Humanitarian Innovation: from Need to Insight

Published on 23/08/2017

Humanitarian emergencies are increasingly complex, urban, and longer. The intellectual division between emergency response (humanitarian aid) and longer-term support (humanitarian development) is becoming more artificial and blurred. For example, one of the enormous refugee camps in Kenya has been in existence since 1992.

One implication of this is clear: we need to find more effective ways of meeting the changing nature of humanitarian needs. Given a funding shortfall estimated at a staggering 60% at one point last year, it would be be good if some of these were also more efficient.

The other implication is that surfacing these new approaches will be increasingly reliant on the set of skills that are more typically associated with the field of social innovation. Skills such as analysing a system; diagnosing the points where innovation is needed and will gain most traction; orchestrating different types of innovation; making change happen; or foresight skills to spot emerging challenges and opportunities.

Realising this is a compelling agenda, but there is an additional ask that I haven’t heard. Alongside identifying the areas where we need more innovation, the growing humanitarian innovation community must get sharper at identifying the promising sources of innovation.

Without this, we will simply lack the discipline that makes for good innovation. We’ll be groping around in the dark.

One source should be insights, or bodies of knowledge, that the humanitarian aid sector is less familiar with, but that can be purposefully applied within our contexts. For instance, insights from the learning sciences that we can embody in adaptive technologies to meet the very different learning needs of displaced children. Or, insights into how to ease mental pain that can be translated into low-cost ways of delivering effective mental health interventions. Or, insights from the behavioural sciences to reduce violence.

Another rich source for innovation would be making good use of the assets, and capabilities, of affected people.

The latent capacity here has been neatly described as the Hidden Wealth Of Nations. A tangible example is this self-help health project where community based organisations such as Farmer’s Clubs facilitate access to mental health care. It’s aim is to reduce the 80-90% of people in India who receive no treatment for their mental illness.

Another source of extra resources comes from ‘flipping’ traditional roles. For instance, seeing the ‘learner’ as a ‘teacher’, or the ‘patient’ as an ‘expert’. For example, instead of intensively supervising patients drug compliance through a ‘provider led’ approach the CARE box project supports patients to self-manage their disease. This simple, low-cost, initiative results in a 12% increase in patient’s drug adherence.

Surfacing possibilities such as these in a systematic, re-occurring, way, is not a feature of the humanitarian innovation system. One understandable explanation is that this costs money, and the financial imperative from donors is to reduce the overhead costs of backing innovation (which largely takes the form of grant making).

I worry that there are also less justifiable explanations.

One may be a general nervousness about putting a stake in the ground (much easier, in the short-term, to be agnostic and offend no-one!) The sector also needs to be much more porous to outside ideas (there is a valuable job to be had in replicating something like the externally facing function of Uk Innovation Foundation Nesta’s Exploration team).

The Humanitarian Innovation Community already does a decent job of identifying unmet needs, and is increasingly interested in applying innovation techniques, such as Design Thinking, from other sectors.  As it matures, my hunch is that it will also need to deliver a step-change in the effort it spends on exploring the sources of innovation – and then organising its Open Calls under the headings identified.

This may be a tough request to donors – but it is the right one to make.

Blog by Mark Griffiths, Head of Innovation

Elrha is hosted by Save the Children, a registered charity in England and Wales (213890) and Scotland (SC039570).

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