Isabelle Schlapfer

Thesis title

'Corporate Narratives and Humanitarian Technologies as Sociotechnical Imaginaries: How Multi-National Companies Impact on the Idea of Humanitarian Aid'


My PhD study examines how multinational companies impact on the idea of humanitarian aid through technologies designed to improve aid delivery in complex emergencies and disasters. In light of a humanitarian turn towards technologies, private-public-partnerships between non-profit organisations and humanitarian agencies with businesses have become a key aspect of humanitarian aid. In fact, businesses have become vital partners for humanitarian aid through the development of technologies that fundamentally change the way humanitarian aid is delivered.

However, in a sector which has been strongly rooted in an ethical stance and the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, corporations cannot be seen as merely as new implementing partners. Rather, they are simultaneously actors with sociotechnical power and create, through the way they operate through technologies, new knowledge and expectations about future humanitarian orders. Viewed in this way, little scientific knowledge exists about businesses’ capacities in establishing sociotechnical visions as vital elements in the making of the humanitarian sector.

Using a qualitative comparative research design of two case studies – namely, IKEA Foundation’s Better Shelter and MasterCard’s Aid Network and prepaid cards – the aim of my PhD project is twofold. Firstly, I explore how particular sociotechnical imaginaries emerge through corporate narratives of technological progress, and to what extent corporate visions become dominant or even inevitable to explain how private-public partnerships role in humanitarian aid evolves. Secondly, I study how corporates’ technologies enable visions which shape or reinforce certain understandings of humanitarian aid, and what that means for the humanitarian community in terms of principled aid.


  • Prof Ken McPhail, Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester
  • Dr Birte Vogel, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester

Research interests

Commodification processes in humanitarian aid and development policies; private-public partnerships; co-production of technologies and social realities; digitalisation of humanitarian aid and data justice.

Teaching interests

  • Critical Realism and qualitative methods in social science
  • Feminist perspectives on research methods
  • Humanitarian aid and technologies
  • Digital transformation of aid and data justice

Previous background

Before starting my PhD, I worked as a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies, University of Bern, Switzerland. Tasks included: co-authoring, designing and running policy evaluations on gender equality in various policy fields, applying qualitative and quantitative methods.

Besides doing my PhD, I am managing editor of the Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, a collaboration between HCRI, Save the Children and MSF.

Previous education

MA in Political Science and Gender Studies, University of Bern.


Peer-reviewed articles

Vogel, Birte; Tschunkert, Kristina, and Isabelle Schläpfer (under review). “Beyond linearity: The multidimensional implications of humanitarian cash and voucher assistance”, submitted in: Disasters.

Amacker, Michèle; Büchler, Tina; Funke; Sebastian, and Isabelle Schläpfer (forthcoming). “Violence, Vulnerability, and Gender in the Context of Welfare Services and Humanitarian Interventions - How Public-Private Partnerships Reinforce Structural Violence and Restrain Resistance”, in: SGGF, Violent Times, Rising Protests. Structures, Experiences, and Feelings. Seismoverlag: Zürich.

Schlaepfer, Isabelle (2017). “How the Arrival of Companies Re-Examines the Notions of Legitimacy and Accountability: the Example of Cash Transfer Programmes”, in: Alternatives Humanitaires/Humanitarian Alternatives, 6 (November), p. 62-75.

Amacker, Michèle; Schlaepfer, Isabelle; Bigler Christine, and Andrea Graf (2017). “The Development of Gender-Responsive Indicators: Towards a Participatory Approach”, in: Women, Gender & Research, 1 (17), p. 97-107.

Fischer, Manuel, and Isabelle Schlaepfer (2017). «Metagovernance and Policy Forum Outputs in Swiss Environmental Politics”, in: Environmental Politics, 26 (5), p. 870-892.


Ingold, Karin; Lieberherr, Eva, Schlaepfer, Isabelle, Steinmann, Kathrin, and Willi Zimmermann (2017). Nationale Umweltpolitik. Ein Lehrbuch. (National Environmental Politics. A study book). Zurich: Dike Verlag.

Other Publications

Schlaepfer, Isabelle, Graf Andrea, and Michèle Amacker (2016). Evaluation des Aktionsplans 2013-2016 der Abteilung für Gleichstellung der Universität Bern (Evaluation of the action plan 2013-2016 of the Office for Gender Equality of the University of Bern). Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies, University of Bern: Bern.

Contact details