The Humanitarian Innovation Fund: Catalysing improvements in disaster response

1 December 2010

ODI has been a source of expert opinions, case studies and evidence for the study; providing a platform for ALNAP to engage with senior DfID politicians; and informing the design of the Fund with ideas and previous knowledge, especially the work on the DfID PPA.

The challenge

The last decade has seen a quiet revolution in aid accountability, as noted by ODI Director Alison Evans. On the humanitarian side, this has led to a number of policy-level innovations. New mechanisms have been established to set standards, establish codes of practice, to create new partnerships, to analyse the results of humanitarian aid, and, very importantly, to improve the participation of disaster-affected communities in the humanitarian response. But despite all of this, actual practice on the ground has remained largely unchanged.

This is partly because of a lack of investment in research and development on how to solve the practical challenges facing humanitarian responses. Humanitarian workers in the field often have innovative ideas, but there is nowhere for these ideas to go, and little time to follow up. Those who do have the resilience and commitment to try out ideas tend to do so in isolation, often at personal and professional cost. As a result, the innovations that are ‘out there’ often struggle to gain traction and acceptance. The ALNAP study noted that the institutional weight of past practice was giving way all too all too slowly to creative ideas from practitioners.

Given changes in the intensity and scale of humanitarian disasters, this lack of investment is being highlighted ever more starkly. Perhaps the most tangible recent example is the Haiti earthquake, which showed the inadequacy of the humanitarian sector when dealing with urban contexts. As one CEO put it, the sector has simply not evolved quickly enough in the face of rapid urbanisation and other global trends.

The response

In January 2008, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) started to examine innovation in humanitarian response. This led to a landmark study and a major international conference in 2009, opened by Minouche Shafik, the Permanent Secretary of the UK Department for International Development.   

The study confirmed that there are evidence-based examples of successful innovations and that agencies in the sector want to be better able to harness these. It also found, however, few incentives for organisations to be innovative, and that innovators often struggle to gain traction and acceptance. It recommended a sector-wide fund be established to address this problem.

The study has been backed by a series of ‘Innovations Case Studies’ to promote specific humanitarian innovations, highlighting what they offer, how they were developed and how they could be scaled up in the future. These include the work by Concern Worldwide in Kenya to use mobile phones for emergency cash transfers and the pioneering use of Transitional Shelters to provide a new way of supporting those left homeless as a result of a disaster.

The impact

The impact of the study has been swift and emphatic, with the creation of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund within one year of the study, and innovations now being widely cited as a major shared challenge for the sector. Ben Ramalingam of ALNAP comments: ‘none of us in the team have ever had a recommendation become such a tangible reality in so short a time’.

As a result, humanitarian agencies now have access to the first dedicated fund for research and development to improve operational practices in disasters around the world.

The Fund was launched in October and has, to date, received £900,000 from the UK Department for International Development. Other key donors are showing real interest. The first calls of the Fund will provide grants of up to £150,000 for innovations that need to implemented and tested, and up to £30,000 for work to generate new ideas, to generate buy-in, or to communicate findings when testing is complete.

A strategy group has been created to determine priorities, chaired by Ben Ramalingam, and with its membership drawn from the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and donors. The group will have its first meeting in early December 2010, with a first call for Expressions of Interest in January 2011. ALNAP will support the strategic, research and communications aspects of the fund, while the Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) network will handle actual grant disbursements and fund management as well as day-to-day operations.

It is likely that innovations to improve urban disaster response will be high on the agenda. The Haiti earthquake, and the failings in the international humanitarian response highlighted the need for more and better approaches to deal with such catastrophes. For example, how do you establish a water and sanitation system when you are dealing with layers of concrete, rather than earth? There are people out there who are thinking hard about exactly these issues, and the Fund will seek to catalyse their efforts and turn them into practical realities.