Why the humanitarian sector is up for (gentle) reform

(First published in WeForum)

The year 2014 saw four major emergencies that required simultaneous system-wide responses – in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the Central African Republic – followed by the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. The humanitarian sector has been stretched beyond the limits of its capacity and there are calls for system-wide reform.

According to the State of the Humanitarian System 2015 report, some developments have been helpful in these crises: “innovations in communications, information management and mapping, along with the growth in humanitarian-to-humanitarian organizations that service the system”.

So innovation is important, but it requires trying something new, and carries the risk that things might fail. In a sector where the price of failure can be people’s lives, humanitarians constantly try to find ways to innovate effectively while balancing ethical considerations and their accountability to affected populations.

Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

Seize the day and manage change

It is important for organizations to recognize that innovation happens in small ways every day. Successful innovators take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Using cash instead of credit, for example, which creates efficiencies because it eliminates procurement costs and allows recipients to choose what they need; or mobile technology, which can be used for fundraising and speed up the response to a crisis.

Responses can include a scaled-up solution that worked well to address a previous crisis. If individuals maintain an awareness of best practice and what has been tried before, they can build on it and create further improvement, or stop an approach that doesn’t work, to create the space for a new solution.

Opportunities are best used when people are open to change and mindful of connections between things that may initially seem unrelated. In the context of the European migration response, IOM works with Esri and the SAS Institute, providing the organization with a more comprehensive picture of mobility, routes and peoples’ needs, from their countries of origin to Europe.

Predictive analytics remain relatively new for humanitarian responders. However, agencies can leverage technology developed in the private sector, such as optimization models. A good example of using Visual Analytics Software (VAS), which has the capacity to process and analyse big data, is the case of the super typhoon, Haiyan, in the Philippines in 2013. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) used VAS to sift through large amounts of data contained in the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) to present insights in a more intuitive way and enhance the coordination of service delivery to evacuation centres that were sheltering hundreds of thousands of displaced people. This technology is now being explored for the potential to develop a model that can predict displacement needs so that assistance can be faster, better planned and more effective.


Source: migration.iom.int 

Organizations and innovation: a model partnership

To find creative ways of helping people in crisis, or to improve the quality of what is being delivered, organizations should find methods that complement their structure. Several humanitarian agencies have established specific innovation units and funds. Others embed innovation in their operations by involving as many relevant actors as possible: operational staff, the recipients of the service, the private sector, etc. This model may include innovation focal points or contact persons who maintain accountability for and communication about innovation within the organization. The IOM, for example, can source innovative new practices from within programme staff and operational networks.

The funding model should match the innovation model. For example, isolated funding may be most appropriate where there is a dedicated innovation unit. However, where innovation is mainstreamed and closely linked to the operational activities, it may be most useful to build innovation-related spending into the overall budget. Accountability for the use of funding in the humanitarian sector is primarily to the affected population, and resources used for innovation need to be clearly linked to improved outcomes or efficiencies in the assistance provided.

Keeping operators aware of models to successfully innovate might help to ensure that processes and products work in real operational environments and have better long-term results. Making innovation everyone’s responsibility can make it an integral part of the organization’s work culture.


Nuno Nunes, IOM’s Global Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster Coordinator, Department of Operations and Emergencies