From one alliance to another: collective action, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and my move from GAHI to DIAL

Today is my last day with the team at the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI); on Monday, I join the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) as Senior Director, Insights and Impact.

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GAHI was created in 2016 as a World Humanitarian Summit outcome, based on a consensus that the humanitarian system must to overcome barriers to scaling innovation, and that collective action was the solution. For me, working here has meant a chance to come back to humanitarian aid, and tackle the systemic problems that block progress on evidence, ethics, and capacity in technology innovation. I’ve learned so much, from my truly wonderful colleagues, from our partners, and from the work. I’m proud of our achievements, such as the really excellent paper ‘Untangling the Many Pathways to Scale’ [pdf link] by my colleagues, Dan, Lesley and Alice; the evidence we’ve brought to light on distributed ledger technologies (DLT — like blockchain), and the coalition we’ve brought together for our Collective Platform on Data Ethics. We’ve been able to be thought partners for our friends in philanthropies, technical consortia, and operational agencies, and run interactive and thoughtful events.

This post reflects on GAHI’s collective action approach, and its power — and relative scarcity in a field dominated by distrust and competition. Coming from an intensely technical policy and project-oriented consulting background, and finally getting to work on the system-level challenges, has been a steep and stimulating learning curve — and both the systems thinking, and the power of an altruistic stance in getting things done, are lessons I’ll be taking into my new role at DIAL. I have learned over the, last nine months, that an altruistic orchestrator, with room and time to innovate, collaborate across boundaries, think slower, and give power away, is critical to help broker collective action in our current system. So, if GAHI didn’t exist, you would have to invent it.

Collective action helps actors be generous

It has been clear to me, as we’ve been listening to the challenges colleagues face, in all areas of innovation work, that something about GAHI inspires trust — and that might be our team, or our mandate and values, or simply being a new and willing set of hands with the right focus at a time when the humanitarian caseload has never been higher or more complex. Perhaps all of those things — but one successful behavior was aligning incentives to make it safe and sensible for humanitarian organizations to collaborate to move things forward. Our DLT evidence paper was possible because the actors involved shared project documentation and made staff available to interview, knowing we would all benefit from understanding the state of the evidence base across the sector and setting aside concerns about sharing lessons learned.

This collective action approach is even more important if we are to achieve the complex change needed to allow innovation to scale. Truly sustainable, localized innovation means the humanitarian system having the skills and capacity it needs to select and deploy the new tools at its disposal to get things done. It requires a healthy market where those responders can get the solutions and help they need. That implies radical shifts: localizing power, resources, procurement and project design; and stimulating a healthy investment market for humanitarian innovations, with new types of capital and debt. We must act together to take these big leaps.

A facilitator of collective action must be able to behave generously

The support of core donors has also been a critical factor. In our humanitarian ecosystem, it is most rational for organizations with tight, restricted budgets and immense case loads to pursue selfish strategies — form closed coalitions, compete for work and funding, and seek always to maximise brand recognition. In pondering this behavior, I’ve been coming back to game theory (I recently re-read me some Kim Stanley Robinson and this is the inevitable result).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a useful thought experiment that imagines two people, each under pressure to inform on the other. If one informs, or ‘defects’, and the other does not, the defector walks free while the scapegoat gets three years in prison. If both defect, both get two years. But if neither defects, both serve only one year. The Prisoner’s Dilemma allows us to model how we make the decision to cooperate. When the experiment is modeled using a computer, and run repeatedly, the computer defects all the time. Rational self-interest leads the computer to minimize harm to itself by defecting and avoiding the risk of three years imprisonment, at the potential cost of two years — or of none.

But wonderfully, when humans play this game over many iterations, they are not strictly rational. Over time, they tend towards a cooperative strategy. Even better, altruistic strategies perform better over time than selfish ones, with both prisoners ending with less jail time overall. Researchers in the 80s suggested that the most successful strategies in an iterated game of the Prisoner’s Dilemma were: nice — the players assumed that their opponent would cooperate until they did not; retaliatory — so that players could remember defections and visit some feedback, in the form of some defections of their own; but forgiving, so that after that feedback, the players quickly got back to cooperating; and non-envious, where the players don’t aim to ‘beat’ their opponent but simply to maximise the outcome for everyone. It’s encouraging, in these tough times, to know that humans are innately wired to cooperate, even when it’s not strictly rational — and that when they do, everyone wins.

So back to the humanitarian system. GAHI works to align incentives, behind the scenes, to make it feasible and compelling for traditional and non-traditional actors to cooperate — by making a business case, creating a feeling of momentum, or making it awkward to be excluded. By creating a basis for collective action, we can create an environment in which cooperative strategies are possible and attractive. GAHI’s funding and governance structure, as a core-funded, member-led alliance, has allowed it to be (in Prisoner’s Dilemma terms) nice, forgiving, and non-envious — to play the long game, be patient and political, and generous with credit and publicity. We have found that modelling this behaviour encourages others to do the same.


At DIAL, I’ll continue to help tackle systemic barriers to effective use of digital in aid and development, and having seen first hand the power of collective action, I’m looking forward to doing so with those values to the fore. I’ll be leading the team that supports their policy work, helping to find innovative new ways to share learning and thinking with partners, and thinking ahead to future challenges. I’ll be able to help steward the Digital Principles — now my go-to list of good digital practice. The Baseline Ecosystem Study I helped with as a consultant last year has very much shaped my thinking — that challenges around infrastructure, capacity, accountability, evidence, and funding are preventing us from making real progress, and I look forward to taking that learning forward within DIAL’s strategy.

We must, urgently, decolonize our work, and center more real power with the governments, civil society organizations and communities that should be providing support to people in poverty and crisis, and I’m excited that DIAL’s ambitious agenda focuses forward to that future. I think DIAL is incredibly well positioned to take on complex and stubborn challenges, bring together new and powerful coalitions and networks, and broach difficult conversations across both aid and development about how to level up digital practice. And I’m excited to join what I know is a great team.

I’ll do so strengthened by what I’ve learned at GAHI, the ideas we’ve shared and the people I’ve worked with. I’m keeping my humanitarian positions on the CDAC Network board, as a Funding Committee Member for the Humanitarian Innovation Fund; as Chair of the Technical Advisory Committee for GAHI’s Collective Platform on Data Ethics; and as informal advisor to a number of efforts and networks including the H2H Network. I’m looking forward to continuing to be part of their collective effort, and pushing forward together to a better, more generous future.