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  • Disasters fund will link aid and research communities

[LONDON] International disaster responses have "massive, big-picture deficiencies" that might be transformed by interaction between the aid and scientific communities, a meeting heard last week (15 October).

The meeting was held to launch the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, which will finance projects that allow academics and disaster response organisations to jointly pursue new ideas for the sector from the worlds of technology and innovation.

The fund follows two years of research by the UK-based Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), an international network of the world's major humanitarian organisations.

Ben Ramalingam, head of research and development at the organisation, said that the humanitarian assistance was steadily improving.

"But massive, big picture deficiencies remain," he told SciDev.Net. "The top issues to my mind are poor coordination of responses, lack of connection to national and local organisations, and a lack of engagement and ownership with affected populations."

"Cutting across all of these is a lack of creative innovation in how aid is delivered — a cookie cutter approach can clearly be observed. This is now becoming more evident because of, for example, rapid urbanisation, which challenges operational responses in ways that we have not really managed to get a handle on, as [the massive earthquake in] Haiti has shown all too clearly.

"Thanks to this new fund, we've got a lot more clarity about how we might take the innovation agenda forward."

The fund was launched by the Enhanced Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA), a UK-based international collaborative network, at the London symposium.

"There's very little facility right now for research and development and particularly for thinking of new ways of working and changing practice," Jess Camburn, director of ELRHA, told SciDev.Net.

"We're good at making small, incremental improvements but we haven't really got the resources to think bigger than that and to innovate," Camburn said.

"There's much more public, international and internal scrutiny on the way the humanitarian sector is working," she said. "I think this [focus on innovation] reflects the maturity of the sector."

Chris Whitty, director of research and evidence, and chief scientific advisor at the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), told the meeting that researchers working in fragile states or humanitarian emergencies have been made to feel like intruders.

"Proper engagement between the academic community and the humanitarian community has not taken place."

"But now, he said, "there has been a realisation in the NGO community of the importance of doing what they do on a proper evidence base".

David Wightwick, head of emergency capacity building and preparedness at the UK-based non-governmental organisation Save the Children, said the humanitarian sector faces huge challenges in the midst of disasters and there is very limited body of work on how research departments and academia can help.

"We have to make it up every single time," he said.

ELRHA is hosted by Save the Children.

DFID has kicked off the fund, open to grant applications from all over the world, with a £900,000 (around US$1.4 million) grant. The first call for proposals will be made in early 2011.

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