Innovations in humanitarian response

By Steve Washington,2014-05-06 17:37
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Innovations in humanitarian response

[ch]3 Innovations in international humanitarian action

[RHA Key Messages, Innovations chapter]

    [intro] Critics of humanitarian aid, many from within the sector, complain humanitarian evaluations and other learning exercises repeatedly highlight the same problems and shortcomings, and „tell us nothing new‟. The fact that evaluations don‟t capture novelty and ideas does not mean that the humanitarian endeavour is lacking an innovative spirit. The motivation to extend assistance to those affected by conflict or natural calamity has driven

     and led to considerable ingenuity and perseverance. individuals to extreme lengths

    The starting point of this ALNAP study is that much ongoing work in the realm of humanitarian learning and accountability does not seek to generate new and different ways of

    operating. Rather, it focuses on existing practices, policies and norms of behaviour, and involves detecting and correcting deviations and variances from these standards, or finding ways in which standard operating procedure can be better implemented. The focus is on incremental improvements in practices. Much humanitarian learning arguably focuses on single-loop learning at individual and group levels hence the frequent „nothing new‟


    Questioning existing practices, norms, policies and rationales can often lead to direct conflict with ongoing organisational processes. Such „generative learning‟ is also inhibited by a

    growing culture of compliance and the rigid contractual nature of aid relationships, both of which push agencies to deliver according to pre-defined goals, methods and targets.

    In response to this, and the perceptions of continued learning failures, there are growing numbers of thinkers and practitioners within the sector who argue that agencies need to start pushing the boundaries of current humanitarian practice. If established aid organisations fail to prioritise innovations, they are in danger of losing popular support and being overtaken by new types of relief organisations.

    This study aims to explore how ALNAP members and the wider sector might prioritise innovation and risk-taking in policy and practice. It does so by first reviewing experience in the private, public and third sectors to develop a conceptual model which should enable a better understanding of what innovations mean for the sector. It goes on to explore this model using evidence from five case studies, key informant interviews and desk research, and in conclusion recommends ways to promote and enable positive innovation in humanitarian action.

Key message 1

    Innovation processes have the potential to stimulate positive change: successful innovations can capture the humanitarian imagination, and provide new ways of delivering assistance to those who need it most. Instead of asking, ‘what went wrong?’,

    and aiming for incremental improvements in delivery of aid, innovation demands new ways of thinking and the boldness to answer more searching questions, such as how are

    things currently done, and is this the best way to do them?’

    Innovations are dynamic processes which focus on the creation and implementation of new or improved products and services, processes, positions and paradigms. Successful innovations are those that result in improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, quality or social outcomes and impacts. Although many of the factors determining the success of humanitarian work are beyond the control of humanitarians, and there are many context-specific transactional

    innovations in the delivery of aid, the sector is not capitalising on its innovative potential, and in some ways may be becoming more conservative and insular. With a few exceptions, humanitarian organisations have not made a sustained attempt to stimulate a culture of


    innovation. Where there are examples of good practice and good ideas, these are disconnected and have not been systematised within organisations. Consciously prioritising and managing innovations can provide an important and, as of yet, under-utilised mechanism for improving humanitarian performance.

Key message 2

    Understanding the scope of innovations and bringing this understanding into organisations can help agencies to become more strategic in how they improve their work. Models such as the ‘4Ps’ approach are a good starting point for agencies planning

    to develop their work on innovations, providing a framework to understand the innovation efforts ongoing within organisations, and to elevate it to a strategic priority

    Stories of innovation include dedicated visionaries and sustained campaigning but also a great many coincidences, accidents and opportunistic adaptations. How can humanitarian organisations learn to use innovations, and plan to encourage them? According to the 4Ps model, innovations can be directed towards improvements or new developments of four aspects: (i) products, such as improved cooking stoves or food products to counter

    malnutrition; (ii) processes, such as methods for stockpiling goods, improved coordination, or improving learning and quality assurance; (iii) the position of an organisation and its work in

    relation to key stakeholders, for example by changing an organisation‟s public profile or by changing attitudes to an area of work such as shelter; (iv) paradigms or combined attitudes

    and beliefs determining the fundamental approach to humanitarian work, such as the calls for paradigm shifts in humanitarian business models towards beneficiary participation, local ownership and capacity development. Exploring these ideas in the context of humanitarian work gives a new way of understanding and harnessing organisations creative potential.

Key message 3

    The process of innovation is neither fixed nor linear, and depends greatly on political and organisational context, as well as chance and serendipity. However, analysis of the development of innovations across different sectors shows that successful innovation processes are proactive intentional processes, include several common elements, and progress through a number of key developmental stages.

    Innovation in the private sector is often compared to evolution. Organisations, like organisms, survive and grow through variation, selecting new elements which help them to prosper in a particular environment. Organisations that innovate are more likely to thrive. Despite the complexity and unpredictability of innovation, a successful innovation process usually includes some or all of five key elements: recognition of a problem, challenge, or opportunity

    invention of an idea or solution to the problem, or a way to exploit an opportunity development of the innovation by creating practical plans and guidelines, implementation of

    the innovation in terms of changed operating practice (often using pilots and then scaling up) and diffusion of the innovation to ensure its wider adoption for benefits outside the original setting. This does not mean that all innovations are sequential, linear processes with clearly defined stages. Rather, these are broad and overlapping phases through which many innovations pass. Although idealised, this model is useful because it allows different processes to be understood and compared helping organisations to „repeat the trick‟ – by

    providing guidance on how innovations progress.

Key message 4

    The theory and practice of innovation, originating from the private sector, is itself evolving, and has been adapted and re-applied to fit the different needs and realities of companies and entrepreneurs. Its relevance for humanitarian work is that it can help organisations to focus on positive and proactive approaches to improving their work.

    Modern innovations theory derives from early twentieth-century capitalism, based on


    individual firms aiming to develop new products through investment in research and development (R&D), or exploit new markets. This „closed‟ model of innovation has been

    central to the maturation of industrial capitalism. However, as information technology grows in importance, and users become less passive, this closed model is being replaced by more „open‟ strategies based on recognition of the fact that the sources of ideas and the drivers of

    the process have become increasingly diffuse. In particular, open, democratised innovation models suggest that many of the most radical innovations come not from experts and

     those specialists in R&D but from front-line staff, consumers, users and suppliers

    traditionally excluded from innovations processes.

    So how is this commercial-sector practice relevant to the non-profit humanitarian sector? Many humanitarian innovations have succeeded despite a lack of willingness to change, and despite outright restrictions and inhibiting factors. A more active approach to innovation, actively searching for new ideas that improve practice is needed to free-up the innovative potential in the sector. More innovations could be created and developed further if individual and organisational capacities, relationships and wider contexts were aligned in support of innovation. This model also applies to the humanitarian context, in which the increased involvement of affected people and stakeholders demands a more open and flexible approach to innovations.

Key message 5

    There are many examples of innovation and change in the humanitarian sector beyond

    the idea of incremental learning from the past, and towards transformational learning for the future. But many organisations still do not have strategies to manage innovation, making it likely that many ideas are note picked up. A realistic understanding of what is possible can be complemented with learning from past innovations to seek new ways to realise improvements.

    Overall, the debate about humanitarian innovation is closely intertwined with the debate about the current weaknesses of humanitarian action. Some commentators have claimed that humanitarian aid has entered a period of crisis, and there is considerable cynicism about its effectiveness, others worry about its increased conservatism and risk-aversion. However, there is also good work in progress, and positive changes underway. Examples looked at in this study include the growing acceptance and increasing use of cash-based programming, and the growing use of community-based care in cases of Severe Acute Malnutrition, the use of handhold and mobile technologies and new ways of understanding shelter work. A number of organisations have new product development processes or operational research efforts which focus on generating and assessing innovations in humanitarian response, and these should be seen as important strategic developments. Evaluations and research are of particular importance among other things, they can help to identify and share innovations that have taken place in projects and programmes, and are essential components of effective pilot processes, in which systematic assessments can test and demonstrate the value of new products, processes or approaches to the delivery of aid.

Key message 6

    Innovation processes should be supported by effective information-sharing, within and between organisations, and humanitarian agencies should aim to work in partnerships for innovation. Partners can usefully be drawn from humanitarian counterparts and from beyond the sector.

