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and Gaza ,where the displaced are highly educated and urbanised, reveals that traditional humanitarian tools are often outdated.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.”

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
i100
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Arts and Entertainment
A shared vision: Cerys Matthews has been familiarising herself with Dylan Thomas’s material, for a revealing radio programme
arts + entsA singer, her uncle and a special relationship with Dylan Thomas
News
In other news ... Jon Snow performed at last year's Newsroom's Got Talent charity event
people
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years