As conflicts explode worldwide, the aid industry is turning to the private sector, social media and refugees themselves for innovative solutions

Suzy Madigan explores the trend in 'humanitarian innovation'

Abo Gabi grew up as a Palestinian refugee in Syria’s Yarmouk camp until the warplanes of Bashar al-Assad forced him to flee again to Beirut. Displaced for a second time, he is not looking for hand-outs or sympathy – he wants us to buy his album. 

Abo Gabi is one of nine musicians arriving in the UK to record a song in collaboration with British artists Reverend & The Makers, Sandie Shaw and Rodney P, and is scheduled to play at the Shambala Festival this week. The musicians will be there thanks to In Place of War, a digital platform enabling artists trapped in war zones to reach a global audience, and help make a living using their talent.

This project – enabled by technology, supported by a new kind of aid worker and shaped by the very communities affected by conflict – is an example of a trend shaking up the aid industry. Insiders call it “humanitarian innovation”. At a time of unparalleled demand for humanitarian assistance, the aid sector, a once exclusive club perched on a moral high ground which used to view “non-experts” with suspicion and the private sector with hostility, is opening membership to business, technology developers and, crucially, affected populations themselves in search of radical solutions.

The need to revolutionise is being driven by the growing scale, cost and complexity of world crises. Today, more people are displaced than at any time since the Second World War and aid funding requests rose from $6bn (33.6bn) to $10bn per year, from 2003 to 2013.

The landscape has also changed. The current humanitarian system created at the end of the Cold War was designed predominantly to deal with rural settings and short time frames – in crude terms, impoverished people displaced by war and famine, mostly in Africa. While South Sudan is now facing such a prospect, a look at unfolding crises in Iraq, Syria and Gaza ,where the displaced are highly educated and urbanised, reveals that traditional humanitarian tools are often outdated. Indeed, more than half of the world’s refugees now live in urban settings.


Because of this, Ban Ki-moon has called for “a more inclusive global humanitarian system” to meet a changing world and Istanbul will convene the first World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, with “Transformation through innovation” as a key theme. Unicef and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) now have dedicated innovation units, while the British Government, one of the foremost investors in humanitarian innovation, is investing £35m on research and development in this area.

Private-sector collaborations are focused heavily on technology, logistics and telecommunications. UPS and DHL have worked with aid organisations on humanitarian logistics while Google provided geospatial imaging (aerial surveillance) to assess damage after the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

New technologies are also providing solutions to ancient problems, such as the impact on education when children are displaced or the separation of families in war and disasters. In Lebanon, Unicef Innovation has provided teachers in Syrian refugee camps with £25 Raspberry Pi credit-card sized computers to teach children how to code, while in the Philippines, newly developed Rapid Family Tracing mobile technology was used to reunite children separated from their families.  

Chris Earney, from UNHCR’s young innovation unit, which worked with Ikea to develop flatpack refugee shelters, says: “We should be humble enough to recognise that the greatest brains who might come up with solutions for, and with, refugees don’t necessarily work for the UN. It’s about collaboration.”

The fact that such a seemingly logical change is regarded as revolutionary is symptomatic of a sector that is averse to risk. Alexander Betts, of Oxford University’s Humanitarian Innovation Project, notes: “Innovation requires a willingness to fail. Yet failure in this case can have significant human consequences, so understandably, this can lead to risk aversion.”

Similarly, while many in the aid sector are attracted to the skills and funding that the private sector can offer, concerns remain that businesses’ desire for profit could compromise humanitarian principles in difficult situations and among the world’s most vulnerable people.

Jan Egeland is the UN’s former head of Humanitarian Affairs and secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council NGO. While a big supporter of innovation, he recommends proceeding with caution, “Of course there are important partnerships [to be made], but there are also real risks involved. In complex conflict situations like Syria, humanitarian principles are sometimes the difference between life and death, for our staff and those they are trying to help.”

Humanitarian innovation, however, as the UK Department for International Development is keen to stress, should focus primarily on responding to those who need it. As with a business, it’s a case of listening to consumers and adapting as necessary. “Affected communities need to be more squarely involved in humanitarian response,” explains a spokesperson. “Innovation is most effective when potential users are engaged in the design.”

As Abo Gabi puts it: “People don’t only want to eat or be protected. They also want their voice to be heard.”

Increasing emphasis is also being given to the coping mechanisms that crisis-hit populations themselves employ. The stereotype of dependent victims passively awaiting aid is being replaced by one of skilled citizens who should be helped to maximise their own talents.

“People who flee crisis have to adapt, and they often do so in creative and entrepreneurial ways,” says Alexander Betts. “Humanitarian innovation begins by understanding the local context and supporting the problem-solving capacities of affected communities themselves.”

In Place of War has adopted this approach as it develops a training program, able to fit on a USB stick, which teaches artists the business skills they need to turn their talent into money. It was created by 40 artists’ associations already active in conflict zones.

It is a shift welcomed by Jan Egeland. “I have constantly been reminded of the resourcefulness of refugees.” On a wall in his office, Egeland has a poster featuring one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators. It reads: “Einstein was a refugee.”

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