Seizing the opportunity: building a more ethical form of humanitarian innovation

By Anna Skeels, HIF Programme Manager, Elrha

Jabalia, Gaza. Photo Credit: Katie Orlinsky/Caritas 2010

A critical mass is forming behind a more responsible, ethical form of humanitarian innovation. As a sector, we need to seize the opportunity to embed this value-based approach and use it to inform our innovation practice.

There is a growing awareness of the risks and potential harm from the introduction of new actors, products and technology with ‘innovation’ to humanitarian settings. This requires us to set clear parameters for the kind of humanitarian innovation we want to see. There’s also an urgency to translate these parameters into practice, to address real-time ethical dilemmas and to support ethical innovation ‘on the ground’.

A session on ethics and humanitarian innovation at our Humanitarian Innovation Forum in June kick-started a conversation. This was followed up in our panel presentations at the August International Conference for Humanitarian Studies and our post-conference blogs.

We continue — and invite you to join! — this conversation as part of our Innovation Insights webinar series next week (11th October, 3–4pm BST) where we consider how we collaborate on a more responsible, ethical form of humanitarian innovation and ‘do no harm’. Here I share our four main talking points:

1: What are we talking about?!

For any productive conversation a shared language, understanding and focus is required.

This shared view involves research into how ethical tensions play out in humanitarian innovation and what impact that has on people affected by crises. It requires a focus on priorities and the questions we are collectively aiming to address.

Without this focus, suggests Joe Guay from Do No Digital Harm, we end up with:

‘…a haphazard collection of concerns, anecdotes, and frustrations, and half-baked ideas about what to do about them.’ — Joe Guay, Do No Digital Harm

This is not good enough. We’re committed to working with our fellow innovation actors like GAHI, the RIL, Start Network and others to develop, map and coordinate activity on ethical humanitarian innovation.

Photo Credit: World Vision, in Bangladesh

2: Connecting to our values

Innovation divorced from a strong value base is problematic in a humanitarian context.

Our Core Values and Innovation Strategy focus on ‘responsible innovation’ grounded in an awareness of, and accountability to, the humanitarian system of which we are a part.

As Robin Mays from the University of Washington and one of our HIF Advisory Group members suggests, the humanitarian sector already has a clear system of well-established values, principles and mechanisms — the Humanitarian Principles, the Core Humanitarian Standard, the IRCRC Code of Conduct — with which humanitarian innovation can and must transparently engage.

There’s a clear opportunity here to connect up humanitarian innovation with our values as a sector so it is sensitive and appropriate for emergency settings and response. Specific efforts to develop draft Principles and frameworks for ethical humanitarian innovation have started to articulate this for the humanitarian community at large.

3: A unifying framework

Diverse actors delivering innovation in humanitarian settings require a unifying framework and practical guidance to avoid harm. Our Humanitarian Innovation Guide, developed to address this particular problem, states:

“The humanitarian sector…can appear complicated and difficult to navigate if you are new to humanitarian action. However, it is critical to have a good understanding of this if you are to effectively innovate for a humanitarian purpose. In fact, if you do not adequately understand the sector, you can end up by causing real harm…” — Humanitarian Innovation Guide

The Guide, explains our Innovation Manager Ian McClelland, is written specifically with two audiences in mind: humanitarian practitioners who are seeking to develop a new approach and apply an innovation lens to their work; and non-traditional innovation actors from outside the sector who need to understand the humanitarian architecture and values. An essential framing mechanism in the Guide is a set of Humanitarian Parameters which help actors navigate the basics of the humanitarian sector and the contexts that humanitarian work takes place.

4: Targeted tools and support

Principles and frameworks are not sufficient for change to occur. More targeted, practical tools and real-time support is required. Our Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) programme has developed a Research Ethics Tool to guide researchers working in emergency settings. We’ll soon be releasing a ‘sister’ tool to this, focused on humanitarian innovation. This tool will include key ethical questions for all stages of the innovation process and navigation through the choices humanitarian innovators may need to make.

This new tool will complement the other practical tools featured in the Humanitarian Innovation Guide and reinforce its strong strand on ethics and the management of risk. We’ll work with key partners to operationalise this tool, providing real-time support on ethical innovation in the field.

Together, these talking points provide rich territory for us to explore and, more importantly, to embed an ethical form of humanitarian innovation in all our work. At Elrha, we are committed to creating the practical tools needed to support humanitarian innovators to conduct their work in a responsible and ethical way. We will work collaboratively with others so that the right frameworks and principles are in place.

We are excited to see the momentum build in this area and hope you will join the conversation and support this collective effort to mainstream responsible, ethical approaches into humanitarian innovation.


Want to learn more about ethical humanitarian innovation? Join our next Innovation Insights webinar on Thursday 11 October, 3–4pm BST:

Do no harm: towards a responsible, ethical form of humanitarian innovation.

Innovation within the humanitarian space has led to the introduction of new actors, technologies, methods and products. Whilst these have the potential to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response, they can also create new risks for crisis-affected populations and require careful reflection. Our upcoming webinar will explore how we might work collaboratively towards a holistic approach that considers ethical concerns during all stages of innovation development and implementation.

Register here.