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From face-to-face to face-to-screen: remote management, effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian action in insecure environments

  • Antonio Donini and Daniel Maxwell

This article provides a first attempt at analysing the complex set of issues around remote management practices in insecure environments and their increased use. It looks at definitions and reviews existing published and grey literature on remote management and related practices. It tries to situate remote management in the evolving context of post-Cold War strategies of dealing with conflict and crisis. On the basis of interviews with a cross-section of aid workers, senior headquarters managerial and policy staff, donors, and research institutions, it provides an assessment of current remote management practices, with a particular focus on Afghanistan and Somalia, and their implications for the future of humanitarian action.

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1 Stoddard, Abby, Harmer, Adele and Renouf, Jean S., Once Removed: Lessons and Challenges in Remote Management of Humanitarian Operations for Insecure Areas, Humanitarian Outcomes, New York, 2010.

2 Duffield, Mark, ‘Challenging Environments: Danger, Resilience and the Aid Industry’, in Security Dialogue, Vol. 43, No. 5, 2012, pp. 475492.

3 Egeland, Jan, Harmer, Adele and Stoddard, Abby, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, New York, 2011, p. xv.

4 See for example A. Stoddard et al., above note 1.

5 Communication from ICRC.

6 See Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kjersti Lohne, ‘The Promise and Perils of “Disaster Drones”’, in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, No. 58, July 2013, available at: All internet references were accessed in May 2014.

7 We are grateful for the contributions of Heather Stobaugh to this section.

8 See Stoddard, Abby, Harmer, Adele and Haver, Katherine, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: Trends in Policy and Operations, Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Report No. 23, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2006.

9 Greg Hansen, ‘Operational Modalities in Iraq’, Briefing Paper No. 2, NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq, Baghdad, 2008.

10 See J. Egeland et al., above note 3, pp. 25 ff.

11 See Donini, Antonio et al. , Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Final Report: The State of the Humanitarian Enterprise, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 2008, available at:; Tennant, Vicky, Doyle, Bernie and Mazou, Raouf, Safeguarding Humanitarian Space: A Review of Key Challenges for UNHCR, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Policy Development and Evaluation Service, Geneva, 2010; Pantuliano, Sara et al. , Counter-terrorism and Humanitarian Action: Tensions, Impact and Ways Forward, HPG Policy Brief No. 43, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2011; Norman, Bryony, Monitoring and Accountability Practices for Remotely Managed Projects Implemented in Volatile Operating Environments, Humanitarian Innovation Fund, Tearfund, London, 2012; Collinson, Sarah and Elhawary, Samir, Humanitarian Space: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report No. 32, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2012.

12 J. Egeland et al., above note 3, p 8.

13 A. Donini et al., above note 11, pp. 23–25.

14 J. Egeland et al., above note 3, p. 11.

15 Donini, Antonio, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism Unraveled?, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 2010; Benelli, Prisca, Donini, Antonio and Niland, Norah, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 2012; Hall, Samuel, Redefining Humanitarian Assistance in Afghanistan: A Contextual Analysis, Samuel Hall Consulting, Kabul, 2012.

16 Bradbury, Mark, State-building, Counterterrorism, and Licensing Humanitarianism in Somalia, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 2010; V. Tennant et al., above note 11; J. Egeland et al., above note 3.

17 US Supreme Court, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 130 S. Ct. 2705, 2010. For a discussion, see Modirzadeh, Naz K., Lewis, Dustin A. and Bruderlein, Claude, ‘Humanitarian Engagement under Counter-terrorism: A Conflict of Norms and the Emerging Policy Landscape’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 883, 2011, pp. 623647.

18 Humanitarian Practice Network, Good Practice Review: Operational Security Management in Violent Environments, No. 8 (New Edition), Overseas Development Institute, London, December 2010, p. 60, available at:; M. Bradbury, above note 16; S. Pantuliano et al., above note 11.

19 M. Bradbury, above note 16, p. 17; S. Pantuliano et al., above note 11, pp. 6–7.

20 See, for example, Joel Alas, ‘Five Years After Slayings: Doctors without Borders Returns to Afghanistan’, in Spiegel Online, 12 October 2009, available at:; Baba Umar, ‘Even the Taliban Respects Us for Our Work in Afghanistan’, in, 24 May 2013, available at:

21 B. Norman, above note 11, p. 2.

22 Editor's note: Signed on 14 April 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan with the United States and the Soviet Union serving as guarantors, the Geneva Accords aimed at regulating bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and at providing a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

23 Such as Afghan Technical Consultants (ATC), the Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR) and the Mine Clearance Planning Agency (MCPA). These (and other) NGOs worked under the umbrella of the UN mine action programme.

24 See P. Benelli et al., above note 15, pp. 28–29.

25 The following paragraphs draw on interviews in person and on Skype conducted by one of the authors.

26 Interview with a senior national staff member of an INGO, Kabul 2012.

27 Donini, Antonio, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism Unraveled?, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 2010; P. Benelli et al., above note 15, p. 29.

28 Terry, Fiona, ‘The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: Reasserting the Neutrality of Humanitarian Action’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 881, 2011, pp. 173188.

