Read our new aid policy newsletter, Inklings

Read and subscribe
  1. Home
  2. Global

Do bright ideas in aid need checks and balances?

A light bulb Paul Hocksenar/Flickr
Innovation has been a buzzword in aid for the last five years, but now experts say it is time to move beyond the hype and lay down a formal ethical framework. But what safeguards do you need and how do you regulate aid innovation without killing off its spark?

Kim Scriven, manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), which provides grants to encourage the use of new methods and tools in the field, hopes next May's World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul will help bring discussions together to create a formal innovation agenda.

“There's fantastic opportunity to look at some of the systems and structures, at a governance level but also at an organisational and cross-organisational level,” he told IRIN. “There's also an opportunity and a need to develop norms and standards for innovators, and that's about ethical principles and standards.”

Of course, there is some irony that the people working in innovation, which is supposed to be a system changer, are seeking endorsement from a UN-backed initiative such as the WHS.

Scriven admitted he was a little hesitant. “Innovation is about doing things which are at the edges of systems, disrupting those systems,” he said. “So how does that conversation take place in something that is being driven from the centre of the system?

“If innovation is the enemy of bureaucracy, for the centre of bureaucracy to claim the debate around innovation is potentially a really good way to kill it.”

Human guinea pigs?

The big issue that needs to be thrashed out if you want to develop norms and standards in the field is how to protect the people you are trying out your new ideas on.

Jess Camburn, director of ELHRA (Enhancing Learning and Assistance for Humanitarian Research), HIF’s parent body, makes the point that if you are testing out new ideas during humanitarian work, the “affected populations” effectively become your guinea pigs.

“If you are doing any research that involves individuals, or could affect individuals, you need to think through how you design your programme,” she said. “You have to think what the benefits are to them of taking part in the process, what are the returns for their participation.

“The challenge for the humanitarian sector is that if they are not working as academics, they might not even think of going for an ethical review process. So part of our job is to make sure that we have the systems in place that will support them through that process.”

Increasingly, the private sector is playing a large part in humanitarian innovation. One well-reported partnership is that of the IKEA Foundation and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, for whom the Swedish furniture giant has designed a flat pack refugee shelter.

READ MORE: 10,000 flat-pack IKEA shelters for Iraqi displaced

Failed innovation can cost people's lives, so is it ethical to experiment in this field?
Per Heggenes, the IKEA Foundation’s CEO, notes that there is a very different attitude to risk between the private sector and the humanitarian agencies and believes that is a potential problem.

“You can't innovate without failing,” he told a London roundtable organised by HIF to stimulate debate around innovation in aid ahead of next year’s global humanitarian summit.

READ MORE: The World Humanitarian Summit: Talking shop or game changer?

“You have to take risks and it has to be acceptable both for the donor as well as the partner to take those risks and learn from the failures. I know that's a challenge for the donors, but it's also a challenge for the organisations that we work with, especially the larger partners, because they have a system that does not allow for a lot of mistakes, and that's a huge barrier.”

Balancing the risks

The big difference between failed innovation in a commercial company and failed innovation in a humanitarian setting is that lives can literally be at risk.

“Ethics in humanitarian innovation is a real issue,” said Gareth Walker, international programme manager for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “Failed innovation can cost people's lives, so is it ethical to experiment in this field?”

“The counter argument to that is that the current humanitarian system is recognised as having a degree of failure within it, so is it ethical not to experiment and try to improve?”

If we are collecting large amounts of data, into whose hands does that fall?

Applying a medical lens, Ronak Patel of Stanford University, former director of the urbanisation and crises programme at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, explained: “The way I think about overcoming that challenge is by applying the principle that we have in medicine of 'do no harm'.

“It's comparative. So if the humanitarian system has some degree of failure within it, you ask, 'Is this better than what exists?' When you come up with a new innovation in medicine, what you have to do test is whether it's better than the next best thing.”
Scriven was particularly concerned about risks related to big data – which could potentially be mined for information by the wrong people – and warned that technological innovation in this area had to be managed very carefully.

“If we are collecting large amounts of data, into whose hands does that fall? Those issues are very present in the West at the moment, and a lot of organisations which might be talking about them in one context forget about them when they are in the developing world, and we really mustn't do that.”

Embracing the system

Even if you have good new ideas, an open attitude to risk and all the right ethical principles, you still need practical measures, structures and systems to put the ideas into practice.

Roy Ahn, who works on innovation in maternal health at Massachusetts General Hospital, said systems didn’t necessarily mean bureaucracy.

“I think it's important to know that anyone can have an innovative idea, but to see it fulfilled, you do need the support of an infrastructure to make it happen.”

A lot of money goes into humanitarian aid, and rightfully so, but most of it goes to the delivery of the aid during crises. Only a tiny, tiny fraction goes to spending on innovation itself, and that needs to change.
And infrastructure costs money. Patel believes that the WHS, by giving a good platform to innovation, could create new funding opportunities. “A lot of the time that seems to be the roadblock,” he said. “There isn't the ability to fail or to call upon funding sources which would allow you to fail or test things in this way.”

Brighton University’s Centre for Research in Innovation Management (CENTRIM) is due to publish a report in the coming weeks entitled “Mapping the humanitarian innovation ecosystem,” commissioned by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID).

Howard Rush, lead researcher on the project, agrees that funding is a challenge for the humanitarian sector and innovation in particular.
“One of the things we have seen is that it is a chronically underfunded system,” he told IRIN. “A lot of money goes into humanitarian aid, and rightfully so, but most of it goes to the delivery of the aid during crises. Only a tiny, tiny fraction goes to spending on innovation itself, and that needs to change.”

Rush, a professor of innovation management, admitted that “a high proportion” may not deliver, but said: “The system is already at breaking point, and without change (and innovation is one way of getting change) the problems we are experiencing today will only be exacerbated.”

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.