Do we have a humanitarian innovation problem

This blog was first posted on CARE Insights in 2018

In recent years, innovation has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between the humanitarian and development needs of the world and the capacity we have to meet them. But is the focus on innovation distracting us from the task of actually making a difference, at the necessary scale?

Funding for programmes increasingly requires innovation to be a clear and central part of the project design. There is a proliferation of organisations focusing on innovation in the humanitarian and development sectors, such as the Global Innovation Fund, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, the Humanitarian Innovation Project, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures. The list goes on. At the World Humanitarian Summit, ‘Transformation through Innovation’ was one of the four main themes; a ringing endorsement for innovation as one of the main ways to transform our ailing humanitarian sector.

Innovation has come of age. It is studied and analysed. Treatises and strategies are written. INGOs and UN organisations are investing in innovation departments and experts. But yet we still have an ever growing gap between humanitarian needs and resources, we are facing increases in inequality and increases in global conflict after many years of increasing peace, and we hurtle towards the precipice of catastrophic climate change on our chariot of economic growth. Will innovation lead to ways to steer humanity through these threats?

It is hard not to feel that this focus on innovation in humanitarian and international development is getting in the way of implementing known solutions to the injustice, inequality and resulting poverty and vulnerability that ultimately cause suffering and disasters in the world. Is innovation just the latest distraction from the lack of political will and funding to actually make a difference at the necessary scale?

Is innovation always a good thing?

Good innovation can achieve great things, and make huge leaps forward. Whether we are talking the development of the vaccine, the many mobile technologies making our work better, or the onset of humanitarian cash programming at scale, we can do more, and do it better, with innovation.

But do we really want all innovation? Do we want the type of innovation that’s just about expanding market share and consuming more? Like increasingly ridiculous haircare products, or yogurts? Do we want the type of innovation that’s all about disruption, whatever the cost? Do we want innovation for innovation’s sake, even when we don’t understand the consequences properly?

Innovation isn’t an inherent good. Innovation can certainly do harm, whether as the result of genetically modified grains limiting diversity and sustainability of crops or impoverishing farmers, newly introduced plants wreaking havoc, data breaches from insecure online systems, or over-ambitious deliberately innovative projects that just don’t deliver their aims.

It was supposed to be innovation, but now we’re being told it was experimentation– Papa Omotayo, a Lagos-based architect

Does innovation always live up to its ambitions?

Often, innovation just doesn’t live up to its grand aims. In the humanitarian shelter sector, the development of tens, if not hundreds, of innovative sheds has made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the fact that providing people with decent housing costs quite a lot of money, and the people who need help most don’t have that money. Having won prizes and much fanfare, the Better Shelter (more widely known as the ‘IKEA shelter’), a product of the IKEA foundation and UNHCR’s Innovation Service, has certainly not lived up to its ambition. This innovation, as so many innovations, appears to be more about hype and PR than about delivery.

Talking about humanitarian housing problems, perhaps it’s worth looking at the parallels with non-emergency housing. In the UK housing market, councils are looking for increasingly ‘innovative’ ways to deal with their shortage of social housing. Often an “unapologetically commercial approach, but with a social purpose”, this moves away from taxation paying for services, and towards a market-driven approach. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case councils have been forced by public policy to find convoluted ways to meet their obligations. And private sector investment carries risk as well as reward.

Is innovation just passing the funding buck?

In the humanitarian world, the talk is increasingly of innovation around the role of the private sector and new funding models. In a world where there aren’t enough resources, this will be welcome if it leads to more – but it can’t be allowed to lead to a re-arranging of the deckchairs in a zero sum game.

For example, much is made of the possibilities presented by risk-based financing (insurance for disasters), but the premiums for this have to be paid by existing donors. More predictable financing perhaps, for some emergencies, but can it revolutionise humanitarian response? Can we trust private insurance to replace public safety nets and international solidarity? If innovation is used as an excuse by those holding the power to avoid their responsibilities (‘Well, you just have to innovate’) it will be counter-productive.

Innovation can deliver impressive results

There are much heralded success stories of innovation, many in the areas of mobile technology, medicine and energy. MPesa, Frontline SMS, and Ushahidi are all examples of powerful mobile tools developed in East Africa to meet particular needs of East Africa. Private sector startups are driving decentralised energy access in poor, rural areas of the world. There are some enormous successes in the health sector which have capitalised on developments of new drugs and treatments.

The humanitarian sector itself, for all the criticism of red tape and unwillingness to change, is remarkably innovative. Whether developing better materialsbetter approaches, or better technology, it has done some pretty impressive things to better meet people’s needs. In the midst of emergencies, the innovation that is delivered, under pressure, to get essential items and services to people in need is not often adequately recognised.

