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

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.

About the authors

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, S.J.D. Harvard Law School, is a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. Her research takes a socio-legal approach to technology, international law and humanitarian action. Her work has appeared in, inter alia, Disasters; the International Journal of Refugee Law; Refugee Survey Quarterly; Millennium: Journal of International Studies; and the IFRC World Disasters Report 2013.

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen
Copenhagen University

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen holds a PhD in International Relations from Lancaster University. She is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. She is an international authority on the issue of humanitarian biometrics and security dimensions and is the author of The Politics of Humanitarian Technology (Routledge, 2015). Her research has also appeared in Citizenship Studies, Security Dialogue, Journal of Intervention & Statebuilding, and African Security Review, among others.

Sean Martin McDonald

Sean Martin McDonald holds JD/MA from American University. He is the CEO of FrontlineSMS and a Fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. He is the author of “Ebola: A Big Data Disaster”, a legal analysis of the way that humanitarian responders use data during crises. His work focuses on building agency at the intersection of digital spaces, using technology, law and civic trusts.