1. Home
  2. Global

Risk-taking, innovation key to future humanitarian work

Young boys are rescued using inner tubes at a flooded riverside community in Manila, Philippines Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
Young boys are rescued at a flooded riverside community in Manila, Philippines (Aug 2012)

Rapid change has always marked the humanitarian enterprise, but the pace of change feels like it has accelerated, partly driven by technological innovations which are beginning to transform response and are enabling new actors - from graphic designers to chaos scientists - to jump in and respond. To navigate this complex, dynamic environment, humanitarians must “take risks, collaborate, innovate, do better over-the-horizon-analysis and anticipation,” said Allegra Baiocchi, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in West Africa.

Some risks “that should be keeping humanitarians up at night” says Paul Knox-Clarke, head of research and communications at learning network ALNAP, include new disease outbreaks, cross-border epidemics, the threat of operating in situations where there is biological, nuclear or chemical contamination; and climate-change-related disasters - more volatile hydrological cycle and increased flooding, water shortages, disasters hitting mega-cities with poorly developed infrastructure, and chronic drought, such as in the Sahel.

Global population growth (currently at seven billion and growing by 1.096 percent per year, according to the CIA fact book), with the highest growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of southern Asia, will magnify existing pressures of food insecurity, access to energy sources, basic service provision, competition over jobs and other pressures, say analysts.

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban centres, and while aid agencies are trying to adapt to this reality many still default to rural response mode when it comes to setting up refugee camps, malnutrition programmes, or building wells. “We’re not prepared enough for urban response,” said European aid body ECHO West Africa emergency head Cyprien Fabre. “It’s more difficult, it’s more dangerous. It involves working closely with local authorities and knowing far more about the social breakdown of complex population groups. But it cannot be avoided.”

Governments must be on board to contend with these emerging risks and threats: some, such as Pakistan or Malaysia, are increasingly adept at steering aid response at home, while fragile governments still need more support (but may not want it).“Humanitarian agencies which are able to [work with local, national and regional government structures] will be better placed than those with more traditional `go-it-alone’ approaches,” said Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow and co-director of the Brookings-London School of Economics project on internal displacement.

Changing donor scene

Currently a few UN agencies, a few donors and the top 10 largest international NGOs still channel the bulk of humanitarian funds; but emerging donors, local NGOs, citizens groups, private sector actors, militaries, and diaspora members are gaining prominence. Turkey was the fourth largest humanitarian donor in 2012, according to the 2013 Global Humanitarian Assistance report, while Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) donor aid fell by 11 percent, marking the biggest fall.

Privatized aid donors funded 26 percent of all reported aid in 2012, according to the 2013 Global Humanitarian Assistance report, yet some agencies, particularly the UN, are too rigid to tap into private money.

Agencies will be forced to adopt more business-like models to raise and sustain funding, say analysts. As Degan Ali, head of African Development Solutions put it at a Dubai fundraising conference earlier this year: “If we were really looking for lasting solutions, we would be reaching out to the private sector and saying - you lead the way.”

New funding technologies, such as Bitcoins (a decentralized electronic currency which is currently exchanged through computers or smartphones and bypasses governments or banks) will likely feature in future humanitarian funding. “Which aid agencies are adjusting to these [funding] changes institutionally? My hunch is no one, at least not enough,” said Randolph Kent, head of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College, London.

This diversification of aid response is likely to increase, say analysts, and traditional actors had better find ways to engage. Technological innovations have shifted the barriers for entry into the humanitarian sector. Individuals and groups within agencies are mapping ways of how to adapt to, and make the most of, these new opportunities and their efforts need support from above.

OCHA has mapped out all sorts of ways for traditional humanitarians to engage with the emerging “volunteer and technical community” in its 2013 Disasters 2.0 report, including setting up humanitarian information labs to foster experimentation and learning; synthesizing the huge swathes of open data for use by coordination clusters through visualization and other tools; establishing service agreements and training opportunities for volunteers and techies to understand humanitarian principles and accountability that traditional humanitarians at least try to live by; and using technology to sift through crowd-sourced info to identify only the accurate parts.

Donors and agency heads need to come together to make some of these suggestions a reality. The key is to ensure this technology can improve processes and programmes, not just communication for communication’s sake, warns Imogen Wall, OCHA’s coordinator for Communications with Affected Communities. “Connectivity is essential not just for communication, but for money transfers, supply-chain management, etc.”

And embracing the new must not be at the expense of the old: using radios to communicate with communities, discussing people’s problems face-to-face, evaluations that involve speaking with communities at field sites. Technology can bring people together but it can also “distance and dehumanize our interaction with the populations we aim to serve,” warned the ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group head, Sara Pantuliano.

It is an exciting time for humanitarian actors, but only if they find ways to keep up and adapt. “There is so much that is exciting about this. So much that is transformational. It turns the all too frequent perceptions of “hapless people in need” into people who also have something to offer, people whom one assists for reasons, not only of empathy but also enlightened and mutual self-interest,” said Kent.

Technology opens up new possibilities

Technology, if used properly can improve early warning (SMS warnings pre Hurricane Sandy for instance); programming innovations (see fact box); real-time monitoring (“bounded” crowd-sourcing by giving specific groups phones and training to update on emergency needs daily; or real-time crisis mapping, which can map out who is affected, how and where, who is responding, which hospitals are closed on an ever-evolving map); real-time feedback (Somalis can provide it online to Danish Refugee Council projects, for instance); and monitoring and evaluation.

It can also be targeted specifically to helping communities - a disaster’s first responders - to better help themselves, (for instance web-based application Resilience offers “community-based disaster resilience in a box”, by helping community members report and resolve non-life threatening issues post-disaster).

Humanitarian agencies are learning to listen to disaster-affected communities - but too slowly - and they are only just starting to turn this listening into response. If feedback does not turn into actionable response, technology will merely raise expectations that are not met.

Humanitarians must identify their value-added

Humanitarians must find a way to identify their value-add in this changed environment. Do they merely guide on ethics and principles, if websites can now match the needy directly with service providers? Or do they take on a proactive leadership role? How do they coordinate in an era when an electronic cash transfer has taken care of meeting people’s food and non-food-item needs? Finding the way will require setting the space aside for experimentation - including embracing failure; will involve forward-thinking leadership, opening up to new partners and approaches, and less fear - is the general consensus among interviewees.

Some fear that embracing diversity sits uncomfortably with widespread efforts to professionalize, better organize and standardize the aid sector over recent years: Sphere standards, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) certificate on quality and accountability, cluster coordination, stronger evidenced-based programming - are examples. The standardization has, as is the case in any sector, improved knowledge and in many cases quality, but also introduced a new bureaucratic layer into aid organizations and responses. But ALNAP’s Knox-Clarke says: “There is no need for standards to diminish. The competence and quality of work you do should matter - not where it comes from or who is funding who.”

Likewise, humanitarian principles matter, as do paying heed and engaging with new frameworks that guide other groups’ response, such as justice or human rights. Lines on principles are already blurred - and the gap in approach between Dunanist (e.g the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières) and multi-mandate agencies is widening. “There might be a stark division in the approaches taken by traditional international humanitarian actors and local actors carrying out humanitarian programmes with more religious, social or political agendas. Or it might be that there is a gradual blurring of the lines,” said Ferris.

Some things that need fixing

And while individuals and agencies are struggling to keep up with the pace of many of the above changes, some areas of humanitarian response remain stubbornly stagnant. Funding remains for the most part short-term and inflexible (with the exception of some emerging three-year appeals); and the gap between consolidated appeals (CAPs) and response is steady or growing, according to Development Initiatives.

Food aid continues to win, while protection, early recovery, education consistently lose - and cross-cutting themes such as psychosocial support seem to get lost altogether, according to ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System.

Preparation and early warning are severely under-served and much of the analysis focuses on preparing for the worst of past disasters rather than the magnitude of future ones. Surge response is improving but UN surge remains too slow, and high turnover rates are a problem for all. Assessments are increasingly shared but UN-NGO sharing is still too weak. Training opportunities have multiplied but aid workers are still weak in analysing political context, and analysing risk as opposed to need, have weak language skills and all sorts of other shortcomings.

Timeliness remains problematic, particularly in slow-onset crises (the Horn, for instance, though the Sahel showed improvement) and in the acute phase of conflict. Capacity is still much-discussed but little understood. And the humanitarian-development divide largely persists, despite much resilience talk. Innovation requires not only embracing the next exciting new technology, but fixing the intractable problems of the past.


Programme innovation

In 10 years’ time aid agencies may be printing out transitional shelters or pots and pans for refugees using 3-D printers. Doctors and nurses in rural clinics may be able to tap into tele-consultations to discuss different treatment options for a new disease epidemic (these “telemedicine” networks are already well-established in developed countries and WHO is analysing how to make them work in developing ones).

Displaced students may be able to distance learn through online classes. Currently funds such as the multi-donor Humanitarian Innovations Fund are supporting individual efforts at change. These include efforts to capture how best to remotely manage projects in Somalia; the “humanitarian genome” project which creates a search engine to rapidly process and analyse aid experiences so that valid context-specific information can be easily extracted; and the mobile vulnerability analysis and mapping project, which uses voice technology to collect information about household-level food security. But scaled-up support to innovations such as these will need to involve private-sector partnerships, said several analysts.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.