Innovation practice must be inclusive, despite the challenges, or it risks harming more than it helps

Dignity Washington Big Tent, DC Capital Pride, 2014 — photo credit: Tim Evanson

Innovations can disrupt, or can perpetuate, existing inequalities. As innovations scale, it is all the more important to understand their impact, design them thoughtfully, and ensure participation in design and governance by the communities that will be touched by them — including vulnerable groups. This post will unpack that a bit, with a specific lens on LGBTIA+ people, and hopes to start an open dialogue about some of the challenges and the limits of our thinking and ability to act inclusively so far.

Humanitarian aid already under-considers certain vulnerable groups

Traditional response approaches rely heavily on making assumptions about needs and living arrangements that do not consider people from particular groups who might be living with additional vulnerabilities. People can be particularly vulnerable due to their gender; age, disability; because they are migrants, or members of a particular class or caste; people living below a certain poverty line; or because they are not heterosexual or cisgender. Many vulnerable groups may be less visible, but more important to be aware of, in urban emergencies, where subcultures can flourish beyond the understanding of traditional authorities and responders.

LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and other non-hetero or cisgender) people often socialise and care for one another in communities less visible to mainstream culture, or do not live in ‘standard’ family groupings or with ‘normal’ income strategies. They are often subject to discrimination from others in their community, or from the government or emergency responders.

Ignorance or disregard for LGBTQIA+ people, including for ‘third gender’ people and communities within non-Western cultures, may be particularly prevalent in Western-dominated aid agencies. Like many vulnerable groups, LGBTQIA+ people are underrepresented among aid workers themselves. Their needs are less likely to be considered in the construction of shelter, targeting questionnaires, definitions of households, and other elements of emergency response, and targeting exercises may miss them. People fleeing homophobia in their home countries may not find safe harbor at their destination, either. As is so often the case, gender plays an additional role here, and lesbians, trans women and non-binary people are less likely to benefit from funding, health interventions and targeted support than male-identified people.

Discrimination facing LGBTQIA+ people in traditional response can be as or more dangerous when technology and innovation are involved

These mainstream failures of visibility and understanding, which can cause great harm within traditional response, become more sinister when technology and innovation enter the picture. LGBTQIA+ people are early adopters of technology because it helps them get help, navigate unfriendly social realities, and find their community — but they are often ignored or made invisible by gender binaries, real name requirements, and icons used in apps. Algorithms flag or suppress their content. Data breaches and public/private slips that could be troublesome for anyone could be fatal to someone who breaks cultural taboos. And as you’d expect, the evidence base here is limited.

As we innovate, we must be conscious that our creations will be implemented in complex social contexts, in which deeply vulnerable people operate very carefully in order to stay safe and flourish in their communities. The assumptions we make can easily endanger people, and undermine or render harmful the desperately needed assistance we’re seeking to provide.

What better could look like

Inclusion-sensitive innovation would carefully assess the risk or extent of exclusion of vulnerable groups, as the project is designed, executed and evaluated. Context assessment phases can identify these communities and their specific needs, but only if they and the team carrying them out are sensitive in appropriate ways.

The best way to ensure that an innovation works for vulnerable groups is to involve affected communities in design and planning, with a deliberate and sensitive effort to think intersectionally. A diverse group of affected people should also be a meaningful part of the governance and accountability mechanisms for the project. Inclusive processes should create safe spaces for vulnerable groups to participate in a true dialogue, for example through meetings and workshops. We must be watching for unintended consequences, meaning that our evaluation frameworks, in addition to being equipped to understand the innovation and how it is scaling, must also be thoughtful about intersectional vulnerability.

This can be a tall order when participatory design phases and effective feedback mechanisms are still rarer than they should be, in a resource-constrained sector with a soaring case load. It means increasing awareness and skills, but also extending the resourcing of design phases, transferring true power to affected people themselves, and allowing adaptive and context-sensitive programming.

As we seek to take more innovations to scale, assessing risk appropriately and intersectionally is critical, as unintended impacts become both less visible and, potentially, more dangerous.