Exploring a strategic partnership to support local innovation
by Ian McClelland and Frances Hill February 2019

The humanitarian innovation agenda has been broadly top-down to date, focused on improving the tools and practices of international humanitarian actors.+Triple Line, The Humanitarian Innovation Fund External Evaluation, 2017 (www.elrha.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/HIF-Evaluation-submitted.pdf). Yet this top-down focus too often overlooks the talents, skills and aspirations of people affected by crises. Our experience at Elrha shows that addressing the right problem is key to successful innovation; engagement with people affected by crises is essential for fully understanding problems and the solutions required.+Elrha, Too Tough to Scale: Challenges to scaling innovation in the humanitarian sector, p. 25, 2018 (http://www.elrha.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Elrha-TTTS-A4-FINAL.pdf).

In 2017, Elrha formed a strategic partnership with the Asia Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN) aimed at overcoming this bias towards international actors by placing engagement with local NGOs and affected communities at the centre of humanitarian innovation. By developing local approaches to innovation, grounding problem recognition and ideation at community level and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders familiar with, and active in, these settings, our partnership aims to find and support solutions developed for, and by, affected communities themselves.

Community engagement is about ‘using the most appropriate communication approaches to listen to communities’ needs, feedback and complaints, ensuring they can actively participate and guide [humanitarian] action’.+IFRC, Community Engagement and Accountability (https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/what-we-do/community-engagement/). For this to be done well, it is best carried out by actors who are most familiar with the socio-cultural context. The ADRRN comprises a secretariat and more than 50 national NGO members, whose staff have lived experience of the devastation wrought by disasters in the region and have often personally suffered the consequences of inappropriate and inadequate relief efforts. These local actors are the first responders when a disaster strikes, and they remain when everyone else has left.

As told by Jing Rey Henderson, from NASSA/Caritas in the Philippines, who is part of a project supported by the Elrha–ADRRN partnership: ‘Imagine yourself having to swim against floods since you were three years old – muddy and murky, raging and angry. Now picture yourself aged five and lining up for food rations during relief operations. It’s stressful and demeaning. Then you look at the homeless families and jobless parents after each passing typhoon, with the numbers growing increasingly year after year. Growing up, I told myself I needed to make it different for my children and make it better for others too’.+J.R Henderson, ‘#DIGITALPH: A Legacy of the Philippine Catholic Church’, Elrha, 2018 (www.elrha.org/hif-blog/digitalph-a-legacy-of-the-philippine-catholic-church/).

For the Elrha–ADRRN partnership, then, we see ‘community engagement’ at two distinct levels. First, the engagement between our partnership and staff of national and local organisations. These staff guide and carry out humanitarian resilience and response activities, and we need to engage with them to ensure that they can actively participate in the humanitarian innovation agenda. This means working with them to think through ways they might improve their resilience and response capacities. At the second level, community engagement means those staff working to ensure that their envisaged improvements represent the wider needs and demands of their communities.

Through our strategic partnership we’re working to bring together local actors, to strengthen partnerships, and to give these actors the time and space to develop innovative ideas. We’re aiming to build a community of innovators across the region, with a clear line of sight from local needs to regional and global support, so that those organisations gain improved access to regional and international platforms, and we, as both ADRRN and Elrha, receive feedback and learn how to better support innovation in national and local organisations working across the region.

An earthquake drill involving 3,000 people in Baseco Baranguay, Manila Bay.

An earthquake drill involving 3,000 people in Baseco Baranguay, Manila Bay.Photo credit: Frances Hill

Establishing the strategic partnership

The role of networks in supporting innovation is well-established, with theorists stressing the dynamic, networked and ‘open’ nature of the innovation process.+B. Ramalingam, K. Scriven and C. Foley, Innovations in International Humanitarian Action, ALNAP, 2009 ( www.alnap.org/resource/5664). Tidd and Bessant have highlighted several arguments for supporting innovation through networks, including collective learning and sharing the costs and risks associated with investments in innovation.+J. Bessant and J. Tidd, Managing Innovation: Integrating Technological, Market and Organizational Change (London: Wiley, 2011). Cited in K. Scriven, A Networked Response? Exploring National Humanitarian Networks in Asia (London: ALNAP, 2013) (www.alnap.org/resource/8662). Networks also have a key role in spreading and diffusing new ideas and technologies,+E. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: The Free Press, 2010). Cited in Scriven, A Networked Response?. a key focus of ADRRN’s innovation work to date. Drawing on this learning, the Elrha–ADRRN partnership identified four key objectives:

  • To support increased understanding of innovation concepts and access to innovation resources and support, including applications to Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund and other international innovation funders, for national and local NGOs in Asia.
  • To generate and develop innovative ideas for improving disaster preparedness, response and reconstruction in Asia through the strengthened facilitative role of ADRRN and Elrha.
  • To strengthen partnerships with innovation-related initiatives and stakeholders throughout the region, including the private sector, academia, UN agencies, national and local governments and NGOs.
  • To generate learning on the innovation funding and management support required by national and local NGOs in Asia, as well as on the effectiveness of a regional partnership approach in promoting and supporting humanitarian innovation.

