Recipients of humanitarian aid walk a stretch of road in South Sudan. Photo by: UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt and United States Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green launched what they have dubbed the “first-ever humanitarian grand challenge,” during an event Monday at the Overseas Development Institute.

The call for proposals asks innovators around the world to submit ideas “to save and improve the lives of the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people affected by humanitarian crises caused by conflict,” according to a statement from USAID. It will be implemented through Grand Challenges Canada.

USAID and the Department for International Development will invest $15 million over the next five years to support innovations that enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian assistance.

Applications for funding are due April 12, Green said at the event. “We expect 10-15 seed projects to be funded over the next 24 months, and of these seed projects, 2-4 we hope to have as transition to scale projects [rapidly],” he said.

The seed projects will receive grants up to $250,000, while the transition-to-scale projects will receive up to $1 million, “to support the refinement, testing, and implementation of solutions that have already achieved proof of concept,” according to the statement.

For the transition-to-scale projects, Green said “more funding will be made available to them” at the end of the 24-month period, “to hopefully scale up some of the solutions that we’re seeing to really provide now proven answers to some of the daunting challenges that we see.”

Green said that while USAID spent more than $8 billion on humanitarian aid last year, “less than 1 percent was spent on innovation, to testing out ways to improve delivery of services.”

The first call for proposals seeks solutions that engage the private sector “to provide, supply, or locally generate safe drinking water and sanitation, energy, life-saving information, or health supplies and services to help meet the needs of conflict-affected people,” the USAID statement reads.

The “grand challenge” model is a method of crowdsourcing for innovation and ideas. Proposals are welcome from individuals, organizations, companies, and institutions.

At the launch event, Mordaunt said she hoped the grand challenge would be “a catalyst for getting more eyes on these problems.” She said the development sector is “way off in delivering the [Sustainable Development Goals], and if we really want to deliver them, pick up the pace, and we have to work much smarter in doing that,” adding that, “there is massive waste within the humanitarian delivery system at the moment.”

Asked what types of proposals and ideas she would like to see in the first wave of applications, Mordaunt said she did not want to “be prescriptive about this because that’s what we’re trying to get away from. I think this is the power of this initiative, we’re describing the challenges we face and saying, what would you do?”

“I really want to champion in my tenure the use of technology and innovation and that’s why I’m pleased to be announcing this new partnership with USAID and GC Canada today,” she said.

Green agreed, adding that he believes one of the persistent flaws of the sector is “that for far too long when faced with a challenge we’ve looked inward, spent a lot of time looking inward, crafted something that isn’t a perfect match for the community we’re trying to serve or it’s just outdated.”

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.