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Organization and governance in the era of digital humanitarianism
Andrej Verity & Mary Milner

Humanitarian Affairs is seeing the emergence of “digital humanitarians”, often referred to as Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs), who are harnessing new technologies to bridge the gap between affected populations and responding agencies. Historically volunteerism and technology have been major drivers of innovation within the sector and modern V&TCs have the potential to revolutionize it again. However, because these networks are often nebulous and ill-defined, formal humanitarian organizations are struggling to integrate and collaborate effectively. To ensure this innovation has a positive impact, appropriate governance, engagement from both sides, and a neutral interface such as the Digital Humanitarian Network will be needed.

A lot of people like to write about the fact that we need to change in terms of governance, but little has been done to figure out exactly how to make such changes. As well, there is always a lot of discussion about how slow the humanitarian community is to adopt new technology and new approaches. A recent report – Collaborative Innovation in Humanitarian Affairs - Organization and Governance in the Era of Digital Humanitarianism [1] – has tried to find some answers or directions, based on an extensive literature review.

 History: volunteers and technological innovation

Volunteers and Technology are the basis upon which humanitarian affairs is built. Historically, both volunteers and new technologies have been the spark which spurred innovation in humanitarian affairs. In fact, the humanitarian system was originally started by volunteers, has been spurred by technology and is, in and of itself, an innovation in the established system of international relations based on sovereign states. Nineteenth century technologies such as the telegraph and the steam engine shortened the distance between suffering abroad and public interest at home. As a result of this increasing connectivity, and the “universality of the Red Cross movement,” there was significant political and civil mobilization behind the effort to establish the organizational structure and international legal framework for humanitarianism. The League of Nations and the United Nations allowed the humanitarian system to develop above the level of nation states and was a major development in international law and international relations - an innovation. This shift away from absolute sovereignty could be said to have begun the erosion of the power of ‘the state’ - a process which today is seemingly accelerated by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

Thanks to instantaneous broadcast media bringing horrific and highly visible civil wars to living rooms around the world, the international community surged in its efforts at peace keeping and humanitarianism following the end of the Cold War. In fact, “from 1948-88, the UN undertook only five peacekeeping missions; [whereas] from 1989-94 it authorized 20 missions and increased the number of peacekeepers from 11,000 to 75,000.” This dramatic increase in international efforts, coupled with the now vast network of NGOs, meant that the humanitarian system needed greater coordination in order to be effective. In 1991, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 46/182 on the ‘Strengthening of humanitarian emergency assistance of the United Nations’ which established both the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, which would later become the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 1998.