As part of the Nepal earthquake response review commissioned by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in the UK and Canada’s Humanitarian Coalition (HC), an assessment was undertaken on how well humanitarian innovation worked in the operational effort. While the scope of the exercise meant that a comprehensive and detailed evaluation was not feasible, it has been possible to develop an overall sense of the effectiveness of the innovation effort in the response. Key lessons are summarised in Box 1, and explained in detail below.
Lesson 1: The earthquake presented major operational challenges to international and national actors alike, and demanded a number of operational and strategic adaptations to ensure that effective responses could be mobilised
For many actors on the ground, the need for creative approaches was apparent in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. There were challenges around assessment, access and delivery, which have continued to affect the response. This created a potentially ripe environment for humanitarian organisations to apply and adapt new technologies, form partnerships with new actors and test new approaches. However, there was little collective or organisational effort to make use of this opportunity by the international humanitarian community.
Lesson 2: The contextual and political barriers to innovation were considerable
The context, and in particular the need for organisations to carefully navigate national and local institutional politics and structures, led many organisations to act conservatively, rather than push for novel and creative approaches. Bringing innovation to bear on the humanitarian challenges created by the earthquake was not just a technical challenge, but also a political one.
Lesson 3: Much of the creativity and novelty present in the response concerned tactical adaptations to context
Much of what was referred to as innovation related to tactical operational adjustments in response to specific conditions and challenges. For example, there were many examples of procedural changes by DEC/HC members to enable them to work in new settings, with new partners, or to expand their previous sector focus. There were examples of effective engagement with local communities, especially youth networks and savings groups, as volunteers in the relief phase, and as platforms for distribution. In particular sectors and areas there were interesting new partnerships, for example with remittances companies, to channel cash transfers to affected people. There were also many new variations of existing processes, such as rapid assessments, reallocating staff across offices to meet surge needs and expedited procurement processes.
While some of these are noteworthy, they amount to what has been described as ‘single loop learning’, namely finding ways to make existing processes work better. Much of the ‘innovation’ has been about adapting existing standard operating procedures to achieve marginal improvements in performance and effectiveness. They were also largely in pockets here and there, rather than systematically integrated into the response as a whole. While such incremental improvements are necessary and important, questions remain about whether they were sufficient to meet the challenges of the response and the needs of Nepalis.
Lesson 4: Many ‘visible’ and high-profile innovations had no or little connection to the operational setting
Some of the more externally visible ideas had little or no connection to the frontline of response operations, with humanitarian innovation summarised by one observer as being mostly about ‘disaster-focused technology marketing’. Although this may seem cynical, numerous examples were given of innovative ideas that were showcased in the media and in fairs in universities, but which had not been adopted by any operational organisation and had not seen any real-world testing. This was especially apparent in the areas of shelter and digital tools.
Lesson 5: Transformative innovation needs foresight and preparedness if it is to be brought effectively into responses
In contrast to the prevalence of ‘single loop learning’, there was an acknowledged lack of ‘double loop learning’, or approaches to rethinking and finding new ways to achieve the objective. Without some degree of preparedness and groundwork, transformative innovative procedures and protocols are unlikely to be utilised in emergency responses. DEC members made good progress in cash responses thanks to pre-crisis training, which helped establish individual and organisational capacities and made the context more receptive and amenable to the introduction of cash when the response was underway. The lesson here is not just for operational organisations, but also for funders of innovation, who should consider allocating dedicated resources for crisis-specific applications of previously tested approaches.
Lesson 6: Resourcing for innovation, although potentially available, was not focused and targeted enough on priority challenges
Although there have been emergencies, notably the Ebola response in West Africa, that have triggered specific funds and challenges for innovation, there is no consistency within the sector as to whether such efforts are made for emergencies as a whole. In Nepal, few formal innovation mechanisms were established with a specific focus on the response, meaning that specific issues that were calling out for more and better innovation – shelter, say, or communications – did not get a critical mass of attention and investment. As a result, the innovation effort was highly fragmented across and within sectors.
Because of the lack of predictable emergency-specific funding of innovation, much of the work that goes on in real-time responses is not funded. By contrast, many funded innovations do not always have good connections to ongoing operational responses. This leaves the humanitarian innovation effort in a curious Catch-22: needing to do more to demonstrate its operational relevance, but not getting the resources to do so until it demonstrates its operational relevance.
Lesson 7: Almost all of the innovation that took place in the response was within specific organisations, with very little happening in a cross-organisational fashion
Innovation efforts are highly fragmented, meaning that there is both waste and duplication, and numerous missed opportunities. For example, many organisations talked about the use of some form of mobile monitoring or digital mapping of the crisis, but much of this was replicated within different organisations. More collaboration would allow for much better use of resources and solutions that can be supported collectively. Even within organisations, different sectoral responses have very different ways of engaging with the innovation question. While mechanisms such as the clusters did in some cases raise innovation-related issues, they were not typically high-priority issues.
Lesson 8: International organisations paid insufficient attention to the role of local organisations and end-users in innovation
One key area of discussion was the extent to which end-users’ own priorities, needs and capacities played a role in innovation efforts in the response. The overall message was that this was not yet a major priority for international aid organisations. There was a tendency to focus on internal stakeholders and innovations that addressed their needs. As one respondent put it, ‘we are still really doing innovations in and for aid processes, not innovations with and for communities’. There were some examples of efforts that opened up the innovation process and made use of the considerable skills and talents within communities, but these tended to emerge from Nepali organisations that engaged directly with communities and involved them directly in the innovation process. Examples include bringing in diaspora expertise in community-based reconstruction efforts and the engagement of the Nepali cooperative banking sector to finance early response. While it must be noted that such innovations can be localised solutions to problems of response and recovery, and therefore may not always be replicable, the fact is that they are often completely off the radar of international organisations. As a result, novel ideas that could potentially have had positive effects across the response were not fully grasped by international humanitarian organisations.
Lesson 9: Innovation needs to be thought about and undertaken in a much more open and democratic fashion than is currently the case
The lack of sensitivity described above did not just relate to end-users in communities but also to potential operational partners. There were numerous promising innovations from Nepali organisations themselves, such as the Kathmandu Living Labs (see the article by Elizabeth Gilmour in this edition of Humanitarian Exchange). The military trialled interesting information management approaches, and some private sector organisations and diaspora organisations developed novel forms of fundraising. But these initiatives were poorly linked to by the international humanitarian community as a whole, whose mindsets, processes, organisational structures and networks proved insensitive to the kinds of ideas and approaches that were emerging on the ground. Instead, what was seen as innovative was largely what had some form of legitimacy and credibility within the formal sector. This served to limit the potential of radical and challenging ideas.
Lesson 10: In operational contexts, humanitarian innovation is still a nascent effort
Although there has been an encouraging increase in interest in humanitarian innovation, as well as positive signals from major donors and implementing actors, the Nepal experience suggests that there is still some way to go before innovation becomes a mainstream operational focus for humanitarian organisations. Instead, what was observed was at best a nascent system, with very small-scale efforts to try out new approaches, but insufficient investment and infrastructure to make the effort really meaningful. Based on the evidence of the Nepal response, there isn’t enough attention and resources being paid to bring innovation into the frontline of emergency response work.
These lessons should serve as a wake-up call for the sector as a whole. Much more effort is needed to fully operationalise innovation so that it makes the most transformative contribution to response efforts.
This means, at a minimum:
• more operational preparedness for innovation efforts in different settings, to include training, pre-emergency piloting and establishing necessary partnerships for developing and testing innovations;
• crisis-specific funding and support mechanisms to strengthen and amplify innovation efforts;
• mechanisms for drawing in ideas and insights from end-users and local organisations; and
• mechanisms for facilitating cross-organisational innovation efforts in specific areas, to pool resources.
Overall, the findings about humanitarian innovation need to be linked to, and contextualised within, wider findings about weaknesses in humanitarian action. It is perhaps unsurprising that the innovation field should replicate some of the self-same challenges as the wider sector. However, as innovation is being positioned as one possible set of solutions to the ailments affecting the sector, there is also a need for a good hard look at whether innovation efforts are being thought about, developed and strategised in ways that could ultimately change the way that aid is delivered. On the basis of this current review there is some way to go, and innovation is more of a nice to have, rather than a must have, and is not yet a core operational priority for response organisations. As such, humanitarian innovation appears to have much in common with previous efforts to change and improve the sector, such as accountability, learning and performance initiatives.
With the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit placing a high priority on innovation issues, there is potential traction at the policy levels of the system. But without more conscious and sustained effort to support creativity and novelty at the frontline of operations, innovation is likely to remain a marginal part of humanitarian responses.
Ben Ramalingam is Leader of the Digital & Technology Research Group at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. This article draws on work published in the DEC-HC Nepal Earthquake Response Review.