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Humanitarian innovation faces rethink as innovators take stock

“It doesn’t matter how many gizmos you fund if those in power in the system don’t see real incentives for change”

Andrew Brown/UNICEF
A drone takes off during a demonstration for residents in Thipa vllage, Kasungu District, Malawi.
  • At a Glance: Redefining innovation

  • A global innovation unit faces closure as sector pivots
  • Analysts say it has to be about solving structural issues not ‘shiny’ tech
  • Taking promising ideas to full-scale deployment is proving hard
  • Analysts say there’s still a need to join up hundreds of isolated initiatives
  • Underlying structural issues can’t be innovated away
  • Hype and buzzwords can cause a backlash

More than 800 research and innovation units, labs, and other initiatives have sprouted in recent years across the UN and NGO world, accelerated by a global conference on the state of the humanitarian system. But innovation strategy is changing fast, and that means some are shutting up shop, while others are having to strike out in new directions.

Change in the sector is underlined by the fact that one of its most high-profile outfits – the UK-based Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation – is threatened with closure, due to funding cuts and donors’ “shifting priorities”.

GAHI’s executive editor, Rahul Chandran, said it will soon fold unless new funding can be found. A source at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), citing “a number of challenges”, confirmed it would not be renewing funding for GAHI, along with three other donors. Jess Camburn, director of Elrha, a UK-based NGO that houses the £1.2 million project, said the hosting arrangement would lapse at the end of May.

Faced with an aging set of tools to tackle the urgent needs of more than 135 million people worldwide, relief agencies are looking for new ways to operate. The sector has tried new ideas across the spectrum of its work, from assessing needs to delivering help, from managing finance to adapting its IT toolset.

According to a series of interviews with leading figures in the field, humanitarian innovation strategy has changed since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, which led to a proliferation of new ventures. “I think we’re maturing,” said Camburn.

Most interviewees said the early chapters of innovation were overly enthusiastic about “gadgets” like drones, 3D printers, and mobile apps.

Marking the new chapter, at least two groups, including GAHI, are using the expression “Innovation 3.0”.

Camburn, whose NGO has managed a Humanitarian Innovation Fund since 2011, said the “innovation community” was now looking at broader, more complex problems, and for ideas more relevant to people in need. The community, she explained, is moving beyond a preoccupation with technology-based “quick fixes”, solutions as “products”, and “shiny new things”.

Cautionary tales

GAHI was announced at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to link up aid agencies, innovation specialists, and private sector partners.

Now listing 40 members, the alliance has also been looking at how to take innovative practice and scale it up. Its latest publication researched the potential of blockchain technology.

Chandran, appointed in mid-2017, said the project only really got up to speed in 2018, due to bureaucratic and hiring delays. Now it “is at significant risk of closing”, he said, although he is still fundraising. Some of GAHI’s team of about 10 full-time staff and consultants have already left and planned work on ethics in humanitarian data management may not move forward.

The initiative was backed by Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK to a total of about $1.65 million. The UK amount was part of DFID’s £50 million innovation spending portfolio. Definitions are blurred, so total spending on innovation is hard to track.

Another venture launched after the World Humanitarian Summit was the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Lab.

Like GAHI, GHL aimed to stimulate system-wide innovation in the sector. It too listed about 40 partner organisations. But the original concept came to a halt in mid-2018, barely two years in. A former employee said the project ran out of cash “very quickly”.

The former employee, who insisted on anonymity due to professional relationships, described the GHL concept, backed by Australia and Switzerland, as “just fantastic” but said the venture suffered from a lack of focus, being “fixated on the latest tech”, and “over-promising and under-delivering”.

Founding organisations of GHL declined to offer detailed reasons for its closure to counter this characterisation. One major backer, the International Committee of the Red Cross, said its board members dissolved it “to explore an alternative model with revised objectives”. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, another backer, said GHL had faced “difficulties inherent to any project gathering multiple partners and trying to bring new and innovative approaches.”

Lower tech

An innovation specialist at a large aid agency, speaking on condition of anonymity to allow for a frank assessment, confirmed the changing direction of humanitarian innovation.

It’s now “at a bit of a crossroads” and facing up to thornier issues, including scale, the specialist said, adding: “We need to stop fetishising technology.”

As innovation strategy matures, practitioners are facing up to some daunting challenges, the specialist said, listing: organisational culture, bureaucratic inertia, risk appetite, and legal and financial processes. The specialist also said the focus on technology had undervalued “backroom heroes” who come up with new ways of doing things in “prosaic spaces” like administration or human resources that may not even be recognised as “innovation”.

Noting GAHI’s funding woes, and the fact that scaling takes years, many interviewees expressed sympathy: some five-year partnerships are only now coming to fruition. While insisting that GAHI was now “delivering”, Chandran said its initial donors may not have embraced “what it would take, how long it would take”, to have a system-wide influence.

Innovation initiatives “struggle with anything that looks like scale,” said Helen Bushell, who, as international programmes director of Oxfam GB, manages $265 million in annual development and humanitarian spending and 150 staff.

Aid innovation in specialist fields is “core” to Oxfam’s thinking, Bushell said. For example, in water and sanitation, she argued, “we have been consistently innovative”, both in improving basic water systems, but also new ideas, including a toilet that uses faeces-eating worms.

“We need to stop fetishising technology.”

Bushell divided innovation into three types: disruptive (“that’s the sexy end of it”), continuous improvement, and thirdly, strategic or fundamental changes (“how could you have 10 times the impact?”). Innovation efforts across the sector had succeeded in “forcing us to look at everything differently” but are “piecemeal”, she added.


A study commissioned for the World Humanitarian Summit from consultancy Deloitte suggested the humanitarian sector was ”lagging” in research and development. A DFID-funded paper in 2015 found funding for humanitarian innovation was “breathtakingly low”, with a provisional estimate of $37 million a year, or 0.27 percent of total global humanitarian spending.

Despite an array of humanitarian innovation concepts and projects, some pre-dating the World Humanitarian Summit, most are working only within a single organisation, which limits their potential to affect the millions of affected people. “Collective action is the pathway to scale,” Chandran said.

Camburn, of Elrha, suggested there was a gap for a “convenor” to work on shared challenges, if the membership model and agenda could be collectively agreed.

Another innovation advisor said GAHI had suffered from the impression of slow delivery and a lack of results, but it may not have been given enough time to prove itself.

Even the maturing innovation work in the sector is at a relatively superficial level, pointing to its inability to address fundamental issues or alter the wider system.

The advisor, who requested anonymity to conserve professional relationships, said GAHI, in its defence, had tried to take a “considered approach” rather than the promotion-heavy “sequins and glitter” of some innovation labs and centres.

Excessive hype has also led to a backlash. Some now “roll their eyes” even at the term “innovation” and the phenomenon of “chasing buzzwords” like AI, drones, or blockchain “makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit”, said the advisor.

Moving on from “cool buzzy things” is good but innovation may not be able to tackle the structural “things we don’t talk about in aid work”, including power, rights, and agency, the advisor added.

Even the maturing innovation work in the sector is at a relatively superficial level, some analysts said, pointing to its inability to address fundamental issues or alter the wider system.

“It doesn’t matter how many gizmos you fund if those in power in the system don’t see real incentives for change,” said Kim Scriven, former manager of the Elrha fund.

In response to questions from The New Humanitarian, an ICRC spokesperson said it was moving to a “tighter portfolio” in its “innovation journey”, and also noted the limitations. The main problems facing civilians in conflict are violations of humanitarian law, “constraints on access, unpredictable funding and multiple other challenges,” the spokesperson said. “These won't be solved with innovation.”


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