Digital Humanitarianism Is Not a Panacea for Refugee Education — Iurii Shliakov

5 min readDec 24, 2021


In recent years, overwhelmingly positive reviews about “digital humanitarianism” occupied the media space. Digital humanitarianism usually refers to helping people who find themselves in the context of a humanitarian crisis, such as victims of natural disasters, man-made disasters, or military conflict, through the use of technology. Such technological intervention is usually viewed exclusively from the positive side both in the media and in academic works, and the technologies themselves are described in terms of “science fiction.”

A good example is the application of technology to refugee education. The introduction of online classes, personalized learning via individual programs, as well as the use of modern software are presented as a panacea for refugee education. However, such excessive optimism about technology can damage those to whom these technologies are applied. It is important to answer three questions before extolling technological intervention in refugee education: 1) Where do these technologies come from? 2) Who develops these technologies? 3) Do these technologies really help refugees?

Misunderstanding of the context

The main criticism of digital humanitarianism concerns the contradictory position that technologies to help the Global South are mostly developed by the Global North. Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia, in their of digitalization of education of Syrian refugees showed that out of 60 private corporations involved in the supply or application of technologies, 49 are companies from the Global North. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, private companies located in the Global North develop technologies with regards to the culture of consumer countries, or rather, developed and prosperous nations of the Global North. These are their primary market, about which companies conduct marketing research. “What does our consumer need?”. The problem here is that this average consumer has completely different needs and applies those technologies for other tasks, not those facing refugees. Secondly, by adopting technologies to the Global North and the generalized Western world, large corporations adopt refugees and people from the Global South to the culture and values of the Global North. The technologies themselves carry a particular set of values and sequences of actions that need to be repeated to master these technologies successfully.

Thus, digital humanitarianism is not an instrument of liberation and empowerment. On the contrary, it makes refugees more dependent on technology in education and sensitive to Western values embedded in the programs’ algorithms. Children who receive an education using a tablet as a substitute for traditional face-to-face teaching, rather than an addition to it, acquire technology skills and an understanding of the work of algorithms, but not education itself. Moreover, if we are talking about pre-recorded lectures, the educational programs themselves were designed for a different Northern context and are not sensitive to the needs of the refugees. And if we are talking about adaptable programs for the child’s individuality with the help of artificial intelligence. Then today, these technologies are much more artificial than intelligent.

The role of large corporations

Another question directly related to where technology comes from is the question of the motives of the corporations that provide technology to refugees. Of course, in their media, companies emphasize their humanitarian mission and support a standard philanthropic narrative. There is no problem with this as long as it benefits refugees. However, it is important to remember that refugees are often deprived of a voice on public platforms and are in a vulnerable position. Sandvik and collegues emphasize that companies can use humanitarian crises as an opportunity to test their developments and experiment with their programs, avoiding ethical approvals. And no, this is not the horror movie’s plot, but the actual situation in which the refugees are. Often companies are guided not by thinking about what is necessary but by thinking about what is possible.

In addition to improving algorithms in temporary camps, where rules regulations are loose, companies can consider refugees as a future market. Thus, by providing refugees with the ideology hiding behind the liquid crystal surface of the tablet, it is possible not only to introduce the child to specific values but also to cultivate brand loyalty in them.

Of course, we can say that these are fictions that are only accidental if they are related to reality, and the companies do not have such selfish motives. In response to this skepticism, I will quote some representatives of commercial organizations involved in the use of technology in the education of refugees, whom Menashy and Zakharia interviewed in their research:

‘When they’re innovating new things, sometimes an area in conflict might be the right environment to test out a product or service’ (Interview, Business, June 2016);

‘I get one or more companies contacting me every week saying, “We have this great idea; this great technology we want to pilot at your school.” And I say, great! What do you know about our curriculum, our students? They say, “you tell us.” They don’t even want to come in and see for themselves what teaching and learning looks like over here!’ (Interview, NGO, January 2017).

‘A lot of these solutions focus on hardware without really the understanding of peoples’ development that’s needed to ensure buy in, sustainability, and efficacy more generally’ (Interview, UN agency, July 2016).

Stimulating inequalityFinally, there is a universal problem in applying technology: the ambiguity of its effectiveness. shows that technology can serve not as a means to overcome inequality but to strengthen it. For example, to participate in online training, you need to have stable Wi-Fi, a working tablet, and general technical skills. Children who have grown up without the active use of technology may lag in learning from children who have this experience. , only 8.41 million people out of 17.88 million people have access to the Internet. . Thus, the Matthew effect will work in this situation — the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.In this article, I do not want to say that technological implications to refugees’ education are primarily bad, and the companies that help them should be ashamed. On the contrary, the explicit humanitarian mission of large corporations not only brings help to refugees in the form of direct donations of technologies but also helps to spread the agenda among consumers of the companies’ products. Often people learn about the humanitarian crisis, not from the news but from the advertising of their favourite brand.However, here I wanted to address critical points that need to be kept in mind the next time you read another laudatory ode to the brave digital world. The biggest problem of the digitalization of education is a lack of understanding of refugees’ needs. Companies bombard camps with technologies and software without prior research and specific recommendations. This can be corrected by changing the approach to the situation. To treat refugees as an end, never as only a means.Here at BizGees you can find two more articles dedicated to the importance of refugee education entitled ‘The Refugee Youth in Education’ and ‘Education should not stop when you are refugee’ written by

The development of technologies, in turn, affects the future outcome

William Chamberlain and Sara Al Soodi respectively. For a more detailed acquaintance with the criticism of the use of educational technologies, you can read the scientific papers on ‘ Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology ‘ by , ‘ Private engagement in refugee education and the promise of digital humanitarianism ‘ by Menashy and Zakharia as well as some articles in other media ‘ Worst practice in ICT use in education ‘ by , ‘Humanitarian technology: a critical research agenda ‘ by .


Iurii is a Master’s student in Education at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.

Originally published at the BizGees website here.