Issue 66 - Article 1

Humanitarian innovation and the art of the possible

April 20, 2016
Kim Scriven
Residents of Panga, Nepal use aerial imagery to take part in a disaster damage assessment

The issue of innovation in humanitarian response has risen up the humanitarian policy agenda with remarkable speed. Recent years have seen a flurry of new initiatives to promote innovation within and across organisations, new collaborations and increased investment in developing and testing innovations at the operational level. As more of these initiatives and projects reach some form of maturity, this is an opportune time to reflect on the implications of the rise of innovation more broadly.

Innovation is in no way a new phenomenon in the humanitarian system. It is inherent to the will to overcome obstacles in order to provide relief and assistance to people affected by crises – though there are doubtless more than a few field- based humanitarians who have looked on incredulously as technological quick fixes are deployed from afar to combat essentially political blockages to the provision of aid. As the rise and decline of Humanitarian Information Centres (HICs) in the 1990s demonstrates (see the article by Paul Currion in this edition of Humanitarian Exchange), the sector has a tradition of developing new programmatic and operational responses, whether due to contextual need or technological opportunity, yet is less good at embedding them. What has changed in recent years has been the rise of innovation as a strategic concern for organisations, and for the sector as a whole.

The rapid rise of innovation

If innovation itself is not new, it is important to try and understand how and why it has become so prominent a feature in conversations about change and improvement. Since the first ALNAP study on innovation in 2009 B. Ramalingam, K. Scriven and C. Foley, Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (London: ODI, 2009) accelerated the current focus on innovation, actors across the system have expanded the breadth and profile of their work in this area. Donors, notably the UK, the US and the Netherlands, have made funds available to support innovation, and developed policies that encourage innovation and the harnessing of new technologies. The DFID Humanitarian Response Review and subsequent Humanitarian Innovation and Evidence Strategy is a good example of a donor supporting innovation:

The availability of these new sources of funding has enabled new innovation initiatives to emerge, including the Humanitarian Innovation Fund within ELRHA, the first cross-sectoral mechanism to support humanitarian innovation. A number of research and policy efforts have diagnosed many of the systemic barriers inhibiting innovation, and innovation units have been created in a number of agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). See, for example, CENTRIM, Strengthening the Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem Study (Brighton: CENTRIM, 2015); A. Betts and L. Bloom, Humanitarian Innovation: The State of the Art (Oxford: Refugees Study Centre, 2013); and Deloitte, Promoting Humanitarian Innovation Exchange (London: Deloitte, 2015).  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have built ambitious and externally facing organisational units which play an important role in positioning their organisations as relevant and dynamic. Perhaps most significantly, the theme of ‘transformation through innovation’ was selected as one of four initial themes for the World Humanitarian Summit.

The challenges of achieving change

Despite this rapid proliferation of innovation initiatives and funding, innovation has yet to be fully integrated within humanitarian operations. Emerging ideas get stuck at the pilot stage or siloed within a single organisation, unable to achieve scale and impact.

In order to change this, it is important to understand where this policy agenda has come from, and to see innovation as part of a wider conversation about strategic change and improvement in the humanitarian system. In this respect innovation shares many features with other efforts: moves to improve performance through greater use of evaluation; campaigns and initiatives to make the system more accountable (particularly to people affected by crises); and more generally ongoing attempts to develop a common framework for humanitarian effectiveness.

These efforts reflect the almost universal agreement that the humanitarian system faces a myriad of strategic and operational challenges, which perhaps threaten the basis of the humanitarian enterprise itself. Despite many attempts at reform, a coherent response to such concerns is yet to appear. The past decade has seen the ‘formal’ sector grow to a $25 billion-a-year industry, affecting millions of people’s lives, yet its institutional composition has persisted even as the nature and extent of crises have evolved.

Investment in innovation offers an enticing combination of opportunities to break this apparent inertia. It presents a new pathway to change, free from the political and institutional blockages curtailing other initiatives; creates potential access to new funding and resources, as well as links with dynamic partners in the private sector; and promises powerful new insights and action. However, while investment in innovation has delivered undoubted improvements in practice, innovation in itself will not deliver radical, system-defining change unless organisations that hold power in the system believe such change is in their interests. For example, the adoption of new technology like SMS messaging may help close the gap between aid giver and aid recipient, but it will not be sufficient to ensure that aid givers respond to the views and wishes of affected people.

