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

A global organisation that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation..
Our purpose is clear: we work in partnership with a global community of humanitarian actors, researchers and innovators to improve the quality of humanitarian action and deliver better outcomes for people affected by crises.
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Chinow using cash via test messages to buy food. Photo Credit: Allan Gichigi / Oxfam

This past year has been one of enormous challenges, and we have seen humanitarian needs continue to rise. With the conflict in Ukraine, the global food insecurity crisis and the intensifying climate emergency, the role research and innovation plays is a vital one to finding solutions and improving outcomes for people affected by crisis. 

As we start 2023, we are taking a moment to reflect and share highlights from across our programmes and initiatives: the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC), Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) and the Global Prioritisation Exercise (GPE). 

Making the case for improved tracking of humanitarian research and innovation 

The ‘Who funds what? Humanitarian research and innovation funding flows analysis’ and policy brief was launched. The analysis is the first attempt at a rigorous process to track humanitarian research and innovation funding allocations within the humanitarian system. The policy brief builds on the analysis and makes the case that to realise the full potential of humanitarian research and innovation (HRI), we need better tracking of funding and donor coordination, to align resources around the most pressing humanitarian issues. 

How to scale an innovation from local success to international impact 

We launched the third paper in our ‘Scaling Series’ – a playbook of tactics for innovators who aim to scale up their work through enabling other organisations to adopt their innovations. Syed Imran Ali kicked off our webinar discussing the playbook. Imran highlighted the importance of the study in offering clear and actionable guidance on adoption for both innovation teams and humanitarian organisations. He explained that too often proof-of-concept innovations struggle to pass the pilot phase due to obstacles on both the side of the innovator and at a systems level.  Adaptation of successful programmes to new contexts was one of the key themes at last year’s Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) Forum. Ian Brightwell, Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Manager for Scale and Gender-based Violence (GBV) attended the forum. In this blog, he describes the overlaps between lessons shared there and the six tactics for adoption identified in our scaling paper. 

Innovations to improve access for people with disabilities in humanitarian response 

Based on the Humanitarian Innovation Fund’s (HIF) 2020 Gap Analysis on the inclusion of people with disability and older people in humanitarian response, we launched a catalogue of innovations. The first of its kind, the catalogue profiles innovations that have south to address some of the gaps identified and provide evidence of the experiences and barriers to inclusion that older people and people with disabilities face across a range of humanitarian themes and contexts. 

An evidence review of research on health interventions  

Our flagship publication in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health maps evidence published from mid-2013 to 2021 on the effectiveness of health interventions in humanitarian settings. It captures research that has taken place in nine thematic areas, and in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This allows us to take stock of what evidence has been published, trace the quantity and quality of research, and begin to identify evidence gaps to inform future research.  

Former Senior Humanitarian Health Research Advisor, James Smith, reflected on the importance of evidence in contributing to more effective, targeted and ethical humanitarian response.

R2HC contributes to landmark new guidance for international funders 

UKCDR and ESSENCE launched a new Good Practice Document, ‘Four Approaches to Supporting Equitable Research Partnerships’ on health research. The guide supports equity in research partnerships, helping funders, research organisations and researchers improve their ways of working in multi-country research consortia, particularly in LMICs. R2HC participated in the Taskforce which helped develop this document and contributed a case study – ‘Using seed funding to incubate research partnerships’, drawing on lessons learned from R2HC. 

Innovation for Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in humanitarian crises 

Bringing together insights across research and innovation, our report with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, Science Practice and Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies sets out how the SRH community of practice understands innovation, and maps innovative interventions for SRH research gaps and needs. In addition to providing an analysis of where we are in terms of innovation for the humanitarian SRH sector, it offers a clear strategy and next steps on how to meaningfully innovate for SRH. Anne Harmer, Head of the R2HC programme shares insights into how innovation and research can drive evidence-based change 

How can we prevent food insecurity crises? 

Within R2HC, we thought long and hard about launching a responsive research call to address this crisis. However, the short-term nature of such responsive calls belied the cyclical and highly complex nature of these crises. With this in mind, we launched two new requests for proposals to identify system solutions to avoid the long-term impacts of food insecurity. This included identifying: 

  1. Evidence on how malnutrition and food insecurity increases risks of disease, maternal and child morbidity and mortality, and violence  
  2. Existing evidence-based interventions to prevent the health, nutrition and economic impacts of food insecurity and building these into “prevention packages”.

This is a new way of working for R2HC and you can read about our thinking behind it and how to apply in as written by our Senior Humanitarian Health Advisor, Gillian McKay.  

Funding rapid research in a pandemic – what do we know? 

At the start of the pandemic, in 2020, we released a rapid response funding call, and funded 15 studies to contribute to COVID-19 humanitarian response. In this two-part blog series, we profiled these studies covering topics including behaviour change, communications and messaging, as well as GBV — all linked to COVID-19.  

Humanitarian responders and researchers are increasingly engaging with communities affected by crises as part of their research process. During a webinar we hosted in June 2022, we asked R2HC research-practice partners to share their experiences of engaging with the needs, perceptions and priorities of communities as part of their research on the impact of COVID-19. We explored the fundamental question of how evidence gathered from communities can then be leveraged into action and drive improvements in humanitarian response.  

How technology can provide new ways of responding to GBV  

To mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence (GBV), our Innovation Manager, Ian Brightwell, examined how technology can provide new ways of responding to GBV but also creates new forms of harm. In humanitarian settings as elsewhere, the gender inequalities that perpetuate GBV are replicated in new technologies and now innovators are searching for safe ways to use technology to better support survivors. Old forms of violence against women – threats, defamation, smear campaigns – now find new platforms that greatly accelerate their pace and amplify their reach. 

Solid waste disposal: identifying innovation opportunities for a wicked problem 

As highlighted by our Gap Analyses of WASH humanitarian response, solid waste disposal (SWD) is a prominent problem. Ruth Salmon, Senior Innovation Manager, presented our latest report and methodology at a Global WASH Cluster satellite event in October. She explored how innovation can help to address SWD in two settings, as well as five innovation opportunities that could tackle them. Ruth writes about the takeaway from the event discussion; SWD being a deprioritised systems problem, and noted the innovation opportunities that event participants ranked as most impactful. 


As you can see, in 2022 we continued to engage and support research and innovation to provide solutions to the most pressing humanitarian challenges. Looking forward to this year, we will launching our new strategy to 2040 and will be marking 10 years since the R2HC programme was founded. We are committed to taking a long-view and making commitments that will strive to improve the quality of humanitarian action and deliver better outcomes for people affected by crisis. 

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