What We Talked About at ISA: Crisis Mapping and the Rise of Digital Humanitarianism (Part III)

This is the third of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This second section on the decline of cognitive mapping is here. This final section covers the example of a particular technology being used to overcome deficiencies in cognitive mapping. (For the theoretical context, it’s well worth reading the second part of this series.) Much of the empirical research for this section stems from the work of Patrick Meier and others involved heavily in crisis mapping. Patrick’s website is a stellar resource for the changing digital nature of humanitarianism, and is highly recommended.


In the wake of the recent Haitian and Japanese earthquakes, the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and other major humanitarian disasters, increased global attention has been paid to the ways in which actors involved in humanitarianism can and should evolve to deal with these emergency situations. Media, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations have all reflected on the implications and path forward for managing crises, with a wealth of reports emerging in the wake of this decade’s crises.[1]

A similar set of complex crisis situations has become significant recently with the political events currently surging across the Arab world. While analytically distinguishable from humanitarian crises, these political crises share many common aspects and often blur at their boundaries. Political crises typically produce humanitarian crises, while humanitarian crises often stretch the capacities of political actors. The result, in either case, is a situation characterized by its complex and fast-moving nature. Moreover, in both instances there is often a dearth of reliable information. If effective political action is premised upon the conceptual representations of a situation, then rational action becomes nearly impossible in crisis situations. In this regard, the new technologies involved in ‘crisis mapping’ can be seen as a means for political actors to overcome this cognitive gap. Through this case study it can be demonstrated how political actors are in fact constructed not only socially, but also through material technology.

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How Much Rape Is There In The Congo (DRC)? And How Does It Matter?

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been accused of a sex crime. After a week of free gossip about sordid secrets concealed by superinjunctions, and in the wake of the Assange controversy, the combination of a high profile financier-cum-left-winger with the whiff of sexualised domination has proved sufficient to displace attention from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had earned a spike in coverage from a new report on the extent of sexual violence there.

The numbers are appropriately horrifying. Although I can’t access the full American Journal of Public Health paper from my usual entry points (itself frustrating: why lock up your vital statistical research behind a paywall while the media is reporting on it far and wide?), the abstract suggests the following: based on a representative household survey of 3,345 female informants from a 2007 survey added to some population estimates, it is suggested that some 1.7-1.8 million women in Congo have been raped during their lifetimes, and that between 407,000-434,000 (to the nearest thousand) of those have been raped in the last 12 months. A total of 3.1-3.4 million women are estimated to have been victims/survivors of ‘intimate partner sexual violence’, which I assume means not raped by strangers or officially ‘enemy’ soldiers.

Jason Stearns provides some useful context to argue that these numbers are not surprising given previous surveys, if somewhat more solid in methodological terms. The UN has been calling the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world’ for some time now, and there are a significant number of organisations working on these issues in situ. Indeed, the sheer scale of attention to rape in the DRC is spoken of as a logistical problem among those working there. While conducting fieldwork in Goma last year, I spoke to a UNOCHA representative who put their figures (which were not comprehensive) for agencies working on sexual violence in Eastern DRC at 80 international NGOs and over 200 local NGOs, as well as multiple elements of the UN system itself. Properly coordinating work between such a mass of groups (with wildly varying levels of skill and funding) in situations of violence and funding uncertainty is as difficult as you might expect.

This gestures towards one of a number of complexities and problems in the analysis and politics of wartime sexual violence.

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