The good, the bad and the ugly of humanitarian innovation learning

Ian McClelland
Nov 28, 2017 · 4 min read
With support from the HIF, Sahana Software Foundation are investigating the use of pictographs in disaster communication systems. Credit: Sahana Software Foundation

Earlier this year Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund commissioned Gray Dot Catalyst (Ian Gray, along with Joseph Guay of The Policy Lab) to help us produce the first-ever ‘field guide’ for innovation management in the humanitarian sector. The guide, funded by EU humanitarian aid, will be designed to support humanitarian teams to adapt or develop innovations that help meet the needs of emergency-affected people. It will also aim to facilitate engagement with those outside the sector who want to help solve humanitarian problems.

With such ambitious goals, we’re taking our time to get it right. We’ll be working with people across the humanitarian spectrum in the coming months to ensure that we deliver something that is truly interesting, relevant and useful.

In our initial research phase, we’ve been reviewing the literature on innovation in humanitarian action, and social innovation more broadly, with two key learning objectives in mind: what are the challenges and gaps in knowledge with regards to humanitarian innovation, and what are the kinds of tools that have been successfully employed in innovation projects? We’ve also been speaking to a number of experts across the sector, and we’ll be continuing to interview and engage key stakeholders at a range of levels throughout the process.

What have we learned so far? Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly:

The good: We understand how to create an enabling environment for innovation

There is a reasonably strong evidence base underpinning some of the key concepts, enabling factors, characteristics, features and principles that are associated with responsible and effective humanitarian innovation. These insights give us a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the major themes and trends in innovation management in the sector.

This is partly due to the efforts of the HIF and ALNAP, through the ‘More Than Just Luck’ research project, as well as key studies commissioned and supported by CENTRIM, the Humanitarian Innovation Project, MSF, OCHA, Oxfam, Unicef, and the Transformation Through Innovation track of the World Humanitarian Summit, among others.

The sector has also identified (at least on the surface level) a handful of approaches, methods, and some specific tools and techniques that have been used to manage innovation in humanitarian response — although many of those mentioned, at least in the literature, have not been fleshed out, validated or triangulated.

The bad: There is a lack of practice-based evidence of what works

While there has been an increase in innovation activity and modest investment in research to understand this newly emerging field of practice, the sector still lacks granular, practice-based insights into how innovation is carried out on the ground. Even the most widely-cited and rigorous studies provide little insight into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of what works, what doesn’t, and why, in managing innovation projects in the humanitarian sector.

This echoes similar findings from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund Evaluation, which state that “too little [is] known from across the projects about the effectiveness of investments and about ‘what works and what doesn’t’.” In short, there is a big gap in the literature on understanding of best practice, and there is much more to be done on generating evidence for the kinds of tools and approaches that lead to success, as well as evidence of success itself. And this is where we need to focus our efforts.

The ugly: There is a lot of confusion about where guidance is most needed in the humanitarian innovation ecosystem

As well as a literature review, we’ve been interviewing people across the sector to get their perspectives. What’s clear is that the huge scope of innovation activity — from community-level labs working on disaster risk reduction to global electronic ID systems for refugees — means that the big challenges identified are most-often shaped by the vantage point of the individual, with little collective understanding of the priorities.

This is where we need your help. Are you trying to diagnose a problem and find the right approach, or looking to scale up a successful pilot project? Are you bamboozled by business models, mystified by monitoring and evaluation, or feeling defeated by design thinking? We want to provide the right tools to help you innovate, so fill out our survey and let us know where you’d like more guidance and support. And if you want to be part of the community that helps us to develop the guide, remember to add your email address at the end!


This post was first published by Elrha.

Ian McClelland

Written by

I work for Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, making connections and sharing learning between people looking at new ways to tackle humanitarian challenges.



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

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