged in the history and language of imperialism might feel the palpable and disturbing ideological implications of these words coming together and realize we are in the presence of a euphoric Digital Savior Complex. The colonial savior figure is alive and well, it seems. But the mode is now digital. 

Let's rewind.  

“Digital Humanitarian” is a term coined by Meier in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. It first appeared in his blog, iRevolutions: From Innovations to Revolutions, which he later turned into the book. Meier created an impressive digital crisis map using tweets, text messages and emails to track population movements and the spread of aid. He managed thousands of remote volunteers who aided in tracking and mapping humanitarian needs online. 

Soon enough, the war in Libya in 2011 invited similar uses of communication technology and organization of data. 

Meier and his digital humanitarians were off to the races...

“Anyone can be a digital humanitarian, absolutely no experience necessary; all you need is a big heart and access to the Internet,” he writes. 

Meier refers to those who step up as Digital Humanitarians, Digital Samaritans, even Digital Jedis, using colloquialisms and pop culture references to offer a perception of accessibility to individuals unskilled in the profession of humanitarianism or disaster relief operations. In a back cover description of the book, he asks and answers the following:

"Who exactly are these Digital Humanitarians? They’re you, me, all of us. Digital Humanitarians are volunteers and professionals from the world over and from all walks of life. What do they share in common? The desire to make a difference, and they do by rapidly mobilizing online in collaboration with international humanitarian organizations."

Meier’s book is a rousing manifesto urging readers not to feel alone or worthless, to go ahead and “like” something on Facebook, donate money, and if they so wish, donate time “to support rescue efforts even while we’re on a bus commuting to work on the other side of the planet.” He even suggests that technology "can amplify our humanity.” The focus here is on magnifying and highlighting the role that the individual savior can play in the large-scale disasters in an altogether different part of the planet.

The field and practice of humanitarianism has arrived at a fairly intense turning point. While the institutional, governmental, possibly global nature of humanitarianism continues to grow, there is also a distinct shift towards a more individualized practice. As a result, humanitarian acts are rapidly becoming banalized, popularized and commodified, and this has its roots in age of the digital. 

While Meier’s work focuses primarily on the challenges of managing big data, I would argue that digital humanitarianism encompasses much more. It has turned into a vast network of professionals, for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, individual moral actors and digital and technological initiatives. The digital has now become a vital component for doing humanitarian work. The creation of new types of jobs within INGOs is one indicator of this trend. Amnesty International, for example, has a Chief Digital Officer; Médecins Sans Frontières conducted a job search for Digital Fundraising Officer; and Human Rights Watch employs a Digital Director. 

Furthermore, the vast arrays of medias and platforms being deployed by institutions, individuals and non-institutional communities in the field of humanitarianism are staggering, to say the least. These include Twitter and Facebook campaigns, mass email blasts, listserves that include thousands of subscribers and crowdfunding platforms. While these would be seen as old school, the cooler and hipper implements include humanitarian apps, humanitarian drones and crisis-themed video games. 

There are certainly humanitarian apps which provide valuable information on regions experiencing conflicts or natural disasters for professionals who work in the field. However, a more perturbing set of apps include those that target the individual moral actor. For example, the Instead app describes itself as follows: “This ‘micro donations, macro impact’ app is all about tapping into our everyday choices. The app clearly displays the impact of your choice -- so in lieu of your regular store-bought coffee, those few dollars could provide a South Sudanese child with clean water for a year.” Or, the Donate a Photo app wherein, “Johnson & Johnson has harnessed our relentless photo-sharing mania and turned it into something for the greater good.” 

There are also micro-donation apps which make sure that every time you’re having drinks at a happy hour, part of your money can be spent getting clean water to someone, somehow, somewhere...elsewhere. In fact, the Politics of Elsewhere is being perfected to the point that an individual user can “make a difference” without being burdened by any of the gory details of the crisis at hand. There is a deliberate attempt to prevent any feelings of heaviness or sadness by erasing any attempts to, god forbid, evoke genuine empathy or compassion. 

Humanitarian drones are an additional pandora’s box. Just last year, the United Nation’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) circulated an internal Occasional Policy Paper titled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Humanitarian Response exploring the humanitarian potential of drones. Unsurprisingly, they thank none other than Patrick Meier for allowing them to compile the document. The first order of the day is to change hearts and minds, to force the general public to see drones’ civilian and humanitarian purposes, and not just associate them with military combat. In fact, as the report states: “The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) recently began using its own long-range UAVs for reconnaissance and data-gathering tasks, and has made these capacities available to humanitarian agencies.” 

