Over the past decade, the humanitarian sector has started to invest more heavily in innovation, seeking new solutions and more efficient ways of responding to humanitarian crises. Innovation units have become commonplace in large agencies and innovation-focused incubators and funding initiatives continue to emerge.
But despite the increased investment in humanitarian innovation, until recently there remained few dedicated funds or other mechanisms to support the scaling of these solutions to achieve their maximum impact. In 2016 we launched our Accelerating the Journey to Scale initiative to address this sector-wide question of how to scale humanitarian innovation.
Through this initiative we provided three promising innovations with £400,000 grant funding each along with a package of non-financial support. Over the two-year duration of the grants, we’ve seen huge progress in each of the projects and we’re proud of how far they’ve come. Their feedback has also been invaluable in ensuring that we can continue to improve our own ways of working and support for grantees to scale. Here are our top three lessons learned.
1. Flexible funding adds significant value
Flexible funding allows for pivots (changes in direction) based on new learning and provides much needed support for building team and organisational capacity for scale. For Translators Without Borders (TWB), funding flexibility was key to their success. Having funding to support core staff and being able to re-allocate costs to activities not included in their original proposal helped them to remain creative and innovative in their approach — and respond to crises as and when they occurred.
TWB’s ‘Words of Relief’ project aimed to enable humanitarian responders to better communicate with communities affected by crises through their language(s) of choice in order to provide and receive critical and life-saving information. The flexibility provided by our Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) grant allowed them to support an unplanned deployment in Cox’s Bazar for the Rohingya response, which led to a ground-breaking programme in Bangladesh.
‘violence against women’ was frequently being mis-translated as ‘violent women’
TWB’s activities in Bangladesh provided a high-profile showcase and learning opportunity for language support in humanitarian response. In one particularly forceful example that demonstrates the importance of their work, they discovered that ‘violence against women’ was frequently being mis-translated as ‘violent women’. Such misinterpretations cannot be afforded, particularly as part of the response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar where GBV has presented as a significant protection concern.
Like other innovating teams, TWB are bringing a new issue to the humanitarian table and getting buy-in is hard. Their experience in Cox’s Bazar brought home the need for TWB to be present in the early stages of an emergency in order to raise awareness of the need for and ensure language is factored into the response.
2. Money isn’t enough — growth requires additional support
Money isn’t enough on its own to scale an innovation — providing non-financial, technical, and strategic support has had significant benefits. All our Accelerating the Journey to Scale grantees received a package of non-financial support, including mentorship from Ian Gray, an independent consultant, as well as expert advice from Elrha’s innovation, partnerships, communications and finance staff.
In their final report, Field Ready noted that an early programme visit by Cecilie Hestbaek, our Senior Innovation Manager was pivotal, “because that time together, and the higher levels of trust it built, confirmed the relationship with HIF as being more of a transformational partnership than a transactional donor-recipient relationship.” As they saw it, this gave them the confidence “to experiment and make changes based on new learning,” rather than sticking rigidly to the proposed activities in their original application.
Field Ready aim to transform humanitarian logistics by enabling local communities to use new technologies and techniques to produce low-cost supplies where they are needed most. As they grew, they needed to implement a new financial system to handle accounting which created its own challenges and required additional staffing.
They were provided with further support from Stuart Davis, Elrha’s Finance Manager, to identify the steps needed to ensure that their systems continued to meet their needs going forward. A “perhaps obvious” lesson for Field Ready was that an organisation needs to have “the right level of administrative support for all the activities that go into scaling.”
3. Scaling humanitarian innovations takes (even more) time
We dedicated three years to the Accelerating the Journey to Scale initiative, and the teams made a lot of progress, but the timescale was still too short.
The three projects in our scale portfolio all experienced slower-than-hoped-for progress within the grant period, partly due to delays caused by the intrinsic instability of humanitarian contexts, but also due to the uncertainty of navigating scaling journeys that often lead to dead ends and require the teams to try out different pathways.
The three projects in our scale portfolio all experienced slower-than-hoped-for progress…due to the uncertainty of navigating scaling journeys that often lead to dead ends and require the teams to try out different pathways.
Make Music Matter and the Panzi Foundation were piloting their innovative music therapy programme for survivors of sexual violence in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo — Healing in Harmony. The political and socio-economic climate of the country provided a persistent challenge throughout the project period.
In 2019, conflict in the region was further exacerbated by the emergence of the second-largest Ebola outbreak in global history in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, including an outbreak in Beni, where one of their partner sites was located. This resulted in the curtailment of programme activities in this area.
Healing in Harmony also faced a particular challenge in aligning the time commitment required to complete music therapy with the needs of survivors of sexual violence, who were sometimes eager to return to their home communities and dropped out of the programme before its completion. These delays reflect broader challenges across our portfolio, which may be in part attributed to the uncertainty inherent in humanitarian work, but may also have their roots in the so-called planning fallacy — projects often take longer than you think, especially those with many moving parts.
Where the projects are now
Despite delays, each of these projects enjoyed significant successes and growth during the grant period.
The Healing in Harmony team were successful in replicating the music therapy programme in rural Mulamba, as well as the delayed efforts in Beni, with more than 700 adults and children taking part in the programme between January 2017 and December 2018.
Field Ready undertook new deployments in ten countries, including South Sudan, Myanmar and Colombia, generated significant learning in 11 new manufacturing techniques and digital fabrication technologies, and tested 350 designs developed around the world, with 109 new products eventually added to their catalogue.
TWB grew their staff from 19 to 53, with the increased capacity enabling them to translate a record 22 million words in 277 language pairs in 2018 — double the volume of 2017. Their work as part of a consortium in Bangladesh helped see the proportion of Rohingya refugees who reported they did not have enough information fall from 79% to 28%.
At Elrha, we’re continuing to grow our operational support for scaling projects through the provision of step-by-step guidance for developing a scaling strategy in the Humanitarian Innovation Guide. But this alone isn’t enough. Each of these projects also experienced significant systemic barriers in their journey scale, coming up against a humanitarian ecosystem that significantly frustrated their efforts, as explored in our Too Tough to Scale report.
The journey to scale is a long one, indeed. To truly support scale we know we need to drive wider changes in the sector, and this requires a collective effort — a key focus for our ongoing work in 2019.
If you’d like to find out more then get in touch.