Digital Humanitarianism in a Kinetic War: Taking Stock of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine – which can be described as an info-kinetic conflict – is the first war in a society with a relatively mature digital economy, a substantial tech sector (including a diaspora tech sector) and a high adoption rate of technology and digital platforms.

From a peace and conflict studies perspective, as of mid-spring 2022, the war in Ukraine can be understood as an information war, a war through digital diplomacy, a cyberwar, and the first war where Big Tech has actively taken a side.

Illustration: TechCrunch

For those working on the narrower topic of the digital transformation of the humanitarian sector and the politics of humanitarian technology, the initial phase of the ongoing war in Ukraine points to a number of issues that need to be better understood.

Despite an enormously dramatic history of humanitarian emergencies, with an ongoing internal displacement crisis since 2014, Ukraine has received limited attention in the forced displacement and humanitarian studies field. This also includes the humanitarian technology scholarship.

Before 2022, contributions on technology and conflict in Ukraine focused on mobile phone use in the Donbas conflict; the role of Twitter and social mediadigital civil society and political mobilisation; information warfarecash and logistics.

Where the lack of pre-existing expertise might explain the relatively limited academic commentary so far (with some exceptions, for example concerning drones), the techno-utopianist promises of ‘gadgets as game changers’ we have been so accustomed to over the last decade are so far mostly missing in action. There is a ‘Tech to the rescue network’ with a #TechForUkraine campaign. There has also been controversy over a student-created website, ‘UkrainetakeShelter’, that promised to ‘resettle Ukrainians in three days’. However, the examples of fantastical and/or unethical tech interventions remain limited.

To contribute to a more focused critical debate, we discuss two developments:

First, focusing on communication technology, we discuss the sudden rise of the Telegram app as the platform of choice not only for Russian and Ukrainian civilians, government actors and militaries, but also for volunteers.

Second, considering technology facilitating financial transfers, we look at the use of cryptocurrency as a ‘humanitarian technology.’

Our ambition is modest: we aim to set out some pointers for discussion and a co-collaborative research agenda. We highlight what is new, some of the risks arising and, more generally, how we can articulate a research and policy agenda.

The rise of Telegram: implications

Over the last decade, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, KakaoTalk, and Telegram, have become an integral part of humanitarian responses, as illustrated by the Syrian conflict. While humanitarian organisations might not always officially use these apps,  citizen humanitarians, companies, the media, and communities in crisis do. Telegram was launched in 2013 by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov with the promise of end-to-end encryption. In 2014, Durov fled the country after refusing to turn over anti-Kremlin protesters’ data.

Telegram has been since then particularly popular in countries with low degrees of rule of law and high degrees of surveillance and corruption.

Usage patterns are known to change dramatically over short periods of time: Before the current crisis, Telegram was not one of Ukraine’s top messaging apps, but between February 24 and March 20, the adoption of Telegram (and Signal ) rose by almost 200%. It has been argued that Telegram has become “the app of choice in the war in Ukraine”.

What is new? In the first six weeks of the conflict, we have seen a partial ‘humanitarianization’ of Telegram. Globally, Telegram channels (a function to broadcast messages to large audiences) are now being used to offer services and information to refugees from Ukraine. This includes housing, assistance, legal aid, as well as networking and meet-ups. Telegram has also become the digital infrastructure around which volunteer initiatives are wrapped. Telegram is used to seek donations, organise volunteer efforts, and disseminate rapidly updated government information or arrival times for trains and buses.

In mid-March, we witnessed the use of Telegram at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (BHB). BHB has been a key gateway for refugee arrivals since late February (herehere and here). A commentator noted that even with a substantially higher number of arrivals in Berlin than in 2015, “everything seems better organised now”. At the BHB, QR-codes were leading new volunteers to Telegram channels providing all necessary information and allowing for rapid updates. The Telegram channel is also a source of ‘rumours and warnings’, for example, concerning human trafficking. Numerous channels provided a host of opportunities for Berliners wanting to help; for instance, you could join groups such as  @ukrainehelpberlin, or @ukraineberlinarrivalsupport.

With digital inventions and innovative uses, there is always risk. Straddling a range of different approaches and initiatives in the humanitarian efforts for Ukraine, is what we call ‘the narrative of safety’ surrounding Telegram. According to this narrative, Telegram is an app that ‘the Russian authorities can’t break;’ ‘it’s encrypted;’ ‘it’s more ‘secure’.’ Telegram’s asserted comparative advantage is that it gathers less information makes it be perceived as less predatory than other dominant apps, such as WhatsApp.

Yet, relatively little critical scrutiny has been given to Telegram and its ability to provide security: The offer of end-to-end encryption is more limited than might be apparent and Telegram has been called out (by the competition) for being less secure. In response, Durav broadcasted on his channel that with today’s war in Ukraine, “privacy is sacred. Now – more than ever.” From a research and policy perspective, it is important to note that this safety narrative engenders trust and complacency in a highly complex and dangerous context. This in turn shapes aid efforts.