Video games have also become a grand focus for humanitarian organizations, and Wikipedia lists 23 such humanitarian games targeted to raise awareness among youth and children. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has shown special initiative in developing more games, and has signed a partnership with the video game developer Bohemia Interactive. Their game ARMA 3 was used as an audio-visual pedagogical aid to educate members of the armed forces and non-state armed groups on the legal framework of war, and was “successfully used in countries like Myanmar, Philippines, Israel, China, Malaysia, Syria and Iraq and also for internal ICRC training.” The ICRC also recently invested in a virtual pet, Argi the intergalactic goat explorer, to aid in American Red Cross fundraising efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa.

This is the Digital Savior Complex showing its full, radical – or rather reactionary – potential. Why is any or all of this problematic? 

Well, for starters, technology is not neutral.

The Digital Savior Complex openly embraces technological determinism, the narrow idea that technology determines the progress of societies as well as the progress of their moral and cultural values. Ideas of progress, modernization and civilization are projected as universal goals to aspire to without taking into account simple questions such as: Who controls technology? Who stands to benefit from technology? Who profits from it? How do governments deploy technology in order to manipulate geopolitical interests? 

The particular kind of neutrality associated with digital humanitarianism is quite dangerous. To be detached from the cause you claim to support, to spread information without quite asking what this does and, more importantly, to never quite find out where and how your money is traveling and to what end it is being used is an utter travesty. 

While Patrick Meier’s work claims the origins of digital humanitarianism with Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, I would argue that its origins are much older, and that sometimes the worst and best things always begin in Africa. 

Digital modes were first implemented during the creation, dissemination and promotion of the Save Darfur campaign, often projected as one of the most dire humanitarian crises, and even termed the “21st Century’s Genocide.” 

Reading Mahmood Mamdani’s singularly brilliant book on the subject, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, allows the reader to cut through the frenzy around Save Darfur with great rigor and precision. But Mamdani does not expressly speak of the ways in which the digital impacted activism around the conflict in Sudan. A significant portion of his work centers around his frustration with the highly curated commodification of Darfur, coupled with the way in which media and technology were used in this campaign. I believe there are three factors that turned this campaign into a specifically digital phenomenon: the strategic use of numbers; the image-centric nature of the entire campaign; and the targeting of youth. This is an indispensible triad if the intention is to popularize the cause or, actually, if you want it to “go viral.” Which it did.

The Save Darfur campaign was marked by aestheticized images, the constant tick-tock of body counts and numbers of dead, and the incredibly successful mobilization of university students. The use of Google Earth, the world’s largest Facebook campaign and the video games such as Darfur is Dying (trailer below) were only pieces in the extraordinary digital machinery.

Save Darfur illustrates the deeply disturbing relationship between the digital and neoliberal ideology. By 2007, Save Darfur was a glossy brand, and according to Mamdani, it was successfully and subtly employed to fuel the War on Terror, deflect from American activism around the war in Iraq (Yes, what activism? Read the book!) and manipulate oil contracts in neighboring Sudan and Chad. 

But there is some good news. 

As we encounter the new mammoth that I am calling the Digital Savior Complex, we are also experiencing the rapid evolution of a resistant digitality. The viral #KONY2012 scandal also gave birth to a viral resistance to that scandal, making certain ideas commonplace and commonsensical: notions that this campaign may do more harm than good, that such forms of digital activism must be debated, that this campaign highlights western nonchalance in the depiction of African issues, and so on. 

As we enter a sort of golden era of indy e-zines and talking back to the media becomes commonplace, less and less is being tolerated. There is an opportunity to pay real attention to how knowledge and representations are being produced. And there are examples in which the digital has been used to supplement or circumvent cumbersome government and NGO aid networks, as was recently seen among the Nepali diaspora mobilizing in the United States to assist relatives after the earthquake.

But this is not enough. The truth is that the Digital Savior Complex is a tough machine to break down and our relationship with it will only deepen in the coming years. More than anyone else, I would urge individual and institutional practitioners of humanitarianism to think through the digital humanitarianism nexus and really question the enormous ramifications of this new technology-driven landscape imposed upon people and societies under duress.

This article is excerpted from a longer, unpublished manuscript entitled "Africa and the Digital Savior Complex."

Bhakti Shringarpure is editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.