Last week, Wings for Aid, a charity co-funded by the Dutch Government, managed to successfully test using drones to provide humanitarian aid. 18 specially designed boxes were dropped from a height of 200m, including two boxes of raw eggs, and all remained intact. The implications of this are immense as it allows the charity to start feasible planning to provide aid to those usually cut off from supplies, such as those deep inside conflict zones or those inaccessible due to natural disasters and infrastructure damage. Whilst helicopters and airplanes have be previously used to reach remote areas, they are highly expensive. Furthermore, pilots are unable to fly to areas where they may be targets and lose their lives. These boxes of supplies can contain items such as food, water, shelter kits, medical supplies and vaccines. In the past year, it is estimated that 20 million people desperately in need of aid were unreachable.
This successful testing has been met with great excitement. In an interview with the Independent, the general manager of Wings For Aid, Barry Koperberg, said ‘We can deliver 20kg of humanitarian aid anywhere be it conflict, be it a natural disaster. We hope to launch our first aircraft, which is now being built, in 2020.’ Furthermore, Christopher Fabian, principal advisor of innovation at UNICEF, has said ‘The promise of drones is really tremendous. I believe this technology will … eventually become so ubiquitous and simple that it’s like which version of the cell phones you have.’
Although the potential benefits of using drones in humanitarian aid are immense, there seems to be an inherent assumption in all these responses that all changes from using drones will be beneficial. It is vitally important to remember that technology is not always apolitical. Firstly, when prevalent societal power inequalities are not tackled, existing structures of control over resources result in disempowered groups, such as women and children, being denied access to the benefits of aid packages. Particularly with providing unmanned aid packages deep inside conflict zones, there are great risks that these resources go into the wrong hands, such as armed fighters causing the conflicts, and this could lead to the prolongation of these conflicts. Secondly, a recurrent problem when using technology in development problems has been inadequate data protection measures which have resulted in data breaches exacerbating the vulnerabilities of already disempowered groups. In the wrong hands, drones can be weaponized against those they are supposed to be providing aid to.
This breakthrough by Wings for Aid is following a trend where the future of humanitarian aid is becoming increasingly technological. More and more governments, NGOs and humanitarian agencies investing resources into developing innovations, such as drones for humanitarian aid. DFID are currently researching into using drones to provide aid, ‘drones in humanitarian aid’ is an EU funded initiative aiming to improve the effectiveness of using drones for aid and in a partnership with Malawi, UNICEF has launched an air corridor for drones testing. The growth of humanitarian technologies should continue and be supported, but it is vitally important that alongside it there is critical scrutiny of technological benefits by NGOs, academia, governments and humanitarian organisations. Protocols must be in place in the development of these technologies which ensure that, firstly, societal inequalities are not widened by their use. There needs to be adequate beneficiary participation, deliberate targeting to include vulnerable groups, such as refugees, and measures to ensure the technology or aid does not fall into the wrong hands. Secondly, there need to be adequate data protection measures when using humanitarian drones so that harmful privacy breaches do not occur. Only then can we ensure that using this technology will benefit, and not increase the vulnerability, of those in need of humanitarian aid.
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