Digital payments and cryptocurrencies

What is new? The Ukraine conflict has resulted in innovative adaptations of well-known services and products. Airbnb pledged to provide Afghans with shelter after the humanitarian evacuations from Kabul in 2021.  In the present conflict, Airbnb has also featured as a channel for people-to-people transfer of funds directly to Ukraine, by facilitating the booking of places that people never intend to use. The company waives host and guest fees and transfers money to the host bank account in 24 hours. As a result, the number of houses booked has risen to more than 400.000, grossing almost $2 million. Similar initiatives have included purchases on eBay from Ukrainian sellers or booking car rides via BlablaCar. These companies also waived fees.

However, the most notable development has been the arrival of Blockchain and the broader category of Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) as fully-fledged humanitarian technologies. After years of hype and tentative experimentation, cryptocurrency and the attendant “crypto to the rescue” narrative (see hereherehere) is becoming  accepted as a ‘humanitarian’ technology through which donations can avoid heavy fees charged by traditional financial networks, be transferred nearly instantaneously, and provide access to the resources from any location.

In 2019 the Government of Ukraine launched a plan to digitalise government services and a strategy to use cryptocurrency in the country’s domestic markets. In 2021 Zelensky signed a law allowing the issue of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC), an essential step in the digital transformation of the Ukrainian economy, including a cashless financial system. With this platform, in February 2022, the Government of Ukraine launched an official cryptocurrency donation website to raise funds for humanitarian purposes and support the armed forces. But this was not the only initiative, including the auction of a non-fungible token (NFT) and other crypto donations initiatives which, added to what was raised by the government page, have managed to collect close to $100 million.

Mixed risks and new actors. In the case of Ukraine, while many donations are good-faith efforts to support humanitarian causes, there is no way to know if the money is being used to support military efforts instead. In mid-March, the founder of the largest cryptocurrency exchange in Ukraine, Kuna Exchange, testified in the US Senate hearing on the role of digital assets in illicit finance. In the context of the current crisis, DLTs technology is not only haunted by the spectre of illicit finance, but also by the fact that accountability and protection frameworks are limited in humanitarian projects using this technology.

Another set of concerns relates to sanctions, for example, whether Russia could use cryptocurrency to evade sanctions (useful overviews here and here). In response, Binance (a large digital currency exchange business) has pledged to freeze the accounts of Russian clients targeted by sanctions. The freeze comes after Ukraine’s vice prime minister called on major digital currency platforms to block transactions among all Russian users as part of the financial sanctions Russia already face (see here). In what looks much like a well-known ‘moral economy’ move to facilitate acceptability and user-adoption,  Binance has also launched a crypto crowdfunding campaign with the sole aim of donating funds to “intergovernmental organisations and local NGOs on the ground to help provide emergency relief to refugees and children” (link). The initiative raised nearly $10 million that went to UNICEF, UNHCR, and other aid organisations (see here, here, and here).

Research and policy attention is needed towards the experimental aspects of DLTs as they are deployed in emergencies as well as the attempts to institutionalize DLTs and to rework humanitarian funding around DLTs.

The need for a critical research agenda

Technology is commonly implemented for humanitarian purposes with the expectation that it will make aid delivery more efficient, accurate or faster (see hereherehere). In Ukraine similar expectations surround the use of Telegram, cryptocurrencies, and alternative tech-based solutions to transfer money to people affected. As we have discussed, the implementation and use of these technologies can exacerbate risks endemic to technology-use in humanitarian aid, while also engendering new types of risk and harm.

At the same time, any individual technology must be seen in the context of the broader digital transformation of the aid sector, global governance, and the market economy. While a war and a global health crisis are two very different things, the surge in the use of digital technologies fostered by Covid-19 and the digital leapfrogging it has created globally will inevitably form part of the backdrop for the Ukraine response.

From a research and policy perspective, the challenge is to combine an appropriate understanding of context with knowledge about specific technologies and the medium-to-long term political concerns of the humanitarian sector.

For example, despite how digitalised Ukraine might seem to be, the country is still one of the poorest in Europe. Therefore, people offering their houses via Airbnb are most probably not the poorest in Ukraine, and many times they can also be corporations (see here and here).  In the case of the use of DLTs, the question is not only if the use of cryptocurrencies is more like traditional fundraising with new actors and new products, but also how much current developments might foster further politicisation of financial technology in the humanitarian sector. This can be seen as the continuation of  tightening counter-terrorism regulation of the humanitarian sector and the increasing use of  terrorist financing screening technologies.

At the same time,  in the context of the long-standing humanitarian struggle for accountability, where the role of aid organisations as intermediaries have been criticised, the promise of these digital solutions is that ordinary users – everywhere – will have access to more transparent, direct, and efficient financial transactions. As researchers we need to untangle how the promise of localization and even emancipation is ever more tightly interwoven with market logic. These changes might also reshape humanitarianism, from who funds aid, which type of aid is provided, to how aid is delivered. Not only a research agenda is then needed, but also new policies will have to be developed in the future to guide digital humanitarianism. Thus, in conclusion, we suggest that a useful approach is to understand Ukraine not as a terrain for experimental humanitarian technology but as constituting humanitarian-oriented digital transformation.

The authors

Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at the Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a professor of legal sociology at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo and a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies at PRIO. Her work focuses on refugee resettlement, legal mobilization, humanitarian technology, innovation and accountability.

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The Fruit and Flower Basket

This blog examines the hasty militarisation of Europe in response to Putin s invasion of Ukraine and points to the humanitarian racism and global rise of Russophobia exposed by the response to the war.

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