    Given the limited capacity for R&D within the sector, humanitarian agencies need to consider how to draw on wider sources of expertise and ideas, from both inside and outside the sector. While there are some examples of individual humanitarian organisations linking with academics and private-sector companies to explore the development of a particular product, there is considerable scope for greater cooperation. This needs to be done on the basis of


    competencies, mutual learning, and, importantly, continuity. Many innovations in the humanitarian sector have begun the process from recognition to development but then faltered or stalled, often for many years, before achieving wider implementation and diffusion. More work to understand how partnerships can build on the skills and capacities of different parties would be especially useful in the humanitarian sector, and will have relevance beyond innovation. The informal networks prevalent in the sector could also support innovations more effectively.

Key message 7

    A sector-wide mechanism to promote and facilitate innovation is missing from the humanitarian sector. Innovation intermediaries have been successfully used by private-sector companies and increasingly also by non-profit organisations, but there is presently no organisation taking this role in the humanitarian sector.

    In their efforts to promote innovations, agencies should not restrict themselves to an institution-specific approach, and innovations must be dealt with as cross-organisational, open initiatives from the outset. A new mechanism to facilitate innovation processes could focus initially on innovation capture and exchange. Similarly, donors and senior decision makers should be engaged to champion the innovations agenda from the outset, perhaps through a sector-wide advisory coalition. The emergence of open-innovation models has led to the formation of innovation intermediaries to facilitate the exchange of new information, knowledge and technological invention. A cross-sector facility to act as an intermediary on humanitarian innovation work would fill a gap and benefit the sector overall. The ALNAP membership would be well placed to establish such a mechanism, in collaboration with other organisations, to highlight ongoing case studies of innovation, provide support to innovation processes, raise resources for R&D in the sector, and share knowledge.

Key message 8

    Safe and appropriate spaces for experimenting and innovating should be found in the humanitarian sector.

    While innovation in corporations may be a metaphorical survival imperative, innovation in the humanitarian sector may be literally necessary for survival. People‟s lives and livelihoods

    can depend on getting aid of the right type and quantity to the right place on time. There may well be space to encourage greater innovation in aid delivery, without compromising ethical principles or taking risks with lives and livelihoods. But the central question is how to create a culture of „honourable risk‟ in humanitarian work. By definition, innovation requires new ways of thinking and new approaches to practice. Innovation, also by definition, faces a high risk of failure but can create new opportunities by doing things previously thought impossible. Finding safe spaces for experimentation, and mechanisms to promote honourable risk as a

    central value in humanitarian assistance is perhaps the first step to a more innovative and yet principled humanitarian response. The challenge to non-commercial innovation is to innovate in the face of complex and ambiguous rules, multiple conflicting interests of diverse stakeholders, and a variety of resource, operational and ethical constraints. The key here is to ensure minimum standards, and allow innovations which at least meet these standards while improving on performance in key areas, and without causing additional or unanticipated problems or costs.

Key message 9

    A focus on innovations could help to support shifts towards proactive work to prevent disasters, rather than only reacting after the event, and towards increasing local ownership of humanitarian activities; enabling a shift from ‘catastrophe-first’

    innovation towards ‘vulnerability-first’.


    The principles of disaster prevention, local ownership and beneficiary engagement require considerable shifts in attitudes and approaches to humanitarian crisis response. Some of the most radical humanitarian innovations relate to wholesale changes in the sector. At the macro level, it is more effective to prevent disasters than to respond to them, even more so as global vulnerability increases. And, as found in the tsunami response, where they exist, it is far more effective to build on and support local capacities, thereby re-orienting the system. In the medical sector, illness is seen as a normal part of life, and both preventing and treating illness is regarded as a continuous work in progress. By contrast, humanitarian disasters, whether natural or not, are somehow seen as abnormal despite their regular occurrence, which frames the response to them in purely reactive terms.

    A shift in this attitude may be difficult but is essential if we are to create a culture which encourages real and lasting humanitarian innovation, and a humanitarian business model capable of meeting a complex and volatile future. The perspective that is needed is clear: aid agencies must seek to move beyon