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Network humanitarianism

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by Paul Currion

We are all aware of how much the world has changed since the advent of the Internet, and most of us have experienced that singular moment of recognition when we suddenly realise that the assumptions that we previously relied on in our personal and professional lives no longer hold. For me that moment was 26 July 2007, when I read an article in The Economist entitled ‘Flood, famine and mobile phones’. The article opened with a startling message from a refugee:

My name is Mohammed Sokor, writing to you from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. Dear Sir, there is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help (The Economist, 2007).

What made this message startling was not its content, but the fact that it had been sent via SMS directly to the mobile phones of two UN officials, whose numbers Sokor had found by searching the web at an Internet cafe in Dagahaley. At that time I’d been working on technology projects in the humanitarian sector for about ten years, and I thought I understood the possibilities of these new tools. Yet when I read that article, I realised that something was happening that was going to change, not just humanitarian action, but the fundamental idea of humanitarianism.

In 2013, six years after Sokor sent his text message, an estimated 6.5 trillion text messages were sent. This was also the year that messaging apps overtook text messages in volume, and by 2017 a popular app such as WeChat could expect to process 38 billion messages a day. These apps were being used by over 5bn unique mobile phone subscribers – around two-thirds of the world’s population – a figure forecast to rise to 5.7bn by 2020, with nearly 75% of those connections having mobile broadband access.1 This is communication at a scale, density and speed that we have never seen before, and it is changing everything.

Building on earlier work on the impact of new information and communication technologies on society, the sociologist Manuel Castells has written extensively about the rise of the Network Society, in which ‘the Internet is the technological basis for the organizational form of the Information Age: the network’ (Castells, 2001). In this thesis, networked technologies drive a structural transformation of global society, away from the assumptions of the industrial era and towards the patterns of the information age, a transformation in which networks emerge as a significant (if not the predominant) form of collective action.

The Economist never reported if Sokor received a reply, and at the time it was clear that the individual capacity to send text messages would not by itself shift power in the system. However, for some of us his text was a sign that a new mode of networked humanitarian action would inevitably emerge. This paper refers to that mode as Network Humanitarianism, and attempts to describe its key characteristics, illustrated by real-life examples. Network Humanitarianism is the future of humanitarianism, but not necessarily the future of the humanitarian community; this paper is a contribution to the emerging discussion about what that means.

To read the full report, please visit the ODI website here