How Can Innovation Deliver Humanitarian Outcomes? Challenges and Approaches for Humanitarian Innovation Policy

Despite the expansive growth of the humanitarian sector globally, there is an increasing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond to growing humanitarian needs. This has led to sector-wide calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed.

In the humanitarian field, innovation is seen as key to plugging the humanitarian response gap. In a new policy brief, we argue that for humanitarian innovation to be effective, placing the end-user at the centre is vital. Policies must be created that encourage, direct and reward private/humanitarian partnerships that move beyond short-term concerns and demand accountability, evidence of impact, market creation and conscious approaches to ownership.

Humanitarians currently use the term ‘humanitarian innovation’ to describe how technologies, products and services from the private sector and new collaborations can improve the delivery of humanitarian aid. This implies that humanitarian innovation can refer to anything from product innovation (such as new water filters), to service innovation (such as cash-transfers or fuel supply) and process innovation (such as new monitoring and evaluation procedures for humanitarian staff).

As a result, ‘innovation’ has become a significant buzzword in the humanitarian field, appearing in donor speeches, policy documents, and media coverage. Humanitarian innovation units have emerged in most humanitarian organizations, and ‘Transformation through Innovation’ was a main theme for the World Humanitarian Summit in May  2016. This focus has been further reiterated in the UN ‘Agenda for Humanity’, which states that to deliver collective outcomes, the humanitarian sector must promote a strong focus on innovation (Agenda for Humanity, Annex to the Report of the Secretary General 2016, core responsibility four).

The Need for Principled Policy

In our new brief, we argue that policy is needed to support and guide innovation within the humanitarian sector. However, the unique characteristics of the humanitarian innovation field pose multiple challenges for policy development. The humanitarian sector has only recently moved from a discussion of whether humanitarian innovation is necessary towards asking ‘how’ humanitarian innovation should happen.

This ‘how’ is complicated by a set of structural tensions that often go unacknowledged. These tensions arise from the multiple stakeholders’ interests, which any policy written to foster humanitarian innovation must consider. The stakeholders collaborating to meet demand in the humanitarian sector include those in trade, in the field of industrial and economic policy, as well as established foreign policy. New cross-sectoral collaborations may also increase the complexity of the humanitarian sector in ways that challenge traditional accountability models. Structural tensions also result from how the humanitarian market tends to favor short-term focused innovations that have commercial objectives rather than humanitarian goals. At the same time as the sector is increasingly looking to private enterprise and academia to develop and deliver innovative solutions, there is a dearth of evidence that validates the impact of humanitarian innovation initiatives. This confluence of factors leads many humanitarian market stakeholders to conclude that innovation for the humanitarian sector is a waste of financial and human resources.

As this short-term focused, low-impact model of humanitarian innovation becomes the standard, there is a clear need to guide this conversation towards effective models for intervention.

In our new policy brief, we identify three key principles for policy development:

  • Understand innovation as impact: While innovation is frequently explained as a process, the potential of innovation is better understood through its impact. Improved delivery of humanitarian outcomes with and for crisis-affected communities must be the end result of humanitarian innovation on all levels.
  • Consider the particular attributes of emergencies: The tensions and competing interests that underpin the humanitarian market and the humanitarian supply chain must be accounted for in policy development. In not considering the particular attributes of emergencies, the humanitarian sector risks adopting ineffective commercial and market-based approaches and rationales.
  • Value private sector collaborations, while upholding humanitarian principles: The added value of private sector collaboration in the struggle to deliver better collective outcomes must be emphasized without compromising humanitarian action or the values of the humanitarian enterprise. The imperative to provide aid according to need and to do no harm, guided by the humanitarian principles, must remain the paramount goal.

You can read this policy brief here.

Note: This entry is a preview of the authors’ policy brief ‘How Can Innovation Deliver Humanitarian Outcomes? Challenges and Approaches for Humanitarian Innovation Policy’  (2016), published by PRIO and an output from the Humanitarian Innovation Lab project, a multidisciplinary and applied shared initiative of NTNU and PRIO, with the purpose of generating research results and technical/system innovation suggestions. The project is also part of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS).