Nonhuman humanitarianism: when ‘AI for good’ can be harmful

Madianou, Mirca. 2021. Nonhuman humanitarianism: when ‘AI for good’ can be harmful. Information, Communication and Society, 24(6), pp. 850-868. ISSN 1369-118X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Artificial intelligence (AI) applications have been introduced in humanitarian operations in order to help with the significant challenges the sector is facing. This article focuses on chatbots which have been proposed as an efficient method to improve communication with, and accountability to affected communities. Chatbots, together with other humanitarian AI applications such as biometrics, satellite imaging, predictive modelling and data visualisations, are often understood as part of the wider phenomenon of ‘AI for social good’. The article develops a decolonial critique of humanitarianism and critical algorithm studies which focuses on the power asymmetries underpinning both humanitarianism and AI. The article asks whether chatbots, as exemplars of ‘AI for good’, reproduce inequalities in the global context. Drawing on a mixed methods study that includes interviews with seven groups of stakeholders, the analysis observes that humanitarian chatbots do not fulfil claims such as ‘intelligence’. Yet AI applications still have powerful consequences. Apart from the risks associated with misinformation and data safeguarding, chatbots reduce communication to its barest instrumental forms which creates disconnects between affected communities and aid agencies. This disconnect is compounded by the extraction of value from data and experimentation with untested technologies. By reflecting the values of their designers and by asserting Eurocentric values in their programmed interactions, chatbots reproduce the coloniality of power. The article concludes that ‘AI for good’ is an ‘enchantment of technology’ that reworks the colonial legacies of humanitarianism whilst also occluding the power dynamics at play.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Artificial Intelligence (AI); 'AI for social good' (AI4SG); automation; chatbots; decolonial theory; humanitarianism; refugees.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


21 December 2020Submitted
22 March 2021Accepted
8 April 2021Published Online
13 May 2021Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

12 Apr 2021 10:05

Last Modified:

20 May 2021 11:38

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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