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Easier said than done? Innovation in the Humanitarian Sector

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“Innovation is very simple in my humanitarian work.”

This feedback, recently given in RedR’s training on humanitarian innovation in Addis Ababa, may not strike a chord with you. In fact, while we all recognise on the power of innovation, we also find it quite intimidating. By its very nature, there is no blueprint for innovation. Which leaves us with an uncomfortable conclusion. Whose job is it to innovate? It might be me. 

Our recent innovation training for the ToGETHER Programme led by NGO Welthungerhilfe brought together 113 participants from local and international NGOs based in nine different countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Indonesia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Germany, and Colombia. The training was designed to build a culture of innovation, and equip participants with the tools to create innovation in their own roles and organisations, to better serve communities affected by disaster. 

We speak to two RedR Trainers, Alejandro Castañeda and Ahmed Hassan, who facilitated two of the five innovation training sessions we held in four cities around the world. What does real innovation look like? Whose responsibility? And how do we make it happen? 

Simpler than you think

Real innovation always arises from the space given for understanding real problems, and listening to the right people. Alejandro is an experienced Sphere trainer. In the Venezuelan Migrant Crisis in Colombia which intensified in 2015, Alejandro became convinced that the best support for Venezuelan migrants would come from cash transfer – an innovative and burgeoning form of humanitarian support. 

Cash transfers for migrants were not yet possible in Colombia. There was no private sector partner identified, who could enable migrants without Colombian documentation access to cash. 

As a Sphere facilitator and coordinator of a project that included Cash Transfers, Alejandro and his team spent months streamlining this process of cash transfer. Unable to make progress, the initiative was born to unite different NGOs that were engaging in cash transfer, creating a collaborative initiative. Each organisation began to look for solutions.This led to the creation of a Cash Transfer Procedures Manual. 

Sharing precedents from other countries and the principles laid out in the Sphere manual, Alejandro was able to work with humanitarian sector partners and the Colombian Foreign Ministry to show them the power and value of cash transfer as an innovative form of humanitarian support, being tested and adopted in many contexts around the world to give disaster affected people the resources to support themselves. Convinced, the authorities and humanitarian partners agreed to institute cash transfer as humanitarian action for Venezuelan migrants in Colombia.   

A cash cluster was created to develop and nurture this action. Today, private companies allow cash transfer for Venezuelan migrants, with the support of the Colombian government, and more and more organisations are working in this way to reach more vulnerable people. cash transfers are provided for health, housing, food, family reunification trips, schooling, multi-purpose, attention to victims of gender violence, and to support participation in training. 

Innovation is simpler than you think – and it creates itself, when space is given to understanding and addressing the actual needs, behaviours, and experiences of disaster-affected people. 

Yes, innovation is your responsibility

Innovation often seems as if it can only be pursued on a macro scale. How can we implement it as a culture in the humanitarian sector? As Ahmed explains, at the beginning of the training in Addis Ababa the participants “never thought about innovation as something related to their work. Innovation seemed too big, and not suitable for where we are.”  

Similarly, in the Colombian context for the RedR innovation training in Bogotá, Alejandro says “there were great expectations on the first day ... some were expecting direct answers on how they should innovate in the humanitarian sector. In the end, they understood that the training provided tools that allow them to innovate. In the end, it is up to each humanitarian worker to generate spaces for innovation, thinking of the people affected.” 

Innovation happens when each humanitarian shifts their mindset. Rather than a task for someone else, it is integrally linked to the approach they take to their own role. Far from placing a burden of responsibility onto the individual, however, this mindset shift that Ahmed and Alejandro facilitated through this training should give new freedom and capacity to the individual to bring innovation in their own context, in relation to their own responsibilities. The training gives participants the space and tools to consider the question - are the methods I use really the best way of solving the problems I face? 

As Ahmed, an experienced humanitarian leader, notes, “if you stay the same you will be left behind.” As an illustration of this mindset shift in action, some participants in Addis Ababa brought a real example from their own roles – managing the life-threatening flooding of the Shebelle river in Hiran region, Somalia. Giving space in the training the diverse group of participants including young and old, experienced and newly recruited Ethiopian and Somali participants from different organisations, able to discuss outside the box ideas – using fencing, or bells to create an early warning system, and working harder to understand the community response. Ethiopian participants shared ideas from their own experiences with  flooding, and they also discussed how to able such a solution - specifically, how to effectively pitch innovation to a potential donor. 

“Innovation”, as Ahmed explains, “is about empowering individuals with the tools to discover   their own solutions. By providing these tools, individuals can adapt them to their unique contexts and circumstances.” 

Those tools, transferred by the training, centre on the Human Centred Design approach to innovation, distinctive for its emphasis on empathy and deep understanding of the needs, behaviours, and experiences of users, insistence on user involvement throughout a design process, and iterative model of testing and refinement. 

Yes, innovation is possible 

People need space to consider, listen, and discuss. They need tools and knowledge. They need – in a word – capacity. 

“Building capacity among local people creates innovation”, says Ahmed. “While abundant resources exist, the issue often lies in the lack of access to these resources for local communities.  By bringing together spaces, people, resources, and tools , individuals can access what they need to develop innovative solutions to the challenges they face in responding to disasters.  

If humanitarian innovation is as simple as giving talented, experienced humanitarians some breathing space and the tools to think, it’s as simple as a new way of viewing ourselves. Ahmed says that his training participants had never thought about humanitarian innovation before – in fact, they had thought that humanitarianism is singularly not innovative. “Now”, he says, “they were able to apply innovation in their own real problems”.