A drone delivery project in Rwanda. Photo by: Sarah Farhat / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The Syrian refugee crisis, famine in Yemen, and Venezuela’s economic and political crisis — just a few of the many crises the humanitarian sector is contending with. The unprecedented scale and severity show no signs of slowing down, so what better time to rethink how the humanitarian sector works.

While organizations roll out innovative approaches — cash programming, humanitarian impact bonds, the use of drones — progress is slow when it comes to replicating these innovations on a larger scale.

This needs to change if the humanitarian sector is to effectively respond in this new era of prolonged emergencies, sudden-onset conflicts, and climate-related disasters.

So how can innovations enabling an improved humanitarian response on a small scale receive the right funding, resources, and partnerships to grow? What are the best ways to harness innovation? And why exactly is it so difficult to achieve these successes at scale?

These are just some of the questions that Devex World, Devex’s flagship event in Washington, D.C., will look to find tangible answers to next month.

Ahead of engaging luminaries and practitioners on June 12, East Africa correspondent Sara Jerving — based in Nairobi who covers the humanitarian sector as well as global health, agriculture, and economic issues, on the ground across the continent — discussed what innovating at scale for the humanitarian sector could mean.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Innovation is a word we hear all the time and many organizations within the humanitarian sector are investing in it, often through pilots or one-off initiatives. But how does the idea of innovation change when you add the notion of scale to it?

There are a lot of interesting ideas out there aimed at better serving populations and the humanitarian sector — such as tech innovations, the use of mobile phones, and artificial intelligence. The issue is that some work well on a small scale, but the challenge moving forward is taking these ideas and scaling them to a broader population.

When you do that, there's a host of complications that the program now has to account for.

There is an unprecedented number of global humanitarian crises happening right now: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, the Rohingya crisis — with all of these crises happening concurrently, there's just not enough funding to go around to fully equip responses.

Because of this, there's a lot of pressure on the humanitarian sector to become more efficient, to do more with less. Devex World is a great opportunity to discuss how this can be done in the real world.

What are the key issues or obstacles  to innovating at scale?

Some issues to discuss at Devex World include how to build up an evidence base around a pilot intervention; what signs indicate a program is ready to be scaled; methods to get buy-in from a national government to scale up a program; and solutions for the growing pains involved in scaling up.

We're also going to talk about the ideas “out there” — what panelists see as the next big game changers in humanitarian response.

A few of the experts we’ll be chatting to include Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Nathaniel Raymond, director of the signal program on human security and technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

“There's a lot of pressure on the humanitarian sector to become more efficient and do more with less. Devex World is a good opportunity to discuss how this can be done in the real world.”

— Sara Jerving, East Africa correspondent, Devex

The scale of these problems requires all hands on deck, so it's great to have everyone at the table for these kind of discussions — because these are global issues.

I think the Innovating at Scale track at Devex World will be a platform both for people who are already scaling up their programs and those that are still in the pilot stage. Those who are in the pilot stage right now can learn from organizations that have already successfully scaled up their programming.

And I see it as an opportunity for leaders in the humanitarian sector to consider how the entire sector is being upended by the new scale of the challenge — and the new tools at their disposal.

And why is Devex World the place to see that conversation advance for practitioners?

Devex World provides a great opportunity for networking and collaborating within the sector and outside the sector — which is an important aspect of scaling up a program. It helps to ensure that organizations are not working in silos.

Hopefully, humanitarians and others will use this event to get the tools and the connections that can help them to begin scaling up their own pilot programs.

Devex World is on June 12, 2018, at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C., Learn more about Devex World here, and note that this unique event will reach full capacity.

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