How Business Can Support Humanitarian Innovation

From the Syrian refugee crisis and the ebola outbreak in West Africa to the Nepal earthquake and civil war in South Sudan, humanitarian crises have reached epic proportions. Indeed, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has almost doubled in the past ten years, and is expected to keep rising. Today, nearly 60 million people have been forced from their homes due to conflict and violence and the average length of displacement is now 17 years.

While the humanitarian system has never reached more people, it is no longer able to address the scale and complexity of present, let alone future, needs. Faced with growing resource constraints and the realization that many humanitarian tools and services are ill-suited to modern emergencies, humanitarian agencies are increasingly recognizing the opportunities presented by partnerships with business, including support in developing product and process innovations.

To facilitate engagement between humanitarian and business actors, Article One co-hosted a two-day workshop and public symposium to explore the ability for innovation to result in better outcomes for millions of people affected by conflict and natural disaster. Co-hosted with UN OCHACitris and The Center for Responsible Business, the event brought together leaders from the humanitarian sector, academia, and the private sector. During the course of event, three key challenges emerged:

1.      Humanitarian innovation should be based on systems thinking and should comprise both incremental and radical innovation. Abiding by the “Do No Harm” principle, humanitarians first and foremost need to prioritize the safety and protection of those at risk. In crisis or post-crisis situations, radical innovation presents a far greater risk as it may result in resources being diverted from tested methods in cases where lives are at risk. However, building innovation into the humanitarian model—especially into investments in prevention—may allow for incremental improvements during emergencies and radical change in the humanitarian approach thereby resulting in better outcomes for those affected. 

2.      Innovation requires engagement and feedback from intended users which presents a challenge in cases of humanitarian crises. Business are experts in understanding the needs and experiences of their consumers. However, in the humanitarian sector, affected communities typically do not have purchasing power, and thus cannot effectively signal their needs.  This difficulty compounds the ability of humanitarian organizations to create delivery mechanisms and use participatory design to involve these different user groups to create scalable solutions.

3.      The humanitarian sector has an opportunity to better integrate innovation into its programming. There is limited core capacity with respect to innovation within the formal humanitarian sector. In fact, many in the space have concerns that there is a lack of investment-worthy R&D ideas and researchers, and that the scaling and adoption of existing innovation within the sector is so poor that even if R&D investment resulted in high-impact solutions, they would not be widely adopted. In order for the humanitarian sector to benefit from innovation, it must become part of its DNA—integrated across its many functions.

These themes are others were discussed during a closed-door session and during a public symposium. Highlights from the public symposium, including two panels discussions on the challenges and opportunities of humanitarian innovation, can be seen below. The first panel, "The Humanitarian Challenge" was moderated by Chloe Poynton, Principal at Article One, and featured: 

  • Brian Grogan, Chief, Policy Analysis and Innovation Section, UNOCHA
  • Jim Fruchterman, Founder and CEO, Benetech
  • Fabio Sergio, Vice President, Creative Global Lead, Frog  
  • Temina Madon, Executive Director, Center for Effective Global Action 

The second panel, "Innovative Solutions for the the Humanitarian Challenge" was moderated by Camille Crittenden, Deputy Director, CITRIS and featured: 

  • Alison Campbell, Senior Director, Global Initiatives, Internews
  • Emily Jacobi, Digital Democracy
  • Doug Sabo, Vice President, Visa

Additional videos from the public symposium can be found here.