From Space to Supply Chains: A Plan for Humanitarian Data Governance

22 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2019

See all articles by Sean McDonald

Sean McDonald

Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI)

Date Written: August 12, 2019


In June of 2019, the World Food Programme (WFP) issued an ultimatum to the Houthi Government in Yemen: participate in our biometric identification system or receive less aid. The Houthis chose to a partial stoppage of aid, accusing the WFP of being a surveillance operation. The issue is complicated – on both sides – but it points to a significantly larger trend: humanitarian organizations’ digital operations and data sharing relationships increasingly shape whether beneficiaries, governments, and partners trust them. And, for humanitarian organizations, trust determines their license to operate, which is often negotiated with a range of parties in difficult contexts. At a practical level, humanitarian organizations digital transformations aren’t just changing response efforts – they’re also changing the role of humanitarian organizations themselves, from direct service providers to managing a network of digital vendors, public/private partnerships, local partners, and governments – and all of their competing interests in the data response efforts produce.

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly in the position of negotiating the license to operate, including to collect and share data, without the ability to enforce those licenses across their supply chains. As a result, one of the clearest opportunities to protect shrinking humanitarian space is to focus on building transparent data management and governance into humanitarian supply chain contracting. This article highlights the relationship between digitization and humanitarian supply chains, with a focus on data protection and governance, and makes concrete recommendations on where to focus reform efforts to meet practical needs of digital humanitarianism.

Keywords: humanitarian, data, data governance, ethics, big data, data protection, policy

Suggested Citation

McDonald, Sean, From Space to Supply Chains: A Plan for Humanitarian Data Governance (August 12, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Sean McDonald (Contact Author)

Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) ( email )

57 Erb Street West
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 6C2

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics