[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 beyond „catastrophe-first‟ model of innovations, towards putting
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[Contents, Chapter I]
3.1 Introduction: why innovations? 2
3.2 Introduction to innovations 4
3.2.1 Exploring innovations – stories, concepts and models 4
3.2.2 The focus and scope of innovations 5
3.2.3 The innovation process in theory and practice 6
3.2.4 The context of innovations 8
3.2.5 A working definition 12
3.3 Overview of humanitarian innovations in practice 13
3.3.1 Product innovation 13
3.3.2 Process innovation 14
3.3.3 Position-based innovation 16
3.3.4 Paradigm-based innovation 17
3.4 Case studies and innovation processes 19
3.4.1 The cases in detail: introductory narratives 19
3.4.2 Innovation in practice, from recognition to dissemination 24
3.5 Reflections: contextual factors influencing innovations 30
3.5.1 Individual and organisational capacities 30
3.5.2 Relationships for innovation 32
3.5.3 Sectoral and wider contextual factors 37
3.6 Conclusions and recommendations 40
3.6.1 Conclusions 40
3.6.2 Recommendations 41
Figure 3.1 Three different levels of learning 2 Figure 3.2 An emerging framework on innovations 40
Box 3.1 Innovation intermediaries 9
Box 3.2: Innovation: a working definition 13 Box 3.3 Disaster-risk innovations save thousands of lives 19
[ch]3 Innovations in international humanitarian action
[h1]3.1 Introduction: why innovations?
„One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea. It... makes you
think that after all, your favourite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-
founded... Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more
or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it‟ (Walter Bagehot, 1869).
One of the most frequent comments heard at ALNAP meetings and discussions is that „evaluations do not tell us anything new‟. The implication seems to be that, although there is
an expectation that evaluations will contribute to improving humanitarian action, they seldom deliver novel and interesting perspectives on old problems.
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 individuals to extreme lengths – and led to
considerable ingenuity and perseverance. For pioneering humanitarians such as Fred Cuny, adaptability and dynamism were integral to aid provision in the world‟s most volatile regions. But while humanitarian workers are still motivated by humanitarian goals and principles, there are growing concerns that humanitarian organisations are failing to maintain the pioneering, creative spirit exemplified by Cuny and like-minded predecessors and contemporaries.
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 what Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (cited in Ramalingam, 2008) have called single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is undertaken in line with
existing practices, policies and norms of behaviour. It 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. Tools such as after-action reviews or project evaluations work towards this kind of learning – hence the frequent „nothing new‟ criticism.
By contrast, double-loop learning involves reflection on the appropriateness of existing
practices, policies and norms within an organisation. It differs from single-loop learning because of a conscious process of re-designing products, processes and methods to generate new ways of doing things in response to changing contexts. Often referred to as generative
learning, double-loop learning focuses on the search for creative and inventive solutions to existing problems, which calls for mindsets, capacities and institutional space to generate and realise new visions for how work could be undertaken. Even more challenging is triple-loop
learning, which represents the highest form of organisational self-examination. It involves questioning the entire rationale of an organisation, and can lead to innovative transformations in internal structure, culture and practices, as well as in the external context. The three „learning loops‟ are illustrated in Figure 3.1
Figure 3.1 Three different levels of learning
(Ramalingam, 2008, p 4)
As detailed in previous ALNAP Reviews, single-loop learning is problematic in many aid agencies. But double- and triple-loop learning – questioning existing practices, norms,
policies and rationales – are often in direct conflict with ongoing organisational processes. As Larry Minear argued in the 5th ALNAP RHA, “the institutional weight of past practice is
giving way all too slowly to the insights of creative practitioners” (Minear, 2005, p 117).
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 become more innovative, goes the argument, they are in danger of losing popular support and being overtaken by new types of „giving‟ organisations. The opportunity is seen as clear-
cut. In the 6th ALNAP RHA, Hugo Slim notes that:
„It remains a mystery why, in an apparently entrepreneurial and still unregulated
system, so few innovative and dynamic new agencies have appeared to fill the many
gaps and opportunities in humanitarian response…‟ (Slim, 2006, p 24).
He goes on:
„…As the system moves towards [consolidation], it must still urgently encourage
innovation and entrepreneurialism whereby humanitarian agencies can make new
discoveries and risk new approaches... [humanitarian agencies] need to prioritise
innovation and risk-taking in humanitarian politics and practice. If, in the next five
years, the humanitarian system has only consolidated, it will have failed to take
advantage of new ideas and will not have adapted to new opportunities‟ (ibid, p 30).
This study aims to shed light on respond to this eloquent call-to-arms in practice: how might ALNAP members and the wider sector prioritise innovation and risk-taking in humanitarian politics and practice? What exactly is it that humanitarian agencies should be prioritising if they want to become more innovative and dynamic? Where do new ideas come from in the sector? When new things are identified, what happens to them? Who validates or rejects new ideas and why? And following from this (and paraphrasing the Walter Bagehot quote above), what pain is caused by new ideas to the nature of humanitarian actors, what kinds of notions and beliefs are challenged, and how are new ideas and their originators treated within the sector?