Learning from experience

While this presents a challenge to the potential of innovation to lead to real change, we do now have a much richer body of experience to draw on to inform our collective thinking about innovation. At the project level in particular, a myriad of promising innovations are being developed and tested around the world. These pockets of good practice have much to tell us about the challenges and benefits of innovation, and can perhaps help guide future efforts to bring about change and improvement in the sector. But they also reveal a number of key issues that will have to be tackled in the coming years.

The first concerns the need to improve the use of evidence. As an increasing number of operational-level innovation efforts reach fruition, it will become increasingly important to demonstrate their impact at both the project and system level. This will include both measuring the performance of new approaches and improving the baseline data on existing practice. But questions around the impact of innovation should not be confined to the short-term horizons that characterise much humanitarian work. We must also take account of longer- term impacts and look beyond stated benefits to unintended consequences, for instance around how the growing use of drones and remote communication technologies in the humanitarian sphere may be contributing to the increased use of remote management practices, increasing the separation between agencies and those they seek to assist.

A second related challenge concerns the extent to which innovators and the humanitarian system are able to scale up those innovations that do offer improved solutions. Given the length of time it takes for innovations to take hold (particularly in a non-market system like the humanitarian sector), it is perhaps not surprising that we are seeing a proliferation of innovations at the pilot stage, yet limited examples of new ideas being widely adopted. This is not just a question of time. There is an increasing concern that, despite increased investment in innovation, institutional blockages and perverse incentives in the system present significant challenges to the growth of promising ideas. The most detailed exploration of this to date is D. McClure and I. Gray, ‘Scaling: Innovation’s Missing Middle’, Thoughtworks, 2014, These might include the tendency to prioritise the provision of material assistance regardless of context, or the challenges in shifting procurement and supply of standard relief items, even when new products offer improved performance. Fundamentally, accountability in the system is such that the performance of agencies has at best a partial relationship with their ability to raise funds and operate in future crises, limiting the imperative for continuous improvement and innovation.

A final area of consideration relates to the ownership of innovation. As outlined above, to date the drive for innovation has come from within the humanitarian sector. This has too o en manifested as an effort by the ‘old guard’ of humanitarian actors to present themselves as dynamic and relevant while keeping control of resources and authority and maintaining barriers to entry into the system. Sometimes such barriers exist for good reason (such as concerns over the protection of humanitarian principles); in other cases, they appear more the result of closed perspectives that are counterproductive to real change. Although creating space for incremental innovation and improvement, this leaves little room for radical or disruptive change.

Entrepreneurial organisations such as Field Ready (see the article by Eric James and Laura James in this edition) may stand a good chance of overcoming these obstacles to adoption, able as they are to draw on personal expertise and networks from within the sector. The challenges may be greater for local organisations and crisis-affected communities, particularly as (almost by definition) they may be less focused on wider adoption or replication outside their specific contexts. But until the system creates (or supports the creation of) meaningful channels to integrate innovations from within affected populations and local organisations, it will struggle to move beyond tokenistic efforts and make the case that it is driven by the needs of affected people, or that it can offer radically new approaches to the provision of assistance.

The next phase of humanitarian innovation

Where then does this leave humanitarian practitioners, aware of the structural inadequacies of the system, but working within it to provide assistance and relief in some of the world’s most challenging contexts? There is undoubtedly a real risk that the centralised innovation capacity that the system is developing will be detached and superficial, unable to meaningfully address key concerns about accountability, protection and access during conflict, or recognise and empower local responders.

In the short term, those who focus on innovation must do a better job of relocating innovation capacity from HQ to the field, providing tools and guidance to support those seeking to solve problems in the delivery of aid. Supporting the proliferation of a myriad of small positive changes to the aid system is a powerful tool in advocating for the potential of new approaches and business models, and highlighting broader inertia and intransigence. The longer-term impact of the focus on innovation is less certain. As the political and operational contexts which shape humanitarian aid change, the extent to which the current system is able to adapt and evolve in response will depend on whether it is possible to achieve a shift in the culture and underlying politics of the aid system.

Kim Scriven is Manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, ELRHA.


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