Development and Humanitarian Sector

As development and humanitarian organisations deploy new technologies and make use of data-intensive systems in their programmes, they must consider what their mandate of “Doing no harm” entails in the digital age.


Development and humanitarian actors have a mandate to provide assistance and protect people in some of the world's most challenging political, social, economic, and technological environments. Over the past decade, they have been experiencing changes to their relationships with their beneficiaries and affected populations as well as their contexts of engagement including the pressure to be efficient and demands to be accountable, the need to gain and sustain access and proximity to beneficiaries and affected populations, and the urgency and immediacy of the response required, amongst others.

This means mean that they have had to re-think how they continue to effectively deliver their mandates as well as how they design and implement their modes of operations. These new modes of operations, and the new relationships they entail are increasingly mediated, enabled, enhanced, and limited by technologies. This all results in a significantly different set of risks, which currently many humanitarian actors are not prepared for, and must be addressed urgently.

There is no question that advancements in technology, communications and data-intensive systems have significantly changed the way development programmes are delivered and humanitarian assistance can be provided to ensure more people can benefit, more rapidly and more effectively. We are seeing the deployment of mass biometric systems for the registry of beneficiaries and the management of their access to aid, new technologies are being deployed for the delivery of aid programmes including automated decision-making and blockchain, and all of this within a general dominant discourse favouring the need for more data to better assist and respond to needs of beneficiaries. 

In this complex interplay of assessing the benefits and the challenges, it is necessary and urgent to understand how technology is modifying the protection of those assisted, and ultimately how this impact the ability of development and humanitarian organisations to undertake their mandate in an ever-challenging environment whilst abiding by the principle of “do not harm”.

What Is The Problem

Our analysis has led us to identify various areas of concern, including:

  1. Weak problem analysis: In a ‘dataholic’ environment there are internal and external drivers pushing the development and humanitarian sectors to adopt data-intensive, tech solutions without a clear understanding of the problem they are attempting to solve;
  2. Unpreparedness in the sector: The awareness of the need to protect an individual and their information/identity has been a core element of development and humanitarian programmes since their inception, and yet few realise what this means in a digital age. This poor knowledge means that whatever assessments are currently undertaken, if at all, are insufficient to understand the consequences of the solutions proposed, and therefore fail to flag the negative consequences which must be offset and the risks which should be considered;
  3. Increasing number of intermediaries: As they are not building the devices, networks and software on which they are becoming increasing reliant, humanitarian and development actors have to engage with an increasing number of intermediaries, primarily from the private sector. This means that they are subject to the business models of these companies and have little or no control over the data they process;
  4. Lack of transparency of the surveillance ecosystem: There continues to be little or no transparency of the surveillance ecosystem in the countries in which development and humanitarian programmes are being deployed.

What Is The Solution

Privacy International believes that there is a need to rethink development and humanitarian programming to ensure that the rights and data of individuals are protected, and that beneficiaries and affected populations are not subject to additional risks unnecessarily, or even recklessly. 

There is an urgency for actors, those implementing, funding and driving, to understand the risks that come with the opportunities they are trying to harness. They cannot continue to blindly trust that data and technology will solve all of the challenges they are facing, nor can they implement data-intensive and tech-reliant solutions without being equipped to understand how they work, the associated risks and challenges, and what must be done to mitigate, transfer, or accept those risks.

  • Development and humanitarian organisations must have comprehensive privacy, data protection, and technical policies as well as effective enforcement mechanisms to ensure that they continue to deliver their mandate whilst protecting people, and are not instead exposing them to risks;
  • The donor community must be alerted to ensure they integrate privacy, risk and humanrights assessments within their decision-making processes and be guided by these findings to influence who, what and how they fund;
  • Any third parties which provide 'solutions' must ensure the design is customised and adequate for the needs, contexts and expectations of the development and humanitarian actors which seek their help, and robust tech, policy and legal safeguards must be put in place to prevent them from unlawfully processing the personal data of individuals which receive assistance;
  • There must be more transparency and accountability on the surveillance policies and practices of States which host development and humanitarian programmes, and where corporate intermediaries, which are operating in the development and humanitarian ecosystem, are established. 

What PI Is Doing

PI is undertaking various activities with the aim of supporting development and humanitarian actors to deliver their mandate whilst protecting people. In the short term as we continue to develop our expertise in this area, we are:

  • Working with development and humanitarian actors to analyse their current policies and practices, assess the current risks and threats, and where possible guide them in the design and implementation of new programmes;
  • Investigating the datadriven business models, practices and policies of companies which provide goods and services to development and humanitarian actors to map the privacy and security risks and threats;
  • Raising awareness amongst the international donor community of the risks and challenges we have identified and calling on them to adopt measures to ensure any decisionmaking processes consist of the necessary assessments;
  • Continuing to expose state surveillance policies and practices which fall short of international human rights standards and which mean development and humanitarian actors may be evolving in a broader ecosystem of mass, indiscriminate surveillance.