This study explores these issues by reviewing the general literature and practice of innovations, looking at the private sector and contextualising this with reference to the public and social sectors, distilling key concepts and ideas for consideration within the humanitarian sector (Section 3.2). It then provides an overview of the kinds of innovations seen in the international humanitarian sector (Section 3.3), setting the stage for a more detailed exploration of specific innovation processes. Five case studies of humanitarian innovations
are presented, with details on their sources, development, dissemination and take-up (Section 3.4). Broader contextual factors influencing innovations are also considered (Section 3.5). The final section (3.6) presents conclusions and recommendations on the scope of
whether and why agencies should prioritise innovations, and how humanitarian innovations –
this might happen.
The evidence base for this study includes over 50 interviews with key informants – policy and
operational staff within organisations, as well as academic researchers, members of think-tanks, independent consultants and experts from outside the humanitarian sector. These research interviews, both general and specific to particular innovations, have been complemented with extensive desk research and literature reviews.
[h1]3.2 Introduction to innovations
[h2]3.2.1 Exploring innovations – stories, concepts and models
Stories of innovation have three common characteristics – they are widespread, they are
compelling and they are often apocryphal. This combination creates numerous pitfalls for thorough and practically useful explorations of innovations – whatever their scale and scope.
Isaac Newton may have famously discovered gravity due to a falling apple in an orchard in Cambridge, but the theory was in fact the result of collective work by Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley, as well as Newton. Alexander Fleming abandoned research on penicillin after first identifying it, regarding it at best as a local antiseptic. Although a team of researchers at Oxford University were credited by the British Medical Journal as the real
„authors of the wonder drug‟, it is Fleming who is now strongly associated with its development.
Where politics and other interests do not distort the innovation story, chance is also a considerable factor. To take three examples more or less at random - teabags, text messages and treatments for erectile dysfunction are all widespread today, but all three innovations were unintended. Teabags were used to store tealeaves during transportation, texts were an additional feature seen as next to useless by mobile phone operators, and Viagra was a heart-disease treatment with a rather unusual side effect.
Because the potential impact of innovations is often underestimated by their generators, understanding and exploring innovations as a purposeful process is even more challenging. For example, the credited inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell tentatively, and in retrospect somewhat touchingly, suggested that one day there might be „one of these
devices in every town in America‟. More recently, in the 1950s, the Chairman of IBM
suggested that the worldwide market for computers was no greater than around 8 machines.
In addition – and in common with other areas of concern to ALNAP, such as performance, impact, and humanitarianism itself – innovations face problems of definition. There is no
single definition of innovation, not least because of the different disciplinary stances (political, economic, sociological and managerial/organisational) from which innovations are viewed. Research on innovations is complicated because they influence and are influenced by so many factors and actors, and there are multiple dimensions which deserve consideration in any systematic investigation.
This brief review will concentrate on three dimensions of innovations:
1. „what‟ – the focus and scope of innovations
2. „how‟– the processes involved in innovations, both theoretically and in practice 3. „context‟– individual and organisational capacities, the relationships within and across
organisations, and the wider sectoral, social, economic and political factors that either
enable or inhibit innovation processes.
We will use the literature on innovations to explore each of these dimensions in more detail, aiming to develop an understanding of innovations that can be taken forward in the present study and which can also inform future work on humanitarian innovations. In order to facilitate this, this section ends with the development of a working definition of innovations.
[h2]3.2.2 The ‘what’ of innovations: focus and scope
Section 3.1 above provided an introduction to innovation as a generative learning process –
double- or triple-loop learning, compared to the single-loop learning more commonly considered in organisations. But what exactly do we mean by this – what is the focus and
scope of such efforts?
Work by leading innovation thinkers (Francis and Bessant, 2005) suggests that innovative efforts can be directed towards positive improvements or novel developments in a number of overlapping areas: from new products and processes to a new position of an organisation and
its work in relation to markets or stakeholders, and new paradigms (referring to
mental/business models). This is referred to as the „4P‟s model, and has been usefully applied
in a range of sectors and industries.
In terms of scope, innovations can also be framed as incremental and continuous improvements to existing products, processes, positions or paradigms which might enable either reductions in cost or improved features. At the other end of the scale, some innovations can be far-reaching and involve new and radical shifts in thinking about a particular product or service, or even an entire industry. Such radical – or discontinuous – innovations can lead
to obsolescence of existing organisations, and the process of innovation is often viewed as being at the heart of the „creative destruction‟ embodied by capitalist economic development.
It is worth noting that the relationship between incremental and radical innovations is often unpredictable: over time, an incremental innovation might trigger more radical innovations while radical innovations (such as mobile phones) might be made up of and indeed trigger a series of incremental innovations (such as ring tones).
It is worth illustrating the 4Ps Framework with some practical examples. Below are some examples of each of the four focus areas of product, process, position and paradigm, with illustrations of incremental and radical changes.
1. Innovation to introduce or improve products or services – a change in what is offered.
Bic ballpoint pens were introduced in 1957 and 16 million are now sold daily around the
world; they have seen a variety of incremental innovations in materials, inks, ballpoint
technology and so on. A more radical shift would be a new product concept, for example
the introduction of personal computers as an alternative to mainframe machines used in
the 1950s and 1960s.