Is platform capitalism really the future of the humanitarian sector?

I read Platforming - what can NGOs learn from AirBnB and Amazon? by Paula Gil Baizan, World Vision’s Global Humanitarian Director for cash based programs with interest-but also some astonishment.
I disagree with a lot of her arguments and the general sense that (I)NGOs and other humanitarian actors should turn into entities similar to the giants of platform capitalism.

First and foremost, I find it quite astonishing that a senior manager of an INGO does not even hint at the hidden cost, exploitation and side effects that platform capitalism comes with.
It is a bit more complicated than ‘Amazon and AirB’n’B are good with data’.
From the, shall we say
diplomatically, difficult conditions in Amazon’s warehouses and its broader corporate culture to the bigger issue of precarious employment (e.g. Deliveroo in the UK) or the challenges AirB’nB is increasingly posing on urban rental markets and related service industries (e.g. in New York, Barcelona or Berlin), a picture emerges that many vulnerable workers are actually worse off due to said platforms.
I find it difficult to see how charities, non-governmental organizations and humanitarian actors that by their very mandate engage with marginalized, vulnerable constituents should mirror parts of their operations after these platforms.

But besides these broader philosophical issues I also have some more detailed points of critique that will follow the flow of Paula’s original post:

A platform recognises its biggest asset is not the real estate nor the intellectual property, it is the intangible network of people who need services and those who can deliver them.
I would go as far as rephrasing the sentence as follows: ‘A platform recognizes that real estate and infrastructure are expensive to create and maintain and outsources these problems to its quasi-employees or third parties, i.e. the government’.
But humanitarian aid by definition takes place in an environment where infrastructure no longer exists or never existed in the first place. And connecting ‘both sides’ is easier said than done and either involves a lot of vetting or will attract the equivalent of an army of Deliveroo delivery people to the aid industry; talking about professionalization…

Are NGOs ready to transform data into our most valuable asset?
I would like to see evidence that supports the claim that NGOs have valuable data. Sure, they have some data, but that data is collected in remote locations and from poor people which raises huge questions about data quality and the value of that data.
as a platform makes money by convincing advertisers that their money is well-spent. Many NGOs have expertise (and data) about specific, relatively small contexts and comparing them in a central database could be interesting, but involves huge investments, synchronization of collection tools etc. In the end, there is only one Uber in the city-not 25…

NGOs will be valued not only by the amount of cash grants they manage to disburse, but by the size of their networks and the positive connections made between actors in each particular environment while delivering the cash grant (be it beneficiaries, local NGOS, private sector, government, etc.)
This does not sound too bad in theory, but in practice it is much more complicated. I definitely acknowledge the benefits of cash transfers and at the same time want to stress that as most other debates in development things can be quite complicated.
Bringing together proprietary data from private companies, non open-access government data and from ‘beneficiaries’ immediately raises questions about reliability, comparability and cooperation. I also have difficulties seeing how non-governmental organizations should be put in charge of this task and how they are qualified to work with conflicting interests of stakeholders let alone data protection issues. Data is sensitive, but also very political.

imagine if humanitarians responsibly analysed the information we collect anyway on beneficiary needs, and used it to understand them and their contexts so well we would know what beneficiaries need before they need it.
As my colleague Linnet Taylor is arguing in a lot of her research, simply exporting the complicated, politicized ‘Northern’ debates of data power to the global ‘South’ will most likely mean replicating our problems around rights, opting-out, government surveillance etc. And even if we leave the legal and policy frameworks aside, I find it difficult to see how you could collect data in, say, Chad or the Central African Republic with a quality that would allow behavioral targeting and prediction.
How do we marry data protection, cyber security and humanitarian principles into operational standards?
In the end, the big problems are not the first two issues: data protection and security could be solved; but the insurmountable challenge lies in the ‘humanitarian principles’: Amazon just started deliveries in Australia and it will be interesting to see how it can deal with the country’s remote challenges. And if AirB’nB hosts have a tendency to discriminate against certain user groups it poses new challenges for the platform in terms of liability and other consequences.
The bigger point is that algorithms, the powerful fuel of platforms, can be biased.
Ultimately, the challenge is that humanitarian aid principles and NGO work cannot compromise, they have to go to the distant, remote, destroyed places, the ‘loss makers’ inhabited by people who will unlikely to be transformed into consumers any time soon.

To cut a long story short: I would be a bit more careful in predicting a future of the humanitarian sector based on data-driven cash programs where NGOs mimic global capitalistic platforms.

I would also like to see a much more critical engagement with the concept of platform capitalism and the (hidden/outsourced) cost in an ‘industry’ that by definition should work for the marginalized delivery person rather than the Silicon Valley hedge fund manager.

Ideals and practices based on social justice, equality and changing power relations should always guide the work of NGOs-and sometimes those efforts cannot be simply measured by data collected along the supply chain...


  1. Thanks for this contribution. Very interesting read, and great to get a debate going that critically enagages on the subject of PPPs and platforms.

    There are a few of reasons why I believe that we've got to start asking the 'what if' questions that Paula poses in her blog. First, the Humanitarian Financing gap. This is huge, and unfortunately not only do none of the decision makers have any answers (witness the disappointing outcome of the WHS), but the political, security, and environmental crises that drive the disasters have no end in sight. And when the effects of climate change and the multiplier of population growth really start to kick in, then the Grand Bargain's attempt to 'do more with the same (or less) resources without fundamentally changing the system' will be increasingly empty.

    I believe that the platform approach could be at least part of the answer. That is, if we assume that there are vast untapped resources amongst disaster-affected populations (which has been established in multiple bodies of research, including my colleague Nils Carstensen's Local to Global Protection project), and that mobile phone connectivity can be potentially transformative, and that smart phone penetration even more so, then it's possible that a platform which connects and channels the untapped local resources may be part of the answer.

    I've seen disaster-affected populations grow increasingly active and coordinated in helping themselves and their host country compatriats in many recent responses, including Nepal, Syria, and the oPt. It's doubtless that these kinds of local responses are more effective when the disaster is affecting a lower middle income or middle income country, and we shouldn't jump to think that platforms - or any other new appraoch, including the cash transfer programming of which I am a massive proponent - are a silver bullet. And PPPs are, likewise, no panacea, and carry with them many difficult questions that we'll have to navigate together. But all three of these 'New Ways of Working,' to borrow a tired phrase, are, I believe, going to be part of the future response, and will hopefully help us to avoid the worst scenarios.


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