Paul White, from the Norwegian Refugee Council, discussed the use of drones in humanitarian response at the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference on April 26. Photo by: Lisa Cornish / Devex

Between April 26 and 28, global humanitarian players gathered in Melbourne at the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference, to discuss the changing sector, its needs and future. Among the participants were organizations such as the IKEA Foundation, Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision, government donors and research representatives.

Throughout the conference, a hot topic was innovation and the need for urgent change in humanitarian response. With growing global displacement and an increasing shortfall in funds available to provide humanitarian response, innovation was seen as the vessel that could be the difference between the sector sinking or swimming in the future.

Successful innovation occurs organization wide

According to Gerard Finnigan, regional health and nutritional advisor for South Asia Pacific with World Vision International, the humanitarian sector is still grappling with a range of challenges in understanding innovation.

 “You can’t have product innovation without operational, management and business innovations.”

— Gerard Finnigan, regional health and nutritional advisor for South Asia Pacific at World Vision International

For many humanitarian organizations, the temptation is to think of innovative solutions in terms of products — development of a new product or utilizing a new tool to improve service delivery and impact. But the range of definitions associate with innovation all aspects of an organization’s operations, including products, systems, models, methods and partnerships.

For innovation to be truly impactful, Finnigan argued, it needs to occur throughout the entirety of the organization. “You can’t simply have product innovation without there being operational, management and business innovations at the same time,” he told the audience during a panel on technology and innovation. “We have to get out of this product mindset.”

A key component in designing effective innovative solutions was understanding the customer. For the development sector, this is the beneficiary of aid. In the humanitarian space, identifying the customer may be less cut and dry. “For the humanitarian sector, the customer may not be the beneficiary — it may be the donor,” Finnigan said. Innovative solutions may be targeted at improving transparency, reporting or even safety of staff, rather than aimed at reaching beneficiaries.

But regardless of the customer, Finnigan said outside influences made it critical for humanitarian responses to change, adapt and innovate. Donor organizations were changing funding structures to increasingly focus on supporting innovative approaches — systematic innovative approaches. Changing contexts of operation, increased risk to humanitarian workers and growing urbanization are among the new challenges the sector needs to respond to.

“We’re not geared historically to respond to this new context,” Finnigan said. “As a consequence of that, what we must do is rethink the way we operate within an innovation lens. And that is not just from an organization perspective — it is from a systems perspective.”

Innovation versus protection

Human rights and protection are central to ethics and principles for humanitarian operations. But they are more than guiding principles -- they create trust between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries, enabling strong and effective humanitarian responses that are supported within the beneficiary community.

New technology being trialled by the humanitarian sector has the capability to improve delivery of support and services. But if beneficiaries are not aware of how technology is being used and its value, it can break down trust and negatively impact humanitarian response.

“This digital space is transforming the nature of power relationships in the work we are doing,” Paul White, from the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the audience. “We need to accept this and find ways of keeping up with the pacey change. We need to adapt but make sure our protection and humanitarian principles are still the core of our work.”

Drones, White said, was an area that required “clarity.” Their value was obvious — using drones could help locate survivors of natural disasters, deliver medical supplies and even provide mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. But in Nepal, following the 2015 earthquake, the overuse of drones created frustration and anger amongst locals.

Malawi launches Africa's first humanitarian drone testing corridor

The launch builds on efforts by UNICEF and other global development organizations to explore the development and humanitarian impacts of unmanned aircraft systems.

“Not telling them why drones were there or producing information being collected and providing that information generally caused problems,” White said. “We need to make an effort to communicate with people. It is clear that unless we do that we will create a greater gap between use and those people that we want to help.”

Likewise, social media could both aid humanitarian workers and hinder the people they were providing assistance to. Noosheen Mogadam, a policy adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the audience social media could be used to rapidly disseminate information in a humanitarian crises — both within affected communities and to donor countries — to improve awareness of the crisis. By targeting local Twitter influencers in communication, for example, information could be disseminated widely.

But care needs to be taken that social media engagement show respect and uphold the dignity of those it aims to support.

Facebook Live, for example, could provide rapid dissemination of news-style information, and is being utilized by a range of NGOs. “NGOs want to bring more awareness to situations, and we have thought about livestreaming,” Mogadam said. “There is the risk that people we film will later be put in danger from incidents of retaliation — when you livestream, the video is still available permanently.”

White said humanitarian operations needed to continue to be guided by ethics and principles. While innovation would play an important role moving forward, it was important to properly scope, question and consider the role of new tools and technology within the space of these values to ensure they were being upheld.

Innovate or fail

Despite challenges in innovation, the rapid onset and nature of humanitarian crises made innovation a necessity.

“It has been 70 years since the end World War II,” Finnigan said. “But today, the need for humanitarian assistance is even greater.”

“We received 8,000 messages saying thank you for making sure I was paid this week and not stolen from.”

— Emerson Tan from Mautinoa Technologies

An extreme example of the need to innovate was shown by Emerson Tan from Mautinoa Technologies, who provided in-country technical support to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In Sierra Leone, the country was facing a medical emergency heightened by potential political, economic and social collapse due to government health workers being unpaid. Humanitarian responders saw the impending crisis and were given just six weeks to develop a solution that would pay workers digitally — in a country where databases and systems were generally not considered in operations and western IT workers would not step in.

Not only were out-of-the-box ideas required to deliver a solution, out-of-the-box staff were required. Local staff were found who lacked formal education but were self-taught coders with a strong understanding of local culture — including how people could attempt to manipulate the system for personal gain.

To Tan’s relief, the outcome was successful. “We received 8,000 messages saying thank you for making sure I was paid this week and not stolen from,” he told the audience. But his extreme example showed the importance of humanitarian responses thinking differently, with staff and resources not necessarily the traditional run of the mill response package.

Natural disasters, violence and conflict have caused a profound change for the humanitarian sector — displacement, poverty and malnourishment are amongst the global issues humanitarians are currently addressing, with climate change expected to increase the humanitarian burden in decades to come. For the sector, the message from the conference was simple. “Doing the same stuff for the next 70 years is not an option,” Finnigan said.

Devex is the media partner for the inaugural Asia Pacific Humanitarian Leadership Conference. Follow discussion from the conference on Twitter using #bethechange.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.