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Do no harm: A taxonomy of the challenges of humanitarian experimentation

  • Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Katja Lindskov Jacobsen and Sean Martin McDonald


This article aims to acknowledge and articulate the notion of “humanitarian experimentation”. Whether through innovation or uncertain contexts, managing risk is a core component of the humanitarian initiative – but all risk is not created equal. There is a stark ethical and practical difference between managing risk and introducing it, which is mitigated in other fields through experimentation and regulation. This article identifies and historically contextualizes the concept of humanitarian experimentation, which is increasingly prescient, as a range of humanitarian subfields embark on projects of digitization and privatization. This trend is illustrated here through three contemporary examples of humanitarian innovations (biometrics, data modelling, cargo drones), with references to critical questions about adherence to the humanitarian “do no harm” imperative. This article outlines a broad taxonomy of harms, intended to serve as the starting point for a more comprehensive conversation about humanitarian action and the ethics of experimentation.

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1 The seminal contribution is Anderson, Mary B., Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, CO, 1999. For a recent foundational text, see Slim, Hugo, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015.

2 For the foundational scholarly work on this topic, see Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov, “Making Design Safe for Citizens: A Hidden History of Humanitarian Experimentation”, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2010; Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov, “Experimentation in Humanitarian Locations: UNHCR and Biometric Registration of Afghan Refugees”, Security Dialogue, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2015; Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov, The Politics of Humanitarian Technology: Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences and Insecurity, Routledge, London, 2015; Sean Martin McDonald, “Ebola: A Big Data Disaster: Privacy, Property, and the Law of Disaster Experimentation”, CIS Paper Series, Vol. 1, Centre for Internet & Society, 1 March 2016, available at: (all internet references were accessed in August 2017); Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora, Jumbert, Maria Gabrielsen, Karlsrud, John and Kaufmann, Mareile, “Humanitarian Technology: A Critical Research Agenda”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96, No. 893, 2014.

3 The authors conceptualize datafication as the conversion and articulation of information, concepts, processes or systems in mathematical and machine-readable formats. Datafication happens at multiple levels and includes elements ranging from basic objects such as proxy indicators all the way through to complex systems like artificial intelligence. The term “datafication”, however, specifically points to the practice of trying to express all factors relevant to a subject as data.

4 The authors conceptualize digitization as the conversion, articulation and management of historically analogue information, processes and actions through digital tools.

5 As noted by Nielsen, Sandvik and Jumbert, humanitarians currently use the term “humanitarian innovation” to describe how technologies, products and services from the private sector and new collaborations can improve the delivery of humanitarian aid. This implies that humanitarian innovation can refer to anything, from product innovation (such as new water filters) to service innovation (such as cash transfers or fuel supply) and process innovation (such as new monitoring and evaluation procedures for humanitarian staff). See Brita Fladvad Nielsen, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert, “How Can Innovation Deliver Humanitarian Outcomes?”, PRIO Policy Brief No. 12, PRIO, Oslo, 2016.

6 ICRC, “ICRC Protection Policy”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 90, No. 871, September 2008, p. 753, available at:

7 Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, Protection Principle 1, available at:

8 Ibid.

9 See, for example, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, UN Doc. A/70/709, 2 February 2016; United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Leaving No One Behind: Humanitarian Effectiveness in the Age of the Sustainable Development Goals, OCHA Policy and Studies Series, 1 February 2016, available at:

10 Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora and Lohne, Kjersti, “The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2014; Scott-Smith, Tom, “Humanitarian Neophilia: The ‘Innovation Turn’ and its Implications”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 12, 2016; Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, “Humanitarian Innovation, Humanitarian Renewal?”, Forced Migration Review, September 2014.

11 Johnson, Cedric, “The Urban Precariat, Neoliberalization, and the Soft Power of Humanitarian Design”, Journal of Developing Societies, Vol. 27, No. 3–4, 2011; Schwittay, Anke, “Designing Development: Humanitarian Design in the Financial Inclusion Assemblage”, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2014.

12 Abdelnour, Samer and Saeed, Akbar M., “Technologizing Humanitarian Space: Darfur Advocacy and the RapeStove Panacea”, International Political Sociology, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2014; Redfield, Peter, “Fluid Technologies: The Bush Pump, the LifeStraw® and Microworlds of Humanitarian Design”, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2016.

13 Labelling these developments “humanitarian imperialism” does little to unpack their mechanisms and politics. See Bruce Nussbaum, “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism? Does Our Desire to Help Do More Harm Than Good?”, Co.Design, 7 June 2010, available at:

14 Bessant, John, Ramalingam, Ben, Rush, Howard, Marshall, Nick, Hoffman, Kurt and Gray, Bill, Innovation Management, Innovation Ecosystems and Humanitarian Innovation: Literature Review, UK Department for International Development, 2014, available at:

15 Lock, Margaret and Nguyen, Vinh-Kim, An Anthropology of Biomedicine, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2010.

