What is a humanitarian innovation?

Why does the humanitarian system need innovation, and who are the key actors involved in development of fresh approaches to new and existing problems?

The processes and tools developed for humanitarian intervention remain largely unchanged since the Second World War, and several events in recent years have demonstrated that the humanitarian system has difficulty coping with the changing needs and nature of modern emergencies. As a result, it is essential for the humanitarian sector to develop innovative processes, protocols, and tools to adapt to this new reality1,2.

Defining humanitarian innovation

OCHA defines a humanitarian innovation as:

“a means of adaptation and improvement through finding and scaling solutions to problems, in the form of products, processes or wider business models… [these] can be applied to nearly any specialized area, from logistics, to medicine, to media, and may include technology but is not reducible to it3.”

In addition to this, a humanitarian innovation doesn’t need to be a completely new invention. It could simply be an existing product, process, model, or technology that is adapted to a new context.

Who are the actors involved in innovation?

Investment in innovation is a relatively new concept in the humanitarian sector. One actor, The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), provides grants to organisations and individuals to foster innovative and scalable solutions to challenges facing humanitarians today. HIF focuses on neglected areas of intervention in emergencies, such as water, sanitation, and hygiene and gender-based violence4.

Another global actor is the Global Humanitarian Lab (GHL) a partnership of leading humanitarian organisations working to make, incubate, and accelerate innovative solutions that address common problems of affected populations and the humanitarian community. GHL is a network of people, communities, and partnerships, as well as big and small institutions from the public and private sector, all aiming to foster innovation in the humanitarian sector and empower affected communities. Other actors, including research institutes, non-governmental organisations and government donors have also recently begun to fund innovation initiatives5.

Clearly we are realising that a rapidly changing world and humanitarian sector requires new ways of thinking. In the next step we look at just a few of the innovative tools and approaches currently being used to address a range of health needs.

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This article is from the free online course:

Health in Humanitarian Crises

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine