Innovation, assimilation, and adaptation

Change is crucial in humanitarian aid, suggests Kim Scriven, as evidenced by two new initiatives in nations stricken by the Ebola virus

When a disaster strikes – whether a natural hazard or a conflict – the focus of any humanitarian intervention is to save lives and reduce suffering. To achieve this, those responding must act quickly to mobilise what resources they can. While this can lead to great ingenuity, the temptation can be to replicate those approaches that they know. There’s rarely the time to stop and think ‘How can we improve?’ But as the number, severity and complexity of crises increase, there is increasing need to find new ways to support those affected.

It’s a common misconception that innovation is all about that light bulb moment, or creating things that are entirely newThis is where innovation can play a vital role. In the context of humanitarian situations, where it is essential to build responses around those people affected, innovation is about finding new and creative ways to provide aid, often harnessing new technologