Humanitarian innovation: We may fail at this

In this blog, Senior Innovation Manager at Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, Cecilie Hestbæk, discusses the challenges facing humanitarian innovation and how a new, experimental type of funding may hold the key to navigating an obstacle course in the dark…

Innovation, Silicon Valley-style, is all about moving fast and breaking things (such was the alleged motto of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as the company started out). Then, for the few who make it through with a product that consumers want, it becomes about scaling up fast. American transport disrupter Uber went from zero to a hundred (or rather, $70bn) in just six years, while London-based start up Monzo, with its pretty-in-pink debit cards, reached a valuation of over $1bn in five.

In the humanitarian sector, we need to do things a little differently. Our innovation processes must be guided by the priority needs of people affected by crises, not by what might be a profitable business model (though the two are not mutually exclusive). As humanitarian innovators, we are allowed to experiment and take risks, but we must always do so in a way that adheres to the humanitarian principles and does no harm.

The obstacle course of humanitarian innovation

Rather than ‘minimum viable product’, this ‘minimum virtuous product’ approach puts considerations about ethics, long-term implications and risk at the heart of the innovation process, prioritising responsible scaling above speed.

At the same time, the humanitarian ‘non-market’ with its institutional blockages and somewhat perverse incentives ­is not set up to act as a consumer of new solutions, even when the innovation is developed specifically for humanitarian organisations to use or distribute.

Some of these blockages reside in the supply chains or knowledge management systems of humanitarian organisations. Others are even more complex and relate to cultural and behavioural structures within organisations. For example, who decides that it is appropriate to test a new water filter? Who manages the risks involved? How does the organisation ensure that communities are not exposed to additional risks as the water filter is trialled in this new context? Who pays for these water filters if there is no guarantee that they will work?

These compounding factors mean that scaling humanitarian innovation is like navigating an obstacle course in the dark. You are likely to be slow, go in the wrong direction, and end up extremely frustrated.

How can we help?

Despite all these challenges, there is an urgent imperative to scale the innovations that can make a difference to people affected by crisis. We must, of course, continue to deploy new innovations responsibly, with attention to contextual differences, close monitoring of results, and careful management of ethical risks. There is never a clearly defined point of ‘enough data’ for new solutions.

However, when evidence suggests that innovations work, there comes a point at which the ethical risk lies in not adopting a new solution that could improve humanitarian outcomes. As one of the biggest funders of humanitarian innovation, we at Elrha must ask how we can help with this: in comes our new Adoption Challenge.

Photo credit: Lobke de Pooter/British Red Cross

Like the people we fund, we need to experiment with how we can enable more effective solutions to be developed and ultimately solve the most pressing humanitarian problems at scale. Inspired in part by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) Innovation and Technology Payment programme, the Adoption Challenge aims to help financially de-risk the adoption of new humanitarian innovations.

As the only one of its kind in the sector (as far as we know), the challenge will support the ‘customer’ – humanitarian organisations – rather than giving grants directly to the innovator. Elrha will offer funding to help organisations adopt water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) solutions from our portfolio of over 50 innovations.

We will cover all costs associated with adapting the solution to a new context, training staff to use it, and monitoring and evaluating it rigorously to manage risks. The only thing we ask in return is that organisations tell us what evidence will convince them to sustain the adopted innovation beyond the grant, and on completion of the challenge, evaluate honestly whether this expectation was met.

Time will tell if this approach is helpful in bringing promising innovations to scale more quickly. We may fail – and that’s okay, as long as we don’t break things.

For more information on the Adoption Challenge, please visit the Elrha website.