Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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Panelists and audience members at the Global Prioritisation Exercise's (GPE) session for Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW). Credit: Elrha

Last month, we convened a rich discussion as part of Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks 2023 to share consultation results from our flagship initiative, the Global Prioritisation Exercise (GPE) for Humanitarian Research and Innovation (HRI). This first look at insights from a multi-level global consultation with actors and funders working in the HRI field identified the key priorities and challenges for the sector. 

All our panellists considered ways to overcome key challenges and how to transform the research and innovation sector to improve efficiency, equity and best inform humanitarian action. 

A First Look at the Consultation Insights

The consultation, made up of 134 interviews, asked the following question:   

Some humanitarian crises receive disproportionately more research attention than other crises of similar devastation and magnitude…Some population groups also receive more research attention than others. Why do you think this might be the case, and what factors influence research funding and research attention?  

Four thematic areas stood out in the responses as being perceived to have the most influence on HRI funding and attention: 

  • Political and geopolitical considerations: including the potential impact of crises on large economic powers, geographical location and proximity bias, and the political climate in the crisis-affected setting. 
  • Donor-related factors: what donors prioritise (such as their own agendas or interests, or operational and lifesaving activities over research) and factors influencing donors (such as political priorities, public visibility or a focus on international agendas over national ones).  
  • The influence of the media: including perceptions that media visibility and attention can influence funding generally as well as the direct impact a high-level of media focus can have on research funding, and the relationship between fading media attention during protracted crises and a fall in funding and research interest.  
  • The nature and characteristics of a humanitarian crisis or issue: including concerns around the scale and severity of the issue, sudden onset events versus protracted or recurrent crises, and whether the crisis had a humanitarian or development focus. 

There is a widespread perception within the humanitarian community that factors other than need are influencing HRI funding and attention. The focus going forward should be the importance of shifting to a needs-based system, and for a collaborative, inclusive identification of priority topics, and a prioritised and equitable research agenda. 

Recommendations and System-level Priorities

The main recommendations that emerged from the consultation included a commitment to ensuring that HRI funding is needs-based and focuses on long-term impact rather than responding to the scale of a disaster or humanitarian crisis; the importance of advocacy and pushing back when HRI focus and priorities are politically driven and not needs-based;  and the use of new technologies and innovations to address logistical challenges and facilitate remote research and programming. 

The key message drawn from the consultation is that there is a widespread perception within the humanitarian community that factors other than need are influencing HRI funding and attention. The focus going forward should be the importance of shifting to a needs-based system, and for a collaborative, inclusive identification of priority topics, and a prioritised and equitable research agenda.

Panellists noted that change was also required at a global systems level, detailing four key areas in need of focus and better results: 

  • A needs-driven agenda: a regular and routine assessment of where these needs are is required to support actors to identify priorities. There also needs to be a closer eye on where funding is going, and to challenge inequity around funding, which is still primarily coming from donors in high income countries and going to institutions which are also headquartered in high income countries. 
  • Flexible, long-term sustainable funding: at present, about 0.2% of overall humanitarian spend is going into HRI. While there are multiple reasons for this, one of the biggest problems is the short-term nature of the funding. This creates a struggle for local actors and innovators trying to find solutions to sustain funding for the innovation or research, and hamper efforts at expansion, adoption or dissemination.  
  • Improving funder coordination: mechanisms at regional level that support coordination are not being invested in, supported or mainstreamed in the humanitarian system. There is a need to find ways to coordinate and get people to talk, understand and respond to the needs. 
  • Demonstrating the impact of HRI: there is a need to show why it’s important to invest in HRI by demonstrating the difference it can make on humanitarian challenges and issues. 
Panellists (L-R): Anton Shevchenko, Jess Camburn, Rita Rhayem, Nigel Timmins (Chair), Mark Bowden, Maggie Schmitz, Marian Abouzeid. Credit: Elrha

Reflections from the Q&A session  

Questions and concerns raised by the audience were wide-ranging from the importance of local voices in decision-making, to the value of high-quality HRI data and the challenges of accessing it and how to better establish a needs-based system for HRI: 


The idea of integrating local actors, diaspora actors, as well those affected by crisis, into decision-making on the ground was recommended as a more effective way to identify and shape the needs and priorities and ensure a more sustainable response. Funders are not always aligned with what those locally, nationally or regionally believe to be high-priority, as local actors are often not the ones at the table. 

Further, there is a problem of institutional bias and the added bureaucracy of funding locally-led HRI. On the question of funding local universities and young researchers, at present, there is a lack of funding to institutions in low- and middle-income countries which means many young researchers leave for opportunities in higher-income countries. 

Data and Systemic Research 

Much of the research undertaken so far by the GPE is contributing to a wider data set that will help support decision-making for HRI. Currently, there is a lot of data available, but as a system we need to work out how best to use it – how do we make our collection and use of data reliable, cheap and routine? And how do we connect data from a previous crisis to new crises?  

Accessing reliable data in areas of high humanitarian need remains a concern. The panellists each offered thoughts on ways around this problem, including bringing in more local actors as long-term partners to help carry out this research. The point was also raised that we need to simplify the needs assessment process and shift towards more contextual local analysis.  

Private Sector Partnerships  

Private sector partnerships could offer another finance stream for HRI, and with a different set of priorities this could contribute to longer term and, crucially, more flexible funding for both innovators and humanitarian responders. 

Moreover, private sector partnerships could further strengthen efforts to localise HRI, placing in-country actors and entrepreneurs with a better understanding of the needs in decision-making positions.  

Re-examine the Role of the UN Clusters  

Calls were made for a reassessment of the role of the UN clusters within the humanitarian system. The key recommendations here were to make prioritisation more of a focus for these groups, as well as to reassess financing structures for HRI to avoid neglecting ongoing crises and needs as new ones unfold. 

Find out more

Watch the full video from the event, read our blog and stay up to date on future research and events from the GPE by signing up to our newsletter.

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