Promoting innovation in conflict relief

The UN says 235,000 people have fled their homes in Syria since hostilities began in March 2011 Copyright: Freedom House

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Innovations in relief technologies are vital in the world's complex conflict zones. But there are barriers to overcome, writes Imogen Mathers.

Thirty years ago, on 21 September 1982, the UN launched the International Day of Peace, "devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, within and among all nations and peoples". [1]

Three decades later, as the Peace Bell rings in the UN's New York headquarters, millions of people will wake up to lives afflicted by war and violence. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that there are 350 conflict zones worldwide, with violence becoming increasingly urbanised and unpredictable.

Responding to the devastation wrought by war is complex and expensive. Over the past ten years, governments have spent US$90 billion on humanitarian response (assistance for the impact of disaster or conflict, rather than poverty), with a record US$12.4 billion in 2010 alone. In 2009, more than 65 per cent of this assistance went to states in conflict, or soon after conflict had ended. [2]

The logistical challenges of conflict are many, from the provision of medicine, water and sanitation, to the coordination of 'humanitarian corridors' and camps for the world's 37.5 million displaced people.

The rapidly changing nature of violence also poses new problems for relief. In 'post-conflict' countries like Iraq, terrorist tactics — such as timing bombs to target medical response teams — can make the delivery of assistance a battle in itself.

Obstacles to innovation

Relief innovations, such as for emergency nutrition and water supplies, have the potential to transform the effectiveness of humanitarian response. But the nature of war can make it difficult to deploy new tools effectively. Innovation is often neglected in favour of tried-and-tested methods, as relief organisations can be slow to adopt new technologies.

Divyesh Thakkar, director of Sunlite-Solar, a solar energy agency based in India that supplies emergency lighting to relief organisations, says bureaucracy can stifle the progress of innovations from lab to field.

"You have to tick a hundred boxes to get a relief agency contract," says Thakkar. "We have a very able in-house technical team, but the aid is not penetrating as much as it should."

Like many in the sector, Thakkar cites "funding and priorities" as major stumbling blocks to innovation uptake. In the face of war, relief agencies inevitably prioritise saving lives over experimenting with technology, and convincing them to test a product can be difficult. "Field officers could be the catalyst for change if they could be convinced to trial innovative products," he says.

The mission comes first

Robert Whelan, a communications delegate at the ICRC, says that "innovation is central to the ICRC's work". From orthopaedics and shelter design, to biogas plants for detention centres, to mapping tools using satellites and grassroots information, "the ICRC takes a pragmatic, scientific approach to innovation and the testing of new ideas".    

Similarly, Paul Molinaro, an emergency logistics officer at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), says that "across the board, we're trying to make innovation part of the organisation's DNA".

But Whelan also emphasises that "despite the ICRC's openness to innovation and early adoption of new technologies, innovation doesn't affect our essential modus operandi. Innovation must always be complementary to our key principle — our proximity to beneficiaries.

"New technologies are first and foremost tools, and they must form appropriate solutions to particular problems and contexts — there is no 'one size fits all'."

Wanted: a cultural shift

"Broadly, I think there have been improvements in the way aid agencies appreciate the need to try new approaches," says Kim Scriven, a research consultant at the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), a London-based grant-making body, launched in 2010 to support organisations developing technologies for relief. "But I think there's a lot more that aid agencies could do."

Community therapeutic care testing in Somalia

Innovative programmes such as community therapeutic care — CTC — have transformed malnutrition relief

FlickrGeno Teofilo/Oxfam

Support for innovation varies greatly by organisation and sector, adds Scriven. "In particular, there is a much stronger tradition of testing innovations in the medical sector that perhaps hasn't occurred so much in other areas."

He cites community therapeutic care (CTC), an emergency malnutrition approach used widely in conflict settings, as "a famously good example of a new technology being tested, developed methodologically and rolled out across different agencies".

CTC's approach — treating severely malnourished people at home using outreach teams, rather than more expensive, less accessible therapeutic feeding centres (TFCs) — aims to build community capacity and ownership of relief and recovery.  

