Asking the important questions of ethical humanitarian innovation

Aug 15 · 6 min read

by Gautham Krishnaraj MSc, Matthew Hunt PhD, and Lisa Schwartz PhD

Humanitarian Innovation Exchange 2019. Credit: Mitchell de Jong (CC-BY-ND) & Centre for Innovation

This blog post is part of a series sharing insights from the Humanitarian Innovation Exchange, which took place on 26 June 2019. The event was jointly organised by Elrha, Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation and the Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI).

Innovation is an important means to improve support to communities affected by crises. But introducing novel products and processes in crisis settings, and potentially altering relationships, is also associated with risks of harm. In addition, humanitarian actors are committed to inclusive approaches that promote justice and encourage the trust of communities affected by crises — concerns that must also be addressed during innovation. These features, among others, point to the importance of establishing clear parameters for the kind of humanitarian innovation we want to see, and how to translate this into practice.

Innovators can establish their ethical bearings in relation to the Humanitarian Principles, and to resources such as the Core Humanitarian Standard or the ICRC and NGO Code of Conduct. Several groups and organisations have also articulated principles and frameworks to guide ethical humanitarian innovation, such as the OxHIP Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation and the MSF Ethics Framework. Elrha has itself published a set of Ethical Guidelines for Humanitarian Innovation.

However, principles and frameworks are largely insufficient to change practice; too often it is unclear how they should be applied in day-to-day activities. In light of this challenge, we are working with Elrha to translate these resources into a practical tool for ethical decision-making. A workshop session at the Humanitarian Innovation Exchange event in June, proved to be a great opportunity to engage a range of participants from the sector in addressing the following questions:

What is ethical humanitarian innovation? And, what is needed to support it?

Defining ethics and ethical problems

As our starting point we use the view that ethics is the study, elaboration and discussion of standards of right action, and analysis of the sources of these judgments. According to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the aim of ethics is “the good life with and for others, in just institutions.”

This definition points to three key components of ethical engagement: attention to conceptions of what counts as good or right, the centrality of relationships, and justice in the organisation of institutions. An ethical approach to innovation requires structures — including institutional arrangements — that create and reinforce an environment that encourages responsible behaviour and discourages behaviour that can lead to harm.

Such an environment supports people to recognise and respond to ethical problems. But it’s not often obvious when a particular problem, or a decision that needs to be made, has an ethical dimension. Ethical problems can arise when:

  1. the ethically preferred response is unclear, or is clear but cannot be enacted;

Workshop discussions: Risk, power and oversight

The workshop unfolded in three parts. Working in small groups with representation from academia, INGOs, the private sector, and government, we began the workshop by inviting participants to reflect on their own experiences and perceptions of the ethical challenges that arise in humanitarian innovation. Participants then worked together to identify ethical challenges specific to the different stages of the innovation process and potential responses to these challenges, and finally discussing what form of ethical guidance would be most beneficial for supporting people involved in humanitarian innovation.

Risk, oversight and power were major themes that emerged. Participants saw risk as an inherent part of innovation, particularly when an innovation is being piloted in real-world humanitarian environments, where the potential to do harm is high. The ‘do no harm’ principle, combined with the pressures of humanitarian crises, add additional layers of complexity to how innovators, donors, and populations affected by crises understand and respond to risk.

The need for various types of oversight was also raised. This included oversight over spending and resource allocation, indicators of success, and stakeholders. The direction of that oversight and accountability is also important — from the field to headquarters and vice versa. Whether or not it is the intention, too often innovation processes prioritise oversight by donors, rather than accountability to communities affected by crises. An ethical innovation process needs to navigate the difficult trade-offs necessary to respond to both sets of actors within the constraints of the project.

A key question raised was how oversight mechanisms (such as ethical review boards, registries or even blacklisting) might best support ethical humanitarian innovation, but also how they might be misconstrued or misused. Local oversight was seen as vital, but when significant power resides far away from a problem it can easily lead to negative unintended consequences. One participant gave the example of international standards for medical devices which can make procurement in emergencies near impossible and can lead to improvised devices being used rather than locally manufactured alternatives.

Power dynamics have huge influence on the way that innovations are conceived, developed, implemented and scaled. Imbalances in power manifest in the expectations, actions, and management of humanitarian innovation. Power relations affect who defines the problems that innovation responds to, how funding is allocated, how and when people are engaged in innovation processes, and ultimately who benefits. Awareness and mitigation of this needs to be kept at the forefront of our minds.

What should good ethical guidance look like?

Having examined the substance of the ethical challenges faced by humanitarian innovators in all stages of the innovation process, the final part of the session looked at the type of ethics guidance resource that would best support the needs of innovators in the humanitarian sector.

During the discussion, the concept of “right-sizing” was introduced by one participant. This means developing a toolkit that is adaptable to (types and capacities of innovators/ organisations) various contexts, going into as much, or as little depth as the user needs. The importance of having strong user input into the design, developing interactive educational resources, and making resources publicly available were also highlighted by participants as critical to the success of the tool.

As well as developing tools for use by innovators and their partners, we think innovators will benefit from developing a set of three ethical capacities:

Foresight — requires active engagement to anticipate possible (harmful) outcomes, forecast contingencies, and diligent planning.

Attentiveness — includes openness to and recognition of others’ needs and concerns, requires critical self-awareness of one’s own assumptions and biases, and places an emphasis on dialogue and exchange.

Responsiveness — involves orienting and re-orienting ourselves to the particular context, and how challenges arise and changes unfold, especially in relation to vulnerability.

Next steps

In our work with Elrha to develop a Humanitarian Innovation Ethics Tool, with wide consultation and collaboration, we are undertaking a scoping study to better understand ethical considerations across the innovation process, and to explore what ethical guidance already exists and what is required. The contributions of the participants at the Humanitarian Innovation Exchange event were very valuable in contributing to this process.

We are keen to hear more: if you would like to share your experiences or suggestions on how best to integrate ethical considerations into the humanitarian innovation process there are a number of ways to get involved!

Contact Gautham Krishnaraj if you’d like to participate in an interview on the topic of ethical humanitarian innovation or provide feedback on a preliminary version of the toolkit.

We also welcome submissions of examples that highlight different ethical dimensions of humanitarian innovation. We will be developing and testing the tool throughout 2019 and aim to publish in early 2020. Visit the Humanitarian Health Ethics website to find out the dates of our next events and workshops.


We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.


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We are Elrha. We are a global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.



We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

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