In Sudan in 1985 - long before the communications revolution - I spent a vacation riding horses out into the wilderness of Western Kordofan. I remember a conversation around the camp fire - when myself and my friend understood that not a soul knew where we were - that we were truly alone in the world. It was an immensely uplifting moment (we both burst into spontaneous laughter, as if we had reached the summit of Everest), an exercise in the right to privacy.
I was speaking to a lawyer in the late 1990s about the next legal challenge. Human rights had undoubtedly been at the forefront of legal innovation in the 1990s, but she was was sure that the central issue for the next millennium would be privacy. The German-Brazilian initiative at the UN illustrates how prophetic she was.
The internet revolution has created an electronic 'tag' for all its users, one which can be used to track and surveille our movements and communications. Of course spies have always read their opponents mail - from Livia Druscilla onwards - and the outstanding success of the British and American code breakers in the second world war in a sense created the computing revolution upon which the internet and the current NSA surveillance scandal are both founded. Undoubtedly analysis of the data collected by electronic surveillance has prevented many terrorist outrages, but NSA's reported ability to hoover up pretty much everything that passes along the internet - even if only a tiny fraction is actually observed - is the spying equivalent of the atom bomb. It makes all other forms of intelligence-gathering largely peripheral.
Yet the Snowden revelations obscure a wider phenomenon - that we all are spying upon one another all of the time. Big Data - the ability to gather and process vast amounts of information on pretty much any human activity - whether it be your morning run or the "likes" of your friends and colleagues on social media - determines how we keep ourselves healthy, the advertising that is piped onto our screens, the policies that our politicians put forward at election time.
But Big Data - by its very nature - operates at the aggregate level, assessing vast amounts of data to determine very accurate trends (weather forecasting is a good example). At the individual level (whether that is an individual person or action) it can be spectacularly inaccurate - I am often amazed at what internet advertising tries to sell me, only to understand that it is acting upon some research I undertook, or a term I used on social media which was either ironic or far removed from my actual interests.
In 2009, a giant barrage balloon was tethered over Kabul: its probably still there. It was of a type developed to spot drug smugglers along the Mexico-US border. Throughout Afghanistan the grim concrete fortresses of Western intervention sprout antenna in place of cannon. Humanitarian and development work is grounded in the individual rights and freedoms which characterized legal thinking from the 1950 to 1990s. Yet it operates at the mass level: the Human Development Index measures the prevalence of those rights and freedoms in aggregate. What the Snowden case illustrates is that the temptation to surveille people and collect Big Data to measure whether those aggregate rights are being met, while laudably motivated, may in itself constitute a violation of a basic human right - the right to privacy.
Security and safety training for staff and consultants deployed overseas has become an industry standard risk mitigation response by a range of major donors and NGOs over the past 10 years. Risk management emerged as an increasing concern in the relief and development sector from the 1990s. Risks to aid workers in fragile states and conflict zones were partially hidden during the cold war period by restrictions upon travel to conflict areas, and a general culture within the sector of avoiding deployments to high crime areas and fragile and conflict affected states during periods of instability.
Similarly the aid and academic sectors have been very aware of the requirement for proximity and ‘solidarity’ as a response to both systemic and rapid onset crisis, and thus unwilling to create the perception of distance between its individual and institutional partners overseas that traditional “protective” security provision could imply. This was particularly true of academics conducting field research, which is often dependent upon gaining unfettered and unskewed access to populations.
During the 1990s relief and development professionals and academics gained access to much more of an increasingly instable developing and transitional world. While this often implied much greater exposure to risk, protection was believed to be indirectly afforded too many aid workers and academics through international humanitarian law – and aid institutions sought to affirm the principles of neutrality and impartiality to sustain access and protect their staff and consultants. Nevertheless the parallel trend of humanitarian intervention – increasingly armed intervention - made possible by the end of cold war tensions, also put increasing pressure upon the validity of those assertions. Aid agencies successfully called for armed intervention by Western States on the basis of upholding humanitarian law in Somalia and Kurdistan, and after the international communities’ perceived failure to act during the Rwandan genocide, this response become normalised in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kosovo and later Iraq and Afghanistan. By the late 1990s asymmetric responses to this type of intervention were creating greater risks (such as the kidnapping of British soldiers in Sierra Leone and the rise of Al Qaeda backed terrorism in East Africa), while in other countries such as Nigeria, Colombia and Uganda kidnapping of foreign – specifically western – workers was proving both a lucrative business and a means to put pressure upon western governments.
After September 11th 2001, the issue of risk management was placed centre stage. A perception by western governments, led by the United States and United Kingdom, that their citizens were being actively targeted in many parts of the world placed much greater emphasis upon risk management and security and safety provision for Government staff and contracted consultants deployed overseas. From 2008, with increasing emphasis upon the ‘value for money’ of foreign aid, DFID and other western development partners have been looking to pass on this responsibility for “duty of care” to consultant organisations, NGOs and academic institutions that they fund, and as a result are requiring those institutions to develop their own internal insurance schemes, security and safety policies, management capacity and training and operational support programmes. Often compliance with donor security and safety norms is a key component of contractual agreements.
Nevertheless, there is a key requirement to ensure that while safe, deployed staff and consultants are able to function effectively, and most importantly gain access to the communities and institutions they work with in a benign and sensitive manner. Moreover, those consultants and academics who have worked in many developing nations – including conflict affected areas – have instinctively developed the networks of informants who can – and almost certainly often do – keep them safe from both crime and political violence.
In founding Dragonfly we have tried to recognize these issues and constraints. We have developed and delivered security strategies that build upon the idea of consensual security – building trust and empathy with partners – but are backed up by thorough risk analysis, comprehensive contingency and evacuation planning and the judicious use of protective security.
I worked for CARE in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, and in the refugee camps in Zaire (as it was) and Tanzania. I had the privilege of providing meagre succour to the last brave survivors on the top of Bisesero mountain. Resistance to the madness, gore and pure absurdity of "racism" taken to logical ends has been fixed in my DNA ever since.
Looking back, 1994 marked a cusp in international understandings of humanitarian crisis. Of course the lack of an international response is understandable: Western foreign policy was still in the cold war era, when you supported 'our" dictators to keep the Soviets out. French policy in Rwanda was little different from that of the US in Zaire, and the British in Uganda. The moment when geopolitics were replaced by humanitarian intervention as the modus operandi for international relations was undoubtedly April 6, 1994 - when it became no longer acceptable to support a dictator because he was on 'our side'. I rang up the Foreign Office on April 6 (we had an office in Kigali and were receiving alarming reports about killings) and was told "its a Belgian problem". How times change.
Since 1994, what used to be called "the developing world" has grown immeasurably in strategic importance. Yet, interestingly, we are in a similar moment now. Some argue that the humanitarian impulse was corrupted, and ultimately destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan (by everyone - humanitarian agencies and western governments). The recent less robust responses to real humanitarian crisis in Somalia and Syria perhaps demonstrate this. We have tended to conflate crisis of government with crisis of people. Iraq, Afghanistan and the global financial crisis have also dampened the zeal of interventionists. There is perhaps more realism now - the hubris of nation-building is less apparent. But also the possibility that the international community will standby when genocide occurs becomes more likely. Both Cold War thinking and the legacy of the doomed Somalia experiment of 1992 hindered action to prevent genocide in 1994. Have we also consigned the victims of the Syrian crisis, and maybe the next genocide, to a half-hearted international response?