Scriven says CTC's uptake is partly explained by the commitment of "a few passionate individuals, particularly Steve Collins at Valid International [a humanitarian agency]", and the fact that those spearheading its dissemination were "very thorough about collecting evidence of its comparability with previous methods".

But relying on a few advocates will not spur the necessary cultural shift towards integrating new approaches and measuring impact, Scriven emphasises. Frequently, "agencies don't spend much time measuring the impact of what they do and the outcomes of particular interventions," he says. Individuals working across the sector need more institutional incentives to encourage them to nurture new ideas and tools.

Risk is a key factor

Understanding risk will also be instrumental to changing this culture and finding new approaches, Scriven believes. In sudden, erratic conflict settings, taking risks is obviously inadvisable. "But in the majority of conflict settings, where there is chronic vulnerability among populations, there is more space to take responsible risks and try new innovations in a way that is accountable to beneficiaries," he says.  

The ICRC's Whelan agrees that analysing risk is crucial. "During conflict, the risks to local communities potentially inherent in an innovation must be analysed carefully, particularly as in these unpredictable contexts it can be difficult to recognise the different risks people face. Different regional, contextualised approaches are essential."

Institutional capacity is also a major obstacle to innovation uptake. "We're not a research and development agency," says UNICEF's Molinaro. "We don't have the money to take bets and invest; we act more as a convenor or an umbrella for ideas."

"This is where organisations such as the HIF can help," says Scriven. "We can have a real impact in providing resources to test ideas, a process that agencies wouldn't otherwise have the capacity to undertake."  

Making room for collaboration

Both Scriven and Thakkar say forums for collaboration are crucial for applying new humanitarian approaches. "There's a communication problem, not because relief agencies want it, but because they're inundated with work," says Thakkar. "What we need is a forum where we can talk to each other."

A Red Cross orthopaedic centre in Kabul

From orthopaedics to mapping technologies, innovation is instrumental to humanitarian response

Kanishka Afshari/FCO/DFID

Scriven agrees. "For any innovation to have a big impact, it must involve collaboration across agencies," he says. "We are looking to invest in bringing together expertise — humanitarians, academia, the science and technology world and the private sector — and brokering new collaborations to solve problems."

Such collaboration is becoming more widespread. For example, Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) is fostering stronger relationships between relief agencies and higher education institutes, to help get innovation off the ground. But a 2011 report by the UK's Department for International Development noted that "there is an urgent need to leverage appropriate forms of science, research and technology and private sector knowledge to support humanitarian innovation". [3]

Molinaro says innovations in the way organisations work together — for example, the "new combined approach and innovative funding mechanisms of the Gates Foundation" — can be transformative. Partnerships with the private sector have helped UNICEF to respond innovatively to "the big issues", he says. The agency recently won a US$100,000 award for 'innovation labs' in Kosovo, Uganda and Zimbabwe, which use open source technology to bring together public and private sectors "to co-create […] transformational approaches to the progress of health, welfare and equity in marginalised communities".

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are rapidly changing the way information is shared and developed, and new opportunities for innovation collaboration are emerging.

Whelan sounds a further note of caution. While the Red Cross is using social media and mobile and mapping technologies — to predict conflicts, track atrocities, coordinate planning and response, and to monitor facilities and services — tools must also be tailored for different settings to ensure that information does not pass into the wrong hands and compromise the safety of vulnerable people.  

The challenge, concludes Scriven, is to ensure innovations are carefully tested and integrated into conflict aid delivery, and to cultivate "a space that can really support systematic innovation management in the humanitarian system".

See below for a video on Humanitarian Innovation Fund:



[1]UN General Assembly Resolution 36/67. 77th Plenary Meeting, 30 November 1981.
[2]Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2011 [5.67MB]. Executive summary. Development Initiatives (2011)
[3] Humanitarian Emergency Response Review [1.95MB]. Executive summary. UK Department for International Development (2011)