Social media and the possible disruption of humanitarian action

Food Security,Peace & Security03 Jun 2011Sean Lowrie

Three yeas ago I was shocked by Clay Shirky’s “Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations”.

Humanitarian aid workers should read the book because it explains how communications and social media technologies are disrupting, one by one, some very big and entrenched industries.

The music industry was ‘disrupted’ by online file sharing. Book publishing and newspapers are also in the midst of a complete transformation. Advertising is in trouble. And the list goes on.

Shirky argues that industries that work with knowledge, communication, collaboration and creativity are vulnerable to disruption by these new social media technologies. Social media are enabling people to collaborate without the need for formal organisations.

Consider that Kiva is already allowing donors to connect directly with recipients. Remember that after the Haiti earthquake, crisis commons enabled volunteers to directly contribute to the response without using traditional humanitarian organisations.

I wonder if technology will disrupt humanitarian aid. Will our organisations be able to stay ahead of the game?

This is a contribution to a 2011 online blog called ‘Innovating Humanitarianism’

Humanitarianism today is faced with many challenges. On 2-5 June 2011, the Second World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS) brought together the best of thinkers and researchers to discuss urgent questions about the changing nature of current crises and how humanitarian policy and practice can best respond to this.

The Broker hosted this conference blog, which was run by Sean Lowrie and Marieke Hounjet of the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies. Contributions are welcome: mail Marieke Hounjet.

The WCHS conference is organized by the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and hosted by Tufts University, Medford, in collaboration with Harvard University, Columbia University and the Social Science Research Council.