Aid innovation fund ‘battling culture of risk aversion’

Humanitarian project EU_ECHO Malini Morzaria (FILEminimizer).jpg
Copyright: EU/ECHO Malini Morzaria

Speed read

  • The humanitarian sector has a low-risk culture and avoids discussing failure
  • This hinders the fund’s inherently hit-and-miss approach to find novel practices
  • Although the fund is yet to evaluate its impact, it seems to be improving lives

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A unique fund supporting innovation in the humanitarian sector is fighting a culture of risk aversion in its efforts to improve emergency aid delivery, but the projects it supports are already delivering benefits to people, according to its manager.

The UK-based Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) was created in 2010 to disburse funds promoting innovation within the humanitarian sector. So far, it has funded 37 projects worldwide, most of which are still going.

Although the fund has not yet evaluated its impact, some of the innovations the projects have delivered are already improving lives, its managers says.

“We provide funding that allows ideas to grow that otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to,” says HIF manager Kim Scriven.

Despite enormous growth in overall humanitarian funding, this funding has failed to catch up with the faster growth in the needs of those affected by natural disasters and conflicts, he says.

“There needs to be a space in the humanitarian system to take risks to develop new products and processes. We think that’s the unique space the HIF can fill,” he adds.

“But we are pushing against a culture of risk aversion in the system where there is not a fantastic tradition of talking about failure.”

The HIF is jointly managed by two international networks: the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) and Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance.

ALNAP director John Mitchell says: “We’re expecting that most innovations will not work. But we know that when they do work, you get major changes. It’s going to take time to be able to show that the money that has been put into the fund is yielding step change improvements.”

Aid impact

But some HIF grantees are already having a big impact on the delivery of humanitarian aid, says Scriven.

A HIF grant of almost £150,000 (roughly US$246,000) enabled UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) to develop an open-source mobile phone application and data storage system to help reunite displaced children with their families or guardians.

“We’re expecting that most innovations will not work. It’s going to take time to be able to show that the money that has been put into the fund is yielding step change improvements.”

John Mitchell, ALNAP

This RapidFTR (Family Tracing and Reunification) application has helped reunite numerous displaced children in the Philippines, South Sudan and Uganda, says Scriven.

Another HIF grantee, Motivation, a charity supporting people with mobility disabilities, received a £150,000 grant to design and roll out a low-cost wheelchair for emergency response situations.

The charity delivered 150 of the emergency-response wheelchairs to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan hit last November. And aid organisation Handicap International is using 50 of the wheelchairs in Nepal as part of a capacity building programme to ensure that local organisations include people with disabilities when preparing emergency relief responses to natural disasters. 

“You have to constantly keep innovating. There’s always a better way of doing something. But to have the opportunity to do that costs money — that’s what the HIF has helped us do,” says David Constantine, Motivation’s co-founder and executive officer.
“Without the HIF grant, we wouldn’t have created the wheelchair. We had not been able to make it [before] because the funding wasn’t there to do that kind of thing.”
Sarah Sheldon, Motivation’s project coordinator for the Emergency Response wheelchair, adds that the HIF takes a unique approach because it encourages partner organisations to learn from each other through a project blog and web-based seminars.
Translators Without Borders (TWB), a non-profit organisation that works with humanitarian NGOs, received a HIF grant of £132,000 for its Words of Relief project to improve communication between aid workers and affected communities during crisis response. To achieve this it has developed a crowdsourced translation application for mobile phones and a virtual network of translators.

“I have been very pleased working with HIF so far. I definitely believe in what they’re doing. We wouldn’t have been able to do this project without their grant,” says Rebecca Petras, programme director at TWB.

Wendy Fenton, Humanitarian Policy Group coordinator at the UK-based think-tank the Overseas Development Institute, says: “There’s the very important point about whether we should be experimenting with new approaches in situations of life and death, where making mistakes and the consequences of failure can be so great for the people that we’re working to support.

But the other way of looking at that is, can we afford not to take those risks to try to improve the way in which we’re responding? That’s a question that we all ask ourselves and getting the balance right is really important.”

See below for a video about HIF:

See below for a video by UNICEF on its RapidFTR application: