Drones for peace and development?

Two recent news items related to unarmed aerial vehicles (UAV) in the context of security and development caught my eyes: First, the UN announced that they are looking into using UAVs to gather information in the DR Congo (UN wants to use drones in DR Congo conflict), although the AFP-piece is much more nuanced than the catchy headline suggests.
And today I came across another piece reporting that Google’s Global Impact Award will be funding a pilot project of the WWF to use ‘sophisticated radio-controlled devices like hobbyists use’ in helping to ‘stop wildlife crimes’, in particular rhino poachers in a variety of places in Asia and Africa. The UN is explicitly talking about ‘drones for monitoring’ and the WWF has even started a website about their ‘conservation drones’ with the catchy tag-line ‘now everyone can drone’.

But this is not simply about semantics. Taken at face value, these developments look like an innovative use of technology for a greater good, potentially saving lives if innocent civilians and rhinos. But given the current controversies around the use of drones in security and military scenarios (The New York Review of Books' recent piece 'It's Time to Stop Killing in Secret' is a great contribution to the debate) I really think that there should be a broader discussion in the development and peace communities sooner rather than later when it comes to the use of drone-like technologies.
Right now, I can see at least four areas which deserve broader critical analysis:

1. Adding civilian legitimacy to military and law-enforcing technology

2. Who will be paying for the technology?

3. Complex questions about accountability when IOs or NGOs are involved

4. How can intelligence, analysis and action work together?


Adding civilian legitimacy to military and law-enforcing technology
Bringing two organizations with huge amounts of ‘mainstream’ credibility into the drone discussion is an excellent way to stress the ‘dual use’ of the technology and to shift the focus to its ‘humanitarian value’. Even if Google is involved, the technology is heavily influenced and until now pretty much exclusively used by intelligence, military and other law-enforcement entities. Using drones will bring by default ‘security’ and ‘development’ people together and I see a real chance of a militarization 'in the air' similar to the one we have been witnessing on the ground (e.g. through 'civilian-military cooperation' in Afghanistan).
As one commentator at Mother Jones put it, WWF becomes part of an effort to ‘militarize conservation’ and there is already a very belligerent language in place:

These innovative new tools will give rangers in protected areas and local communities a welcome advantage against the ruthless and deadly gangs of criminals targeting wildlife.
I am wondering whether this is a route a civil society organization should take?
Who will be paying for the technology?
Even if these two examples are just test balloons or in an early stage of discussion, relatively modestly funded organizations employing expensive technology does not sound like a great idea. I find a future in which part of a donation to an NGO or UN agency may be used to pay for surveillance technology (and training, analysis, maintenance etc.) almost the ultimate irony of charitable giving. It is also debatable whether notoriously underfunded and under-staffed UN peacekeeping missions should spend money on an expensive technology:

UN officials stress that there could be no speedy deployment of drones in DR Congo as MONUSCO would need equipment and training.
The ‘Voloko conspiracy’, a group blog run by American law professors outlines some of the challenges for the UN case in more detail:
Perhaps it’s worth adding that “deploy drones” sounds simpler than it is. Although they can be flown from the other side of the world, the Predator and Reaper type drones under discussion here require a lot of supporting physical infrastructure – airfields close to the surveillance zones, a couple of hundred support staff just to deal with deployment, maintenance, fueling, etc., of the physical aircraft, and so on. Nor are they a true substitute for a combined intelligence stream that includes drone surveillance, telephonic and other signals intel, and ground level human intelligence networks. The drone is just a part of that package, and to be effective takes time, as with most intelligence activities. Even if the US or France were to step up and say, here they are, there are many logistical and political hurdles to be met.
Complex questions about accountability when IOs or NGOs are involved
But these financial and logistical issues are only two aspects of a bigger discussion. So who should then be using data generated through drones? Just the peacekeeping mission which is already a fairly heterogeneous entity? And what about, say UNHCR or WFP, who could also use the data to determine refugee flows, pockets of civilian populations, destroyed areas etc?
And we have not even started to discuss data security, data storage, distribution or access. If only a small group of highly-trained experts has access to the data and they are ultimately accountable to the UN or a large NGO this is likely to create uncomfortable pockets of intransparency.
And how would you deal with countries’ request to ‘check’ the data? If you say ‘no way’ your expensive drones may never fly again over their territories, but if any military or intelligence agency gets a foot into the door the organisation’s legitimacy may be hampered – even if it is just rumours, misinformation and/or fear-mongering.
But I also do not want any PR-speak by said organisations – leave that to NATO or the politicians...Conservation Drones already has a ‘collateral damage’ disclaimer on its site:

Disclaimer: The Conservation Drones team (Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich) strives to develop Conservation Drones that are operationally stable and safe. However, we have no control over the operation of Conservation Drones by our collaborators. And therefore, the Conservation Drones Team will be not held liable for any bodily harm and/or property damage resulting from the operation of Conservation Drones by third parties, including our collaborators.

How can intelligence, analysis and action work together?
But even if we could imagine situations with a clear, transparent and limited mandate this still looks like a scenario that either overstretch organizational capacities – or would require a substantial investment into technology. Employing any kind of drones may eventually become another area of ‘digital solutionism’ in areas where governance challenges abound. Because we know from history that ‘early warning’ and ‘early information’ is often not the primary challenge, but translating any analysis into action is. So what if WWF’s drones spot poachers ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and the government proves unwilling or unable to enforce the law? It is a thin line from there to employing armed drones to follow-up on the intelligence...

Even if we are only at a very early stage, ‘drones for development’ will become part of the agenda in the near future in one way or another.
Besides philosophical, legal and practical concerns, I am mostly concerned that development organisations will have to align too closely with the military-industrial complex (again) as well as a variety of unaccountable government entities across the globe and an open debate is more than necessary – but the outcome seems

almost certain: In the not-so-distant future we may no longer be complaining about the fleet of Toyota Landcruisers with logos, but maybe about white UN drones or UAVs with the Panda logo...

Update: The beauty of blogging is that any post is always 'work in progress'...I just realized that Eddie Walsh wrote an excellent piece for Al-Jazeera earlier this morning that deals with similar concerns regarding the WWF project:
WWF drones raise serious questions for international security. He also addresses the question of debate and transparency:
In the case of the WWF drone programme, one must assume that the WWF leadership has considered these programmatic questions - at least internally. Now, they need to share these assesments and allow them to be scrutinised by outside technical, legal, and policy experts, and opened to public debate. The issues raised by anti-poaching drones are simply too big not to demand such transparency.

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