Intersections of Digital Colonialism and Digital Humanitarianism: An Analysis

Authors: Angela D. Ambrose*, University of Calgary
Topics: Social Theory, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Human Rights
Keywords: digital, colonialism, humanitarianism, technology, critical geography, epistemology, Habermas, lifeworld, crowdsourcing, big data, neoliberalism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Forum Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The amplification of inequalities and inequities between the Global North and Global South are propagated by today’s neoliberal economic climate: Humanitarianism, deeply rooted in historical colonial assertions of power, perpetuates such an amplification through the use of digital technologies in the praxis of aid response. Machine learning algorithms, drones, volunteer crowdsourcing platforms and Big Data are increasingly leveraged in decision-making processes surrounding aid response, and they present epistemological challenges of consent, ethics and efficacy. The where and the how of both the development and use of such technologies are subject to criticism here.

In this presentation, I draw connections between neocolonialism and digital humanitarianism by highlighting, first, research surrounding the unethical use of technologies such as drones without the explicit consent of crisis impacted communities; second, the present knowledge politics of geographical and social distance; third, that digital humanitarianism, as framed in the current neoliberal economic system, represents the colonization of the lifeworld through the continued disproportionate leveraging of western-centric knowledges in ways that directly impact the livelihoods of crisis-impacted Global South communities. The system then perpetuates the disadvantages experienced by members of the Global South, resulting in aid response that was developed out of context and is of ineffective utility when employed. I synthesize existing research on digital colonialism to elucidate ways in which digital humanitarian technologies can (re)produce coloniality even when organizational goals are to ethically and equitably provide aid.

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