Challenges in the digital age to humanitarian NGOs' functionality and legitimacy as global governance actor

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: International Politics


With natural disasters and man-made conflicts continuing to define global spaces, NGOs delivering aid and assistance are tasked with helping growing numbers of people affected by these life-changing events. Deployed to some of the most challenging environments imaginable to deliver life-saving services to affected populations, aid organizations rely on information or 'data' from the field to complete their missions successfully (Gilman, 2014; Vannini, Gomez & Clayton Newell, 2019). The majority of this data, which is subsequently shared with others within an organization as well as with implementing partners and other third parties, is in part comprised of personal information from the beneficiary community and may include a person's religion, nationality and political affiliations amongst other identifiers. Although the digital age has empowered NGOs to prepare, plan and analyze more effective responses to humanitarian crises using the data that they collect from the field (Gilman, 2014; Vannini, Gomez & Clayton Newell, 2019), NGOs are equally challenged by their power to influence what this new age presents. The role of NGOs as mediators, gathering and sharing information about and between communities puts them in a unique position to build relationships with all kinds of actors operating in a crisis zone (Le Blond et al., 2014; Stapley, 2014). Yet, managing this 'complex set of relationships' (Jacobs & Wilford, 2010, p.799) could pull NGOs further away from the core humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality to which they subscribe as well as from their legitimacy as global governance actors.
Recognizing the pivotal role played by NGOs and their close-knit contact with politically and ideologically volatile regions and persons, government intelligence agencies have publicly indicated their interest in building relationships with NGOs (DemMars, 2001). The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) website speaks candidly about the importance of their relationship with NGOs and seek to foster a 'shared sense of purpose' (Laipson, 2007, para. 45). Indeed, in post-conflict situations where information-sharing is an acute need, the US government has often responded with a 'willingness to share' (Laipson, 2007, para. 12) and this has extended to the US [and British] military working shoulder-to-shoulder with NGOs who have developed collaborative arrangements for information-sharing (para. 18). However, NGOs generally-speaking, have diverse views regarding cooperation and sharing of information with government entities and 'NGOs have been reluctant to associate with agencies that are involved in secret intelligence' (Prunckun, 2017, p. 49), even though intelligence gathered by such agencies indicates that there are numerous cases where the vulnerable populations assisted by NGOs have been infiltrated by terrorists (Copley, 2016). Scholars warn that although the mutual sharing of information between government agencies and NGOs may in some cases be mutually beneficial, this kind of humanitarian intelligence 'can just as easily be leveraged for surveillance and control' (Latonero & Kift, 2018, p.1). Little is known about many of the intelligence-gathering procedures as they 'must be kept from public-knowledge' however this 'makes the services dangerous to democracy and difficult to control' (Jervis, 2007, p. viii). It follows therefore, that an NGO's close relationship and working affiliation with such agencies may be viewed by some as necessary to reinforce democratic ideals, whilst others may argue that it poses a real and immediate threat. Be that as it may, stories of state and state-sponsored actors accessing humanitarian data, are increasingly common: In July 2019, hackers gained access to dozens of UN servers which housed data and sensitive information from crisis zones throughout the world including the passwords and access keys to a large volume of UN systems (Parker, 2020). Although the agenda and identities of t


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P00069X/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2475218 Studentship ES/P00069X/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2025 Olivia Williams