Opinion: How collaboration can cure 'pilotitis'

The ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society register Gazans and distribute humanitarian relief. Photo by: I. El Baba / ICRC / CC BY-NC-ND

Providing humanitarian assistance to those affected by long-term conflict has never been more complex or difficult. Protracted conflict causes infrastructure and services to crumble, leaving people without water, electricity, health care, transport and education. This lack of basic requirements and systems can lead to entire generations — current and future — being lost.

In 2015, 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide  and today some 1.5 billion people live in situations of continuous instability and violence; 120 million of them are in urgent need of some form of humanitarian assistance.

However, it has become clear that aid as it was originally conceived, i.e. the provision of relief assistance, is no longer sufficient on its own. New thinking, new approaches and a concerted cross-sector effort are required — not only because humanitarians do not have all the answers but also because they no longer have the capacity or means to respond to the growing volume of needs by themselves. The annual total value of worldwide humanitarian action is now more than $15 billion, while the cost of conflict around the world is estimated to be between $10 and 15 trillion per year, or 10 per cent of global GDP.

Commercial partnerships, multiparty agreements and knowledge-sharing are just a few of the many ways humanitarians are collaborating with the private sector, governments and others to devise and test new solutions. Whatever the nature of the partnership, the secret to its success lies in finding a common interest and working together to achieve tangible results.

Partnerships in practice

“New thinking, new approaches and a concerted cross-sector effort are required — not only because humanitarians do not have all the answers but also because they no longer have the capacity or means to respond to the growing volume of needs by themselves.”

— Mechthild Rombach and Thalie Bareilles of the ICRC

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which provides protection and assistance to victims of armed conflict and other violence, is one of the organizations exploring new ways of working with the private sector. In 2005, it created the Corporate Support Group, which draws on members’ expertise to help ICRC provide better services to communities in need. For example, the ICRC is teaming up with global technology company ABB to pilot a microgrid that fits inside a shipping container and can provide an independent, uninterrupted power supply derived, in part, from renewable energy sources.

To reinforce its work with members of the Corporate Support Group and generate other opportunities, the ICRC launched Global Partnerships for Humanitarian Impact and Innovation in 2014. GPHI2 is a platform for developing and promoting innovative solutions to respond better to the needs of victims of armed conflict and for identifying, leveraging and strengthening partnerships for doing so.

Since March 2016, GPHI2 has focused on reducing the number of preventable deaths in environments made fragile by conflict, population displacement and other emergencies. Pilot projects so far have included: work by the Philips Foundation and the ICRC’s health unit on the development of a double-head fetoscope; collaboration by the ICRC, Doctors Without Borders, Terre des Hommes and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute on an algorithm for managing childhood illnesses; development by the ICRC and the Belgian government of a Humanitarian Impact Bond — a tool to secure long-term funding from private social investors for physical rehabilitation projects; and a pilot project between the ICRC and Novartis Access to improve access to treatment for non-communicable diseases to patients in Lebanon.

Moving away from pilots

Pilot projects are essential for testing out new ideas. They also help with change management, in that once something is implemented successfully in the field, there will be less resistance among those who do not trust new methods. It is important, however, not to go too far and develop a severe case of “pilotitis”. Simply carrying out one pilot project after another without moving on to implement the successful ones can be counterproductive.

Scaling up projects is the biggest challenge and thus is an area where the private sector can play an important role — by helping the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations adopt strategies and put in place mechanisms to facilitate the use of a new solution across the organization, a new technology for example, while also adapting it to local conditions.

For the development, implementation and scaling up of a new or improved solution to succeed, it is vital that, at the working level, the solution is designed and developed to function across different areas of work. Equally important is activity at the highest level: international forums that bring together organizations and people from different sectors must be used as platforms to promote and direct humanitarian innovation and collaboration.

View to the future

The aforementioned GPHI2 helps at the practical level. At the global level, multistakeholder forums such as the United Nations General Assembly, the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network and the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Conflict and Violence are great examples of the willingness among different sectors to align interests on humanitarian matters. The WEF’s Global Council on the Future of the Humanitarian System is further exploring commonalities among sectors, with the aim of expanding the humanitarian community and promoting forward-looking and holistic views of the humanitarian landscape. The ICRC has a strong voice in all of these forums.

The cure for “pilotitis” may therefore very well be a sound balance between high and working-level engagement that combines the experience of aid agencies with suitable methodologies and approaches from the private sector. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from each new collaboration, the most important of which is that each collaboration is unique.

There is no one-size-fits-all model. Collaboration means sharing everything — risk, responsibilities and rewards — so, in each case, the parties involved must take time to learn about each other, and each other’s interests, in order to build a relationship of trust, understanding and commitment. And this courtship needs to operate at all levels — from the leadership, which has the final say on a project, to the ground level, where the magic really happens.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Mechthild Rombach

    Meggi Rombach works as corporate partnership manager at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She is responsible for the corporate partnerships including the Philips Foundation, the Swiss Re Foundation, ABB and LafargeHolcim. Prior to joining the ICRC, Meggi worked in brand management for about a decade; mainly at Procter & Gamble. She holds a MBA in international organizations management at the HEC Geneva.
  • Thalie Bareilles

    Thalie Bareilles currently works as a corporate partnerships officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to this, Thalie mainly held positions in communications and marketing in the private sector. She worked for large multinationals including Total and Orange Business Services, in Paris and Washington, D.C. Thalie holds a M.A in risk, opinion and communications strategy and a B.A in corporate communications, both from Sorbonne University (CELSA) in Paris, France.