16 According to Segal, “technological utopianism” is a belief in technological progress as inevitable and in technology as the vehicle for “achieving a ‘perfect’ society in the near future. Such a society, moreover, would not only be the culmination of the introduction of new tools and machines; it would also be modeled on those tools and machines in its institutions, values and culture.” See Segal, Howard P., “The Technological Utopians”, in Corn, Joseph J. (ed.), Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology and the American Future, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986.

17 M. Lock and V.-K. Nguyen, above note 15.

18 Bonneuil, Christophe, “Development as Experiment: Science and State Building in Late Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, 1930–1970”, Osiris, Vol. 15, 2000.

19 Tilley, Helen, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2011.

20 C. Bonneuil, above note 18.

21 K. L. Jacobsen, “Making Design Safe for Citizens”, above note 2.

22 Rottenburg, Richard, “Social and Public Experiments and New Figurations of Science and Politics in Postcolonial Africa”, Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, 2009.

23 Cabane, Lydie and Tantchou, Josiane, “Measurement Instruments and Policies in Africa”, Revue d'Anthropologie des Connaissances, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2016.

24 M. Lock and V.-K. Nguyen, above note 15. See also Vaughan, Megan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1991.

25 Petryna, Adriana, When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2009; Wendland, Claire L., “Research, Therapy, and Bioethical Hegemony: The Controversy over Perinatal AZT Trials in Africa”, African Studies Review, Vol. 51, No. 3, 2008.

26 Cole, Simon, “History of Fingerprint Pattern Recognition”, in Ratha, Nalini and Bolle, Ruud (eds), Automatic Fingerprint Recognition Systems, Springer Science & Business Media, New York and London, 2007.

27 R. Rottenburg, above note 22.

28 US Embassy Rome, “WFP'S Collaboration with UNHCR in Providing Food Assistance to Refugees in Tanzania Joint Mission Assessment”, 03ROME4672, 2003, available at:

29 Headrick, Daniel R, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981; Killingray, David, “‘A Swift Agent of Government’: Air Power in British Colonial Africa, 1916–1939”, Journal of African History, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1984; Omissi, David E, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1990.

30 Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora, “African Drone Stories”, BEHEMOTH – A Journal on Civilisation, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2015.

31 Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora and Raymond, Nathaniel A., “Beyond the Protective Effect: Towards a Theory of Harm for Information Communication Technologies in Mass Atrocity Response”, Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2017, p. 16.

32 Calhoun, Craig, The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)Order, Zone Books, New York, 2010.

33 M. Lock and V.-K. Nguyen, above note 15.

34 R. Rottenburg, above note 22.

35 Ibid., pp. 423–440.

36 A. Petryna, above note 25.

37 K. B. Sandvik and K. Lohne, above note 10, pp. 219–242.

38 GSMA, “Key Takeaways from the UN Working Group on Emergency Telecommunications”, 17 April 2014, available at:, cited in K. B. Sandvik and K. Lohne, above note 10.

39 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disasters Report 2013, Geneva, 2013, cited in K. B. Sandvik and K. Lohne, above note 10.

40 K. B. Sandvik and K. Lohne, above note 10.

41 The idea is that humanitarian actors have more latitude to operate – often without common requirements like local registration – than corporate actors would. They are also often (either practically or actually) indemnified – i.e. the UN, is protected from litigation based on its interventions. Public–private partnerships extend the legal status of government action and parity to the work of private sector corporations.

42 K. B. Sandvik and K. Lohne, above note 10.

43 R. Rottenburg, above note 22, in P. Redfield, above note 12.

44 Broadly speaking, in public–private partnerships, companies provide data, algorithms and talent, while international NGOs and governments provide operational authority, money, and political cover. For an illustration with regard to UNICEF's partnership with IBM in the Zika response, see UNICEF, “IBM Shares Data to Further Strengthen Efforts to Fight ZIKA”, 31 July 2016, available at:

45 On the idea of “fail faster, succeed sooner” as a core axiom in the field of innovation, see Peter Manzo, “Fail Faster, Succeed Sooner”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 23 September 2008, available at:; Patrick Love, “Fail Faster, Learn Fast and Innovate”, OECD Insights, 10 April 2014, available at:

46 Betts, Alexander and Bloom, Louise, Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art, OCHA, New York, 2014, citing Babineaux, Ryan and Krumboltz, John, Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, Penguin, New York, 2014.

47 See, for example, Hendrik Tiesinga and Remko Berkhout (eds), Labcraft: How Innovation Labs Cultivate Change through Experimentation and Collaboration, Labcraft Publishing, London, cited in Louise Bloom and Romy Faulkner, “Innovation Spaces: Transforming Humanitarian Practice in the United Nations”, Working Paper Series No. 107, Refugee Studies Centre, 13 March 2015.

48 Blank, Steve, “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 91, No. 5, 2013; Ries, Eric, The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Crown Business, New York, 2011.

49 “The exploratory and uncertain nature of innovation means that some degree of ‘failure’ is inherent, as results will often differ from expectations. … [O]rganisations and donors will need to become less risk averse and embrace ‘failing fast’ in order to support adaptation and improvement.” Obrecht, Alice, “Separating the ‘Good’ Failure from the ‘Bad’: Three Success Criteria for Innovation”, Humanitarian Exchange, No. 66, 2016, available at:

50 John Bessant, “Learning from the Humanitarian Innovation Laboratory”,, 23 August 2016, available at:

51 For more on this analytical framework, see K. L. Jacobsen, “Experimentation in Humanitarian Locations” and The Politics of Humanitarian Technology, above note 2.

52 Peter Kessler, “Afghan ‘Recyclers’ under Scrutiny of New Technology”, UNHCR News, 3 October 2002, available at:

53 UNHCR, “UNHCR's Responses to Bidders’ Requests for Clarification”, February 2013, available at:

54 World Food Programme (WFP)/UNHCR, Joint Assessment Mission – Kenya Refugee Operation, Dadaab (23–25 June 2014) and Kakuma (30 June–1 July 2014) Refugee Camps, 2014, available at:

55 UNHCR, “UNHCR Pilots New Biometrics System in Malawi Refugee Camp”, UNHCR News, 22 January 2014, available at:

56 WFP/UNHCR, Joint Assessment Mission – Kenya Refugee Operation: Dadaab and Kakuma Refugee Camps, 23–27 June 2014 and 30 June–1 July 2014, pp. 51–52.

57 Gus Hosein and Carly Nyst, “Aiding Surveillance: An Exploration of How Development and Humanitarian Aid Initiatives are Enabling Surveillance in Developing Countries”, Privacy International, London, September 2013, available at:

58 Karyotis, Georgios, “European Migration Policy in the Aftermath of September 11: The Security–Migration NexusInnovation, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2007.

59 Safran, “Kenya: Delivering Credible Elections Using Biometric Data”, available at:

60 K. L. Jacobsen, “Experimentation in Humanitarian Locations”, above note 2.

61 K. L. Jacobsen, “Making Design Safe for Citizens”, above note 2.

62 This section builds on S. M. McDonald, above note 2; Jonathan Corum, “A History of Ebola in 24 Outbreaks”, New York Times, 29 December 2014, available at:

63 “Ebola and Big Data: Waiting on Hold”, The Economist, 27 October 20147, available at:

64 Cecaj, Alket, Mamei, Marco and Zambonelli, Franco, “Re-Identification and Information Fusion between Anonymized CDR and Social Network Data”, Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Humanized Computing, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2016.

65 See S. M. McDonald, above note 2 – specifically, interviews with Dr Joel Selanikio, a technologist and Ebola responder, and Linus Bengtsson, the CEO of Flowminder and the person most cited in calls for CDR access.

66 Coleman, Carl H., “Control Groups on Trial: The Ethics of Testing Experimental Ebola Treatments”, Journal of Biosecurity, Biosafety and Biodefense Law, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2016.

67 Larissa Fast and Adele Waugaman, Fighting Ebola with Information: Digitized Data and Information Flows in the West Africa Ebola Outbreak Response, United States Agency for International Development, available at:

68 S. M. McDonald, above note 2.

69 Glen Greenwald, “How the U.S. Spies on Medical Nonprofits and Health Defenses Worldwide”, The Intercept, 10 August 2016, available at:

70 Julia Angwin, “Make Algorithms Accountable”, New York Times, 1 August 2016, available at:

71 David Lagesse, “If Drones Make You Nervous, Think of Them as Flying Donkeys”, National Public Radio, 31 March 2015, available at:, cited in K. B. Sandvik, above note 30.

72 K. B. Sandvik, above note 30.

73 Amar Toor, “This Startup is Using Drones to Deliver Medicine in Rwanda: Zipline Will Begin Delivering Blood and Drugs across the Country in July”, The Verge, 5 April 2016, available at:

74 Aditya Bhat, “How these Drones in Malawi Will Save Lives of Children with HIV”, International Business Times, 28 December 2016, available at:

75 Geoffrey York, “Drones Enter Africa's Fight against HIV”, Globe and Mail, 14 March 2016, available at:

76 Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), Case Study No. 2: Delivery – Using Drones for Medical Payload Delivery in Papua New Guinea, Geneva, 2016. Also see:

77 FSD, Drones in Humanitarian Action, Geneva, 2016, available at:

78 Rachel Feltman, “Making the Case that Africa Needs Drones more than Roads”, Quartz, 16 March 2014, available at:

79 See K. B. Sandvik, above note 30.

80 A. Petryna, above note 25.

81 See Matthew Hunt et al., “Ethics of Emergent Information and Communication Technology Applications in Humanitarian Medical Assistance”, International Health, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2016.

82 K. B. Sandvik et al., above note 2.

83 World Bank, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, 2016, available at:

84 K. B. Sandvik et al., above note 2.

85 Campbell, David, “Why Fight? Humanitarianism, Principles and Poststructuralism”, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1998, p. 500.


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Do no harm: A taxonomy of the challenges of humanitarian experimentation

  • Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, Katja Lindskov Jacobsen and Sean Martin McDonald


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