Promoting an evidence based approach to humanitarian action at the World Humanitarian Summit

Evidencing Insecurity in the Humanitarian Arena: a Cautionary Tale


The next in our series of blogs comes from Róisín Read and Bertrand Taithe of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

While much attention has been paid to the evidence agenda in humanitarian action, the tendency has been to focus on evidence for programming in order to determine ‘what works’ or on improving needs assessments. What this overlooks is a more foundational question of how humanitarians make sense of their operating environments, in particular, their security or insecurity. This gap is surprising given the prevailing narrative of increasing insecurity for aid workers detailed in numerous books, reports, discussions and databases. Humanitarians, it seems, do not think about security information in terms of evidence. Yet, as we have written about before, they are also not keen on the term ‘intelligence’ either, though there are many similarities. Much of what we think of as evidence is also intelligence or even crucial security data for others. To imagine information and evidence to flow freely is to ignore the more profound implications of any effort to gather and make sense of data.

Our research has highlighted that approaches to security information within the humanitarian sector are ad hoc and often informal, with information being shared ‘on the margins of meetings’ (humanitarian professional in an interview with the author, January 2015) and within the context of trusted personal relationships. A key problem with the informal nature of security information is that its quality cannot be addressed and that it may leak much in the same manner it was collected. Furthermore, little is known about how this information is collected. In insecure humanitarian contexts, much of this information appears to be coming from UN missions which often act as the repository of conflicting forms of evidence.

Our project has focused on these questions in relation to security data in Darfur. Here, we have found that the procedures and practices of the UN/AU hybrid mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in respect of security incident data collection was problematic and raises wider questions for the humanitarian sector as a whole. Reporting and investigating alleged security incidents in Darfur has proved contentious, and questions remain on the potential use of security incident data in international prosecutions. These concerns also apply to the evidence humanitarians collect for their own purpose or for advocacy campaigns. Two findings in particular stand out in relation to security evidence:

The first concerns those doing the data collection. Frontline field staff, in particular those in Human Rights and Civil Affairs sections play a controversial role. Interviews with former and current UNAMID staff in these roles point to a concerning lack of training, especially of national staff, in data collection procedures. This has implications for data quality or indeed the value of whatever evidence they collect but it also raises ethical questions of consent. It seems many national staff were not aware of what was done with the data beyond the initial reports they made. If the staff collecting the information did not know what is done with the data, then they certainly cannot be getting informed consent from those sharing it. Consent in highly insecure environments remains in itself a very fragile notion.

The second, and more worrying, finding is that UNAMID appears unable to ensure the safety and confidentiality of its informants. Both our interviews with UNAMID staff and our interviews with Darfurian refugees in Chad highlighted (these interviews related to the situation in the 2008-2009 period) concerns. The staff recalled that interviews sometimes took place in public spaces where Sudanese security services were present. The refugees we interviewed reported that, while they were in Darfur, those who shared information with UNAMID were almost immediately picked up and questioned by Sudanese security services. Our staff interviewees noted individuals were not warned of the potential dangers they faced when sharing information, again a problem for informed consent. This problem is compounded by the close links between information gathering and potential legal cases – humanitarians are, like the UN, seldom regarded as neutral when they may be called to testify of what they have witnessed, recorded or collected in the field.

Given the World Humanitarian Summit’s rhetorical commitment to listening to those affected by humanitarian action, our findings should be a cautionary tale. . When we discuss evidence and evidence based thinking, in relation to security incidents and risk taking (as in our case study) or in any context where information may have a political or cultural value, it is incumbent on those gathering information and data to act responsibly, to measure the extractive nature of the act of data collection, and to assess the power dynamics at the heart of any information gathering activity. At the very least, we must make sure that the collection of information by humanitarian and peacebuilding actors does not actively endanger them. Evidence is not, and will never be, neutral.

Comments are closed.