Humanitarian innovation in action

For example, in Zimbabwe in 2015/16 there was a major drought, and severe food shortages. Building on the now well-established humanitarian innovation of providing unconditional cash at scale, DFID funded CARE International and World Vision to distribute cash. However, there was a major liquidity crisis in Zimbabwe. How do you distribute cash to buy food when there’s no cash? The programme responded by putting more emphasis on e-transactions rather than cashing out, working closely with two mobile operators and traders to set up the necessary systems.

But then it became clear that due to the liquidity crisis, grain importers couldn’t bring sufficient food into the country for people to buy. Realising the problem, DFID worked with Crown Agents and the grain importers to establish the grain import facility. Through the facility, commercial grain traders were able to import 55,000 metric tonnes of maize to sell on the open market, enough to meet over 1.6 million people’s food requirements for three months. The cost to DFID was £200,000, in addition to the cash transfers. It would have cost more than $50m to import and distribute food aid directly.

This innovation was possible because the organisations involved, including the donor, were open to trying new things, and driven by a mutual desire to make things work. Where this culture of openness is not there, innovation is stifled, and important programming is not delivered.

Do the achievements match the hype?

These examples are good ones. Innovative products and systems are enabling big improvements in many areas. But is innovation the panacea it claims to be?

Initiatives like USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures seek to support ‘breakthrough solutions to the world’s most intractable development challenges – interventions that could change millions of lives at a fraction of the cost’. Canada’s Grand Challenges fund seeks ‘Bold Ideas with Big Impact®’. The EU seeks ‘affordable high-tech for humanitarian aid’ as part of its Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation framework. The World Humanitarian Summit seeks ‘transformation through innovation’. The UK’s research funding seeks to address ‘global challenges’.

Some of these initiatives will, hopefully, lead to great improvements in disaster risk reduction, in health, in energy, and in other areas; but the degree of realism between the funding offered and the scale of the challenges varies dramatically.

The rhetoric doesn’t match the achievements. We have better technologies. We have better information management. We have much potential. Innovation is good. It helps, and it will improve things. But are we going to see these breakthrough innovations to ‘change millions of lives at a fraction of the cost’? Do we honestly expect that the complexity of inequality, poverty and disasters can be solved by some lightbulb moments? Do we understand the consequences of this drive for innovation?

Who – and what – is really driving the cult of innovation?

Seeing all this investment, and these initiatives, it’s hard not to conclude that this is the rich North trying to have its cake and eat it. The UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund is ‘tackling global challenges in the national interest’ and deliberately funding a leading role for UK research. It sounds suspiciously like spending ODA money on a UK-led research agenda. By focusing on the cult of innovation, as many have called it, the global North is seeking a miracle cure for the disease it itself is the cause of.

Set against this, social and economic policy globally is not visibly moving forwards. There is little innovation apparent in finding ways to distribute wealth and power more equitably.

Across the public sector, social services are cut, replaced by ‘innovative’ cheaper, and worse, alternatives. Broadly good examples of successfully working with social safety nets in Turkey, Ethiopia and Kenya are set against much wider regressive migration policies, and backpedalling on international commitments. While funding innovative products and technologies to seek miracle solutions to the world’s problems, there has been almost complete failure to find political solutions to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, to deal in an even slightly morally justifiable manner with the relatively insignificant numbers of refugees seeking safety in Europe and a continuation of the systematic extraction of wealth from poor countries. (In 2015, $203bn was taken from the African continent by repatriation of profits, by illegally removing funds, or by other means).

Innovation is welcome – but it is not a panacea

We should grasp good innovation gratefully, with both hands, when it comes along. We should be able to identify it, welcome it, nurture it and make it work. Like the cash programme in Zimbabwe highlighted above, we should be open to finding the right ways to get the right help to people in whatever particular situation they are in.

But let’s stop pretending that we can innovate our way out of every problem. Most of the problems we deal with are really, really hard. Their solutions are nearly always political, and cost money. Let’s continue to listen, to learn, to research – so we can better understand these really hard problems, and better find solutions.

But no amount of innovation funding will make up for an unjust global taxation system, over-consumption, the denial of people’s rights, or the looming climate disaster we all face. We can’t innovate ourselves out of having to do the right thing. The system can’t innovate its way out of structural failings it is unwilling to address.

Innovation – the latest shiny gadget, the latest app, the new approach to doing more with less – is alluring but is not going to solve the world’s problems by itself. A focus on plaudits for quick-fixes and low-hanging fruit will not solve the world’s more intractable problems. Let’s not forget the importance of politics, public policy, decent levels of funding, and bringing existing solutions to scale.

Let’s not forget how much can be achieved with good, boring, existing policies and approaches. Innovation can be good, but boring can be good too.

Like all good things, perhaps innovation is best taken in moderation.