Technically Long-Term: The Political Economy of Humanitarian Technology in Jordan

By Valerie Giesen
Submitted to Session P4992 (Managing and Manufacturing Disaster, 2017 Annual Meeting
Previous discussions of the politics of humanitarian aid have focused on its spatial, discursive and legal arrangements. Based on interviews with aid workers in Jordan and analysis of aid policy and project documents, this paper contributes to recent interest in humanitarianism’s material and economic components (Meiches, 2015; Jacobsen, 2015). It argues that developments in humanitarian technology play a yet untold part in the politics of emergency aid.

Recent work has documented important aspects of the relationship between Jordan’s political economy and international refugee aid (Turner, 2015; Lenner, 2016). For instance, international aid providers have had to accept Jordan’s preference for short-term aid, and its opposition to refugees’ long-term residence (which Western donors promote) in the context of high unemployment.

This paper argues that such anxieties stemming from Jordan’s political and economic constraints have not simply limited the scope of humanitarian action in the country, but have facilitated and legitimized experimentation in humanitarian technology. The expansion of digital and biometric technologies to deliver cash and food assistance has been driven by pressures to demonstrate refugee aid’s positive impact on the Jordanian economy, producing Syrians more as consumers than rights bearers. Syrians in Jordan have come to serve as a test population for extensive digital data collection systems which allow aid agencies to track their purchases, detect ‘unusual’ behavior and calibrate refugees’ impact on the local economy.

Aid organizations are embracing technological innovation to make humanitarianism more neutral and efficient. This paper scrutinizes humanitarians’ celebratory stance by a) placing current experiments in humanitarian technology within a wider history of experimentation and harm in the periphery, and b) expanding current discussions to consider the role of technological success in deepening humanitarianism’s entanglement with ‘issues of power, politics and profitability’ (Chandler in Jacobsen, 2015). In addition to extending the scope of refugees’ biopolitical management, the use of digital technology has expanded knowledge production about refugees’ everyday life, creating novel areas of intervention.

Moreover, ‘success’ in a humanitarian context can confer normative and scientific legitimacy on otherwise controversial technologies and their (wider) application, making strict safeguards seem unnecessary. Donor interest in expanding digital technologies, such as biometric data in registration and monitoring, is already closely related to broader moves to securitize refugees – with major donors having voiced interest in accessing biometric refugee data (Jacobsen, 2015). This indicates the dangers of expansion and repurposing 'successful' humanitarian technologies (for instance in immigration or counter-terrorism systems).