What’s going on behind the humanitarian buzzwords, ‘innovation’, ‘participation’ and ‘localisation’? Are they connected? And what do they really mean for those affected by or vulnerable to disaster.
Global commitments to creating a more balanced humanitarian system with stronger local leadership were cemented during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, which ushered in the ‘participation revolution’: enabling people affected by disaster to take part in decisions that affect their lives. Two years on and implementation is still at an early stage.
The innovation space, however, tells a slightly different story. Here is a world where private and humanitarian sectors collide, a world that challenges preconceptions, disciplines and boundaries. Hard to articulate and even harder to quantify, innovation has come to be a well worn, if somewhat tired expression to indicate things are being done differently at the cutting-edge and in line with the latest thinking or technological breakthrough.
The health sector has been a driving force in embracing and adapting technology and new systems to revolutionise quality and delivery of health care and reduce inequalities. Drone-delivered vaccines, 3-D printed prosthetics and wireless devices to monitor patients’ heath long-distance using mobile, are but a few examples of the latest innovations. Cash-transfer programming is another example of progress, giving people choice and control over how they protect their families and manage their lives by providing cash and voucher transfers.
It is widely recognised the humanitarian system needs rebalancing for more effective outcomes and to respond to ever more complex emergencies. This means channelling resources into strengthening local leadership and bringing affected communities on board as partners. To increase local engagement, organisations and donors are looking to the innovation space, which is all about opening doors to different ideas and expertise, new technology, flexible partnerships and, importantly, the co-design of solutions with user groups: disaster-affected communities.
This approach is uncovering all kinds of ethical and structural issues in relation to prescribed notions of participation and localisation, particularly around inclusion, financing, ownership and ‘experimenting’ in environments where people’s primary goal is survival. Space to learn and create in humanitarian crises for affected populations and responders is heavily constricted. For people whose lives are torn apart by disaster, resources and rights, including access to training and education, communications, information and technology, are more often than not out of reach, cut off or denied.
Such are the challenges faced by four new innovation labs established under UK Aid’s Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme to support disaster-prone communities in developing solutions to manage future or current shocks. Located in Kenya, Philippines, Bangladesh and Jordan, the labs are at the steep end of the learning curve, but, nevertheless, taking steps forward in fostering local-level innovation and finding creative ways to overcome barriers to communities’ participation. Each lab, in consultation with the local population, has identified specific challenges ranging from mitigating the effects of drought to opening up job opportunities for refugees.
In this context, the word ‘failure’ should be redundant. The setbacks, although frustrating for the labs, are important, valuable lessons in putting high-level commitments around participation and localisation into practice. Although the labs are in the early phases of selecting and working with local innovators, their experience is surfacing important considerations: the time needed to reflect with the community on what innovation means in the context of strengthening coping mechanisms; inclusion and the level of all-round support people need to get involved and turn their ideas and experience into viable solutions; and, overcoming challenges in relation to intellectual property, financing and scaling in more fragile environments.
This is the first time some of these communities have been consulted by humanitarian organisations about what ideas they think might work to mitigate the challenges they face. In fact, one of the earliest hurdles for the labs to overcome was building a different type of relationship with the community based on principles of partnership and collaboration and not on traditional power dynamics of ‘provider’ and ‘beneficiary'. This in itself was significant, innovative.
What stands out is communities are highly innovative, but barriers to their participation in the design of humanitarian programming remain extremely high, particularly for women and other vulnerable groups. Greater investment is needed to break these down if the international community is to make good on commitments to advance community involvement and step up on increasing direct financing mechanisms and local capacity. Use of innovation models based on user-centred design in humanitarian action is carving new paths by challenging out-dated systems and getting communities directly involved.This is a space that is disruptive, unpredictable, learns by failing and hinges on strong, collaborative partnerships, practical expertise and inclusivity.
Ultimately, involving communities in decisions that affect their lives and strengthening local leadership increases the effectiveness and impact of aid. It now falls to larger humanitarian actors to take up a more facilitative role, step back and allow communities and local organisations a permanent place at the design table.