By Hannah Murphy, CDAC Network Innovation Programme Adviser
‘Human- or user-centred design’ is a concept directly lifted from private sector innovation and product development that features regularly in humanitarian speak. But is the ‘user’ in aid terms really afforded a decision-making role in services? Is this concept driving a more collaborative approach to shaping humanitarian action with those in need? Or, are we seeing old ways disguised under new terms?
Technological advance and new alliances are some of the factors contributing to the creation of new spaces and networks to tackle humanitarian crises, partly driven by globally agreed commitments to shift finance and leadership to the national and local level. In some instances, this is creating more meaningful opportunities for people receiving aid to provide input, lead action and challenge providers when services fall down or miss the mark. But resistance from dominant actors to cede power is slowing down progress.
The humanitarian sector, as with other sectors, has seen a growing drive to support innovation as a means to improve and adapt to changing contexts. But innovation is a risky business, especially in disaster situations – outcomes are uncertain, space to experiment is scarce and needs are extreme, immediate.
Innovation labs set up under the UK Aid funded Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) have built their entire approach with people affected by disaster. The labs aim to create inclusive environments to support local-level solutions. Success in working this way is measured by people‘s participation and is reliant on communication, setting up a dialogue with affected populations.
Establishing supportive spaces to tackle common challenges in disaster situations for people living in these environments presents challenges, many of which are unforeseen. DEPP Labs - Tuklas in Philippines, Mahali in Jordan, Maarifa Kona in Kenyaand Udhvabani in Bangladesh- realised early on in the process the term ‘innovation’ is largely unfamiliar to most people and has different meanings in different contexts.
Literature, tools and research about innovation processes and innovations in development and humanitarian contexts are predominantly presented in English, largely unavailable to the people who would benefit most from knowing about them. Additionally, the people DEPP Labs want to involve often have limited access to resources and opportunities to mange the challenges they face. Nevertheless, innovation is ubiquitous.
After identifying common challenges with different communities, the teams issued a call for ideas with the intention of opening up funding opportunities for people to bring forward proposals. They found creative ways to increase participation. They translated resources, began different conversations and embarked on a new way of working with people receiving humanitarian assistance.
Maarifa Kona produced radio call-in shows in multiple languages announcing the opportunity and explaining how people could get involved. Tuklas provided regional ‘writeshops’ – proposal-writing workshops across the country for people with varying literacy levels. Mahali created a series of cartoons explaining the concept of innovation, and Udhvabani provided equipped office space in Korail, an informal settlement area of Dhaka, for people to develop their ideas and seek support during the application process.
People who came into contact with the labs questioned the benefits this experimental process would bring. Teams made efforts to explain the approach to tackle commonly agreed challenges locally and collectively. They presented a different proposition: a relationship built on partnership rather than transaction, and one that offered a different form of support.
The DEPP labs’ approach has raised many questions about the appropriateness of innovating and experimenting in high-risk, high need environments. Indeed, each lab and its constituents contend with ongoing or emergent crises: political violence and drought in northeast Kenya; typhoons and landslides in the Philippines; flooding, cyclones and the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh; and the situation for Syrian refugees in Jordan.
The impact and benefit of the innovations supported by the labs will emerge in the process as well as the product. Innovators are growing their solutions with input from potential end users and lab teams are looking to the future of the labs. What is striking, however, is the feedback from lab staff, innovators and participants that this is a new approach to aid: people affected by the challenges shape processes and outcomes.
For decades, humanitarian actors have designed services according to need, evolving assessment processes to be more inclusive, participatory and responsive. The DEPP labs’ approach is a departure from the traditional model. It requires a shift in mindset by the ‘service provider’ or ‘innovator’ and ‘service user’ or ‘client’ to accept the starting point is not the relief item but the space to co-create the solution.
A woman from Garissa, northeast Kenya, who took part in an ‘ideas selection panel’, another of the labs’ byproduct innovations, captured the importance of this change:
“This is the first time they [aid orgnanisations] have asked me what I think.”