Of drones, encounters nothing short of life-changing & building a movement – how the BBC reports on ICT4D & technological solutionism

‘Getting aid to a war zone in a swarm of drones’ popped up in my BBC app among many other articles over the weekend.
It seemed like one of many articles that you have probably come across as well that highlight how new technologies can be employed to deliver aid in humanitarian contexts.
But a closer analysis revealed a very interesting and also very typical narrative and turned this article into an almost textbook-like example of how mainstream media often write about ICT4D and technological innovation.
Since we are currently teaching a course on Cooperation, Culture & Media Analysis in our Communication for Development MA I thought I might take the chance and analyze the narrative more in detail:
On an airfield in Sacramento a group of aircraft enthusiasts make noisy toy helicopters perform stunts in the air.
Right from the beginning we are taken to a place thousands of miles away from an actual crisis and outside of any humanitarian or development context; the underlying message is that innovation most likely happens at unusual places, not inside traditional organizational contexts.
It's the deeply personal project of 33-year-old Mark Jacobsen, whose meeting with refugees in Turkey 13 months ago was nothing short of life-changing.
"What I experienced there is more real to me than almost anything else," he says, pausing for a drink of water and to allow a choking wave of emotion to pass.
We are quickly introduced to the ‘hero’, the main actor of the story whose encounter with a humanitarian crisis happened through personal interaction and triggered the wish ‘to do something’.
The goal of this project is huge - "to end starvation and medical deprivation as weapons of war". The concept of "swarming airlift", if it works, is one that can potentially be used not only in Syria but anywhere a transport aircraft - such as the C-17 Jacobsen flies for the US Air Force - would be at risk from anti-aircraft fire.
The reader is presented with a sweepingly broad, yet also unrealistic objective that fosters the ‘one David against the Goliath of war’ narrative; incidentally, any critical engagement about the US Air Force or the American drone program are pushed aside to present the ‘good Samaritan’ who plans to ‘revolutionize’ humanitarian aid ‘anywhere’.
For this testing weekend Mark's small house on the campus of Stanford University - where he is taking time off from the Air Force to study for a PhD in political science - is covered in planes. They're on the bookshelf, on the bed, there's a glue gun on the floor, and here and there a spare wing.
Now is a good opportunity to link the ‘hero’ to an elite academic institution and indirectly to Silicon Valley and the IT industry and remind the readers of his goal-oriented nature, focusing on building delivery drones. His dedication and personal sacrifice blend in nicely with the underlying discourse that these are American, male, US Air Force and Stanford traits-traits that will challenge and change ‘our’ ways of thinking and doing things.
"The team I'm working with, there isn't a single word in English that can describe my gratitude, and I can't thank them enough for what we're doing," he says. "They're dedicating all this time and effort to help people and a country they've never been to. It's amazing."
Adding a comment from a grateful ‘native’ and in the broader sense potential recipient enhances the credibility of the project. It is about ‘dedicating time’ and ‘helping’ people – even though he has never been to Syria. But we learn that technology can bridge these geographical, cultural and contextual gaps as there is a universal ‘language’ of doing good through ICT.
Even including the autopilot, battery and motor, each (drone) costs less than $500.
We are presented with a seemingly small amount of money – but also without a context.
What could, for example, ICRC, WFP or MSF deliver for the cost of each small drone? How much does it cost them to deliver 1-2kg of supplies from Turkey into Syria?
This technological innovation also seems to come without additional cost - from shipping to maintenance and electricity to the staff required to operate them. It is the technological equivalent to the
‘100% of your donation go straight to the program on the ground claim’.
"The technology is already out there. It's not going away.
"The bad guys have it. We want to give it to the good guys."
Luckily, there are clearly distinguishable ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ and no grey areas, ethical or legal questions or dual use questions; obviously, ‘ISIS’ are the bad guys and the American Air Force pilots the good guys.
They gather the children on the concrete runway - Americans as well as Iraqis, Syrians and Palestinians who've been invited by the local refugee centre.
A drone launches and circles in the sky, but this time it flies lower than the others. A box drops, hanging from a parachute, and showers the waiting children with sweets. They hurry to grab a handful from the floor and quickly open the sticky wrappers.
The team are as happy as the kids.
No story about humanitarian and development aid is complete without ‘happy children’ and distributing sweets through the technology of the ‘saviors’; the display of harmony between peoples and countries adds to the narrative that the US, after all, is still the melting pot for immigrants and refugees.
But as Jacobsen sees it, failure is not an option - it hasn't been since his first meeting with the Syrian refugees.
"This project has made me feel more alive than any time in my life," he says, "because I really think it matters…
"It's not just a few aeroplanes. This is a movement."
As the articles reaches its conclusion, it is time to bring out the big ICT and ICT4D discursive guns: ‘failure is not an option’ emphasizes the underlying maker culture and that individual hard work will eventually pay off; if failure is not an option we move dangerously close to the declaration of a success story that leaves very little space for learning and critical reflections. In development, failure, or incomplete success, is almost always an option.
Ending the article on a ‘movement’ note helps to put the project into perspective-even though the only places we have visited so far are an airfield near Sacramento and a Stanford dorm room-but ‘movements’ usually grow from top to bottom as all the pre-digital movements of
the 20st century have taught us.

Catrin Nye’s reporting is a typical example of how uncritically even well-funded mainstream outlets like the BBC follow the technical solutionism narrative when it comes to humanitarian technology. No secondary sources seemed to be consulted for the report-no critical academic, activist or local voice were presented in the entire piece. Neither is there a single source from the humanitarian community who endorsed the project, let alone confirmed claims about a ‘movement’ in the making.

Last not least, in a week when US drones just killed two aid workers in Pakistan, it seems almost cynical that the man behind the project is a Air Force pilot and that there is not a single critical link between the American drone strikes and the humanitarian use of a similar technology.

All in all the article remains superficial and perpetuates many of the myths of how clever people in California will create a technology-driven ‘movement’ to solve humanitarian emergencies, or more precisely
to end starvation and medical deprivation as weapons of war.

I do realize that this is only one small piece in the BBC’s large multimedia ecosystem and yet a powerful reminder how easy and tempting it is to turn your attention to California and look for your version of the ‘after meeting Syrian refugees in Turkey one man decided to do something that has the potential to challenge everything we know’ narrative without thorough critical engagement with a variety of readily available resources.

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