In the first year of the partnership, activities focused on face-to-face events, including five in-house workshops with selected early adopters of proactive innovation methods from within the ADRRN membership, and a three-day regional workshop in Jakarta. An evaluation of DFID’s Humanitarian Innovation Evidence Programme (HIEP) highlighted this as a potentially ‘flagship’ strategic partnership to ‘explore and develop a meaningful model for a regional focus on humanitarian innovation … [and] catalyse an innovation ecosystem in Asia that mobilises NGOs, humanitarian agencies, governments and businesses’.+Itad, Evaluation of the Humanitarian Innovation and Evidence Programme (HIEP), 2016.

Engagement with national and local organisations

Three key challenges for our partnership – in navigating between a global charity and a regional network hub, and local organisations across Asia – have been the language of humanitarian innovation, differences in organisational culture, and perceptions of the development–humanitarian divide. First, humanitarian innovation as a broad approach is new to many we have engaged with to date, and feedback suggests that the terminology used in innovation discourse is often inaccessible to national and local NGOs, preventing them from actively adopting these concepts.

Much of the literature informing the growth of ‘humanitarian innovation’ as an area of practice is derived from research on the private sector, starting with Schumpeter’s theory of innovation as R&D, before being replaced  by  more  ‘open’  strategies at the turn of the century ‘based  on  recognition  of  the  fact  that  the sources of ideas and the drivers of the process have become increasingly diffuse’.+Ramalingam, Scriven and Foley, Innovations in International Humanitarian Action, p. 3 But this is not the only way to think about innovation, and other frames of reference, such as ‘jugaad’ innovation in India,+The Hindi word jugaad ‘captures the meaning of finding a low-cost solution to any problem in an intelligent way’ (http://lexicon.ft.com/Term?term=jugaad-innovation). N. Radjou, J. Prabhu and S. Ahuja, Juggad Innovation (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012). may provide a basis for a more contextually appropriate vocabulary and approach. Indeed, ADRRN’s own work on promoting grassroots innovation largely focuses on identifying traditional knowledge and practices that might be replicated elsewhere.+ADRRN, ‘Traditional Wisdom of Earthquake Resistant Building Construction in Nepal’.

Although Elrha has always framed innovation as a process first and foremost, we have also faced challenges around subjective understanding of what counts as an innovative solution. For the workshop in Jakarta we put out a ‘call for ideas’, but struggled to attract what we considered to be viable applications. Without a broad understanding of common practice in the wider humanitarian sector, it was difficult for local innovators to articulate and provide evidence that their idea was innovative in this global context.

Conversely, ADRRN members at the Regional Innovation Forum (RIF) in Bangkok in December 2018 spoke of being intimidated by the term ‘innovation’, understanding it only in relation to high-profile examples like Plumpy’nut and other technology-based solutions requiring particular expertise. In response to this challenge in understanding, our current activities explicitly put the process of identifying and responding to problems at the centre. In partnership with the Centre for Disaster Preparedness, we recently launched a ‘call for problems’ in the Philippines, and we’re working with eight teams to move through the early-stage innovation process.+Centre for Disaster Preparedness, Convening Initiative: Innovation for Earthquake Resilience and Response in the Philippines (https://www.cdp.org.ph/hif-call-for-application).

Second, the relatively hierarchical organisational structures of most ADRRN members (along with a lack of excess capacity to engage in non-core activities) means that high-level buy-in from senior leadership is required in order to create space for innovation and critical reflection. Research by Elrha and ALNAP has previously identified that a non-hierarchical culture is key to enabling new ideas to take root, and some of the most significant hurdles faced by innovating teams can lie within their own organisations.+A. Obrecht and A. Warner, More Than Just Luck: Innovation in Humanitarian Action (London: HIF/ALNAP, 2016) (http://www.elrha.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/hif-alnap-2016-innovation-more-than-luck.pdf). For many ADRRN members, then, this requires a longer-term approach to foster dialogue and build trust. To date, ADRRN has facilitated relationships with relative outliers in their membership who have been identified because of their openness and capacity to engage with innovation.

Third, as a global charity that funds and supports innovation, engaging directly with national and local organisations has required us to think more broadly about our selection criteria and the narrow divide between ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian’ projects. This reflects one of the top priorities identified at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit: the need to strengthen the ‘humanitarian–development nexus’ due to the protracted and cyclical nature of many crises.

At the local level there is no ‘nexus’ as such, but we, as Elrha, face a need to bridge the gap. At the Jakarta workshop, YAKKUM Emergency Unit, an Indonesian NGO, proposed a project that aimed to utilise climate-adaptive farming techniques to improve yields. Advising them, we were unsure that their application for funding would be viewed favourably by our independent funding committee as its aims were related primarily to sustainable livelihoods. Their final application positioned the project as a response to the risks posed by a slow-onset disaster – and they duly received funding.

Engagement with communities

Our partnership model is partly premised on the assumption that, by having innovation efforts owned in part or whole by national or local actors well-versed in the needs of the community and socio-cultural context, any solutions developed would therefore meet the needs of, and be in demand by, local communities.

Our initial experience, however, echoes findings from research for our Humanitarian Innovation Guide that – even when innovators are part of the community – there is a need to strengthen problem recognition skills to ensure that innovation efforts are addressing real and recognised problems and therefore leading to appropriate solutions.+Elrha, ‘Help Us to Help You Innovate in the Humanitarian Sector’, 2017 (http://www.elrha.org/news/help-us-help-innovate-humanitarian-sector/). Through workshops and other activities, we came across several examples of solutions that were driven more by perceived opportunities than strong understanding of a problem.

Where there was a solid understanding of the problem, projects still faced challenges in gaining user acceptance. YAKKUM Emergency Unit were awarded funding to work with farmers in Yogyakarta Province to pilot the use of new tools, organic techniques and drought-resistant seeds. The farmers were initially reluctant to adopt these new organic methods and tools in case it resulted in lower yields. Extensive community engagement was required to persuade an initial group of farmers to use their land for demonstration plots. Once these were established and yields improved using YAKKUM’s innovative techniques, the project took off, but that engagement to persuade farmers to take the initial risk required a strong relationship between YAKKUM and the farmers, built on trust.

A second project funded through the partnership has truly been built from the ground up. The DIGITAL PH project (Digitized Community Disaster Risk Mapping and Information for Efficient Humanitarian Response and Development Programming in the Philippines) builds on a comprehensive physical mapping of 176 communities by the communities themselves during the three-year Haiyan recovery and rehabilitation programme. The project aims to digitise these records and enable communities to maintain the information, which is shared in an online database, so it can be used in the event of an emergency to assess needs and respond appropriately.

Ronald Abao, who is part of the project, was inspired by his own experience: ‘I am a survivor of the devastation bought about by super typhoon Haiyan in Leyte in November 2013. I experienced lining up for hours just to receive meagre food relief. I experienced walking miles to access government services. When I joined Caritas Palo, I vowed to use every opportunity to ease the burden of my fellow survivors. For weeks, we had to explain to every household that before we could bring aid, we needed to do assessments. This was very frustrating. But I also came to understand and appreciate that, without data, we cannot provide the most appropriate interventions, and we will not be able to provide long-term solutions to the crisis’.

For many organisations operating solely at the national and local level, innovation is a luxury. Limited resources mean that few can spare the time and staff for something that might not work in practice. If there is truly an international desire for national and local organisations to take on a larger role within the humanitarian system (as articulated through the Grand Bargain), they must be given the operational space and funding to develop their own innovative programmes. Yet our discussions with participants at several workshops over the last 18 months have highlighted how many local organisations are too reliant on restricted project funds and sub-contracted work from international agencies, and lack the staff and time to look beyond day-to-day operations in order to invest in innovation.

These transactional ‘partnerships’ (not fully partnerships in the true sense – but often referred to as such), based on sub-contracted work and unbalanced power relationships, are frequently detrimental to innovation within the humanitarian space, and yet dominate at the local level. Although we are making progress in this initiative, our work on innovation with ADRRN members will remain a luxury until international–local partnerships become more ‘transformative’ in nature, meaning that the balance of power is spread across the partnership, funding is consistent and longer term, and local organisations are better positioned to lead innovation efforts.

Ian McClelland is HIF Innovation Manager, Elrha. Frances Hill is Effective Partnerships Manager, Elrha.