29 Interviews in Kabul, 2012 and 2013.

30 Nigel Pont, ‘Southern Afghanistan: Acceptance Still Works’, in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, No. 49, February 2011, available at:

31 A. Donini, above note 27, p. 6; P. Benelli et al., above note 15, pp. 28–29.

32 F. Terry, above note 28, p. 176.

33 ICRC, ‘Insufficient Access to Health Care Exacerbates Humanitarian Crisis’, press release, 25 July 2012.

34 P. Benelli et al., above note 15, p. 5; interviews with UN and NGO staff in 2012 and 2013.

35 We are grateful for the insights and contributions of Merry Fitzpatrick, Hannan Sulieman and Genevieve Boutin, who collaborated on an earlier unpublished version of this case study.

36 Hammond, Laura and Vaughan-Lee, Hannah, Humanitarian Space in Somalia: A Scarce Commodity, HPG Working Paper, Overseas Development Institute, London, April 2012.

37 Some agencies are understandably reluctant to disclose all their practices. This is therefore an illustrative set of practices, and not an exhaustive one.

38 V. Tennant et al., above note 11, pp. 1–3.

39 Stoddard, Abby, Harmer, Adele and DiDomenico, Victoria, Providing Aid in Insecure Environments: 2009 Update. Trends in Violence Against Aid Workers and the Operational Response, HPG Policy Brief No. 34, Overseas Development Institute, London, April 2009; A. Stoddard et al., above note 1.

40 M. Bradbury, above note 16, p. 4.

41 See ‘Somalia Islamists Lift Ban on Aid to Drought Victims’, in BBC News Africa, 6 July 2011, available at:

42 Statement by WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran on Visit to Mogadishu, 21 July 2011, available at:

43 ‘Somali Islamists Maintain Aid Ban and Deny Famine’, in BBC News Africa, 22 July 2011, available at:

44 ICRC, ‘ICRC Temporarily Suspends Distributions of Food and Seed’, press release, 12 January 2012; ICRC, ‘ICRC Remains Fully Committed to Helping Somalis’, press release, 2 February 2012.

45 Longley, Catherine, Brewin, Mike and Dunn, Sophia, CVMG, Final Monitoring Report of the Somalia Cash and Voucher Transfer Programme Phase 1: September 2011–March 2012, Overseas Development Institute, London, 2012; Hedlund, Kerren, Majid, Nisar, Maxwell, Dan and Nicholson, Nigel, Final Evaluation of the Unconditional Cash and Voucher Response to the 2011–12 Crisis in Southern and Central Somalia, Humanitarian Outcomes, London, 2013.

46 ICRC press releases, above note 44.

47 MSF, ‘MSF Forced to Close All Medical Programmes in Somalia’, press release, 14 August 2013.

48 Steets, Julia, Reichhold, Urban and Sagmeister, Elias, Evaluation and Review of Humanitarian Access Strategies in DG-ECHO Funded Interventions, Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin, 2012.

49 K. Hedlund et al., above note 45, pp. 66 ff.

50 Interviews in Geneva with INGOs working inside Syria raised a host of new issues concerning the difficulties of remote management in the volatile and insecure Syrian context, such as lack of coordination on access negotiation; threats against international staff of NGOs (while national staff are allowed sometimes to operate); and difficulties in finding trustworthy partners on the ground with at least some experience in humanitarian matters.

51 See SC Res. 1916, 19 March 2010, which established inter alia a humanitarian exception to the Somalia sanctions regime. See in particular paras. 4 and 5.

52 Editor's Note: Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), currently overseen by ISAF, are joint integrated civilian-military structures, staffed and supported by ISAF contributing countries, and operating at the provincial level in Afghanistan. See ISAF, Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Handbook, 4th ed., March 2009, available at:

53 For example, M. Duffield, above note 2, p. 276. See also Collinson, Sarah, Duffield, Mark et al. , Paradoxes of Presence: Risk Management and Aid Culture in Challenging Environments, HPG, Overseas Development Institute, London, March 2013.

54 M. Duffield, above note 2, p. 278.

55 Schuller, Mark, ‘Haiti's Bitter Harvest: The NGOization of Humanitarian Aid’, in Donini, A. (ed.), The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, pp. 179193, Kumarian Press, Sterling, VA, 2012.

56 OCHA, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, United Nations, New York, 2013.

57 On Ushahidi, see Meier, Patrick, ‘New Information Technologies and Their Impact on the Humanitarian Sector’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 884, December 2011, pp. 12391263.

58 See, among many others, Save the Children's radio and SMS initiative; CARE International partnering with telecom providers on the ‘Digital Early Warning Systems’ project (summary available at:; the ‘Random Hacks of Kindness’ joint initiative between Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, NASA and the World Bank (available at:; see also Gaelle Sundelin, ‘Iris-Scanning Technology Streamlines Refugee Registration Process — UNHCR’, in The Jordan Times, 21 July 2013, available at:

* We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Swedish International Development Agency for this research. We are also grateful for feedback on an earlier draft of this article from Fiona Terry, Kirsten Gelsdorf and Larissa Fast, and discussions with Mark Duffield as well as comments from anonymous peer reviewers. A version of this paper was presented at the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, held in Istanbul, 23–27 October 2013.

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