Humanitarian challenges ‘ripe’ for disruption

The humanitarian system is creaking under the heavy load of current world disasters. Not only are UN agencies calling for more funds, but they are also seeking radical methods to reform a system established in the aftermath of WW2. Can ‘disruptive technologies’ help provide solutions?

Shelters at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, home to over 17,000 of the almost 4 million Syrians displaced around the Middle East.

The world of business is currently salivating over ‘disruption’ taking place in the form of BitCoin, Uber and Airbnb. These are the maverick stars taking on established industries by using technology to connect individuals, cut out the middle-man and reduce costs.

The very Schumpterian rhetoric of disruption could just be seen as hysteria surrounding the latest capitalist fad. But get beyond the golden fringe and the use of technology to re-organise services through crowd-sourcing, peer connection or distributed production becomes apparent.

It is this creative use of technology that I am interested in (rather than disruption per se), and how to draw inspiration in designing the radical solutions necessary to help support the humanitarian system in the 21st century.

‘Ripe’ for disruption and radical solutions?

There is a recognition from within the humanitarian community that the system by which aid is delivered needs to be adapted to the contemporary challenges. Against the backdrop of an $8.4 billion appeal to assist 18 million people affected by the Syria crisis, Antonio Gutterres, the Head of the UN’s refugee agency, proclaimed that “the aid architecture built after WW2 is no longer fit for purpose”. Last year his deputy, Alexander Aleinikoff, suggested that “UN organisations could well benefit from a disruptive innovative approach”.

This is not to say that the humanitarian system and those that work in it are failing. There are some incredible organisations, people, and projects providing assistance in the wake of disaster and displacement. But if we are looking for radical solutions, the most creative and forward looking ones may well come from outside. In fact, they are already arriving.

Take the Micro-Mappers project, for example, which is harnessing the power of ‘the crowd’ and artificial intelligence to quickly undertake needs assessment after disasters. UAV (or drone) footage of rural Nepal was ‘clicked’ for signs of need by people who were on a different continent.

So, instead of looking at which bloated commercial industries are ‘ripe’ for disruption using new technology, why not tackle global humanitarian problems? Here are three major challenges the humanitarian system is facing, and for which innovation could be very timely.

1. Limited resources

Proportions of humanitarian appeal funding requirements unmet, 2000–2014 (not adjusted for inflation). Data source: OCHA

The funding gap for humanitarian appeals has grown considerably. Although the proportion of appeals met as risen by 1% in the past 14 years, since a high of 76% of appeal funds met in 2003, there has been a considerable slip to 60% in 2014.

The financial muster of the international community has been unable to cope with the increase in scale of needs: the number of appeals has doubled since 2000; and the average size of each appeal has almost quadrupled to $601m.

As well as attempting to raise for more funds from a fatigued international community, the humanitarian system will need to find means of reducing the cost in the $ from donor’s pocket to the beneficiary. There will also be a need to diversify sources or types of funding for humanitarian assistance.

2. Increasingly protracted displacement and needs

Multiple factors are making conflicts or disasters harder to resolve, which has resulted in two thirds of the worlds refugees currently being in situations of protracted displacement (populations of >25k and displaced for 5 years). Since the 1990s the average length of displacement has doubled to 20 years, and on-going crises in eight countries have created 15 refugee populations totalling 3 million people that have a high likelihood of becoming protracted populations.

The humanitarian system is not set-up to sustain this type of long-term displacement. And this is becoming increasingly evident: at the end of 2014, the World Food Programme had to warn that they would run out of money to feed refugees displaced by the Syria crisis unless emergency funds were found.

Such lengthy displacement causes significant disruption to the lives of refugees. The Syrian crisis has now lasted long enough that a student could have completed undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. Given the growing nature of the problem, alternatives solutions for supplying services such as higher education will need to be found.

3. Increasingly urbanised and middle-income settings

Growth of urban population (Rockefeller Foundation)

70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. With the humanitarian sector used to working in rural environments, it will be necessary to adapt delivery to suit different needs, operate in different contexts, with harder to reach populations. The rapid process of urbanisation will see expansions of slums and informal settlements — 70% of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries exist outside of camp settings. These are areas, already under resource pressure, that will be hardest hit by disaster (e.g. Yarmouk Palestinian camp Syria) and will be harder to reach.

Furthermore, these urban context will see new vulnerabilities for the population and needs to prioritise among them, not to mention more and varied actors and networks to interact with in delivering aid. As well as adapting systems of aid delivery to urban environments, there will be a need to improve preparedness of those in particularly vulnerable urban environments.

Why disruptive technologies?

These are considerable challenges, but why look to disruptive technologies? Not only have we witnessed the successful redesign of services with likes of Airbnb and Bitcoin, but the drivers of the needs and opportunities for innovation are also applicable to . Take Rachel Botsman’s drivers of the collaborative economy:

  • financial pressure; the pressure on the humanitarian sector has been outline above, but the fall in proportion of funding met since the financial crisis in 2007/08 is probably not a coincidence.
  • capability and ubiquity of technology; as of 2013 there are now more active mobile phone subscriptions than people on the planet. And, as Patrick Meier rightly points out, communities benefiting from humanitarian aid are increasingly becoming digital communities.
  • environmental pressure; droughts and disaster across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa represent the longest running causes of humanitarian appeals. Arguably, the impact of climate change has been felt most acutely by those in need of humanitarian aid.

[the 4th, a ‘values shift’, doesn’t quite correspond outside the commercial sector]

‘Disruptive’ humanitarian solutions

We have already seen the Micro-mappers project develop because of similar drivers. In fact, the two worlds directly collided when ‘sharing economy’ business Airbnb started using its platform for individuals to offer free rooms in the wake of floods in the UK and hurricanes in the US.

But how might we go further? What if ‘the crowd’ were to set-up a remote university for displaced students unable continue their education ? If financial services and jobs are limited for refugees, what would be the benefit of using mobile money and crypto-currencies to introduce new interim solutions during displacement? How might agencies become platforms (not providers) for empowering local first-responders to meet needs? How can we use concept of peer-to-peer to enliven and enrich the diaspora direct engagement with humanitarian aid?

These are the questions that will be addressed at a workshop I’ll be leading with MakeSense at OuiShare Fest in three weeks time. We will draw on that creative use of technology to interrogate challenges facing the humanitarian sector and address them with solutions to meet the needs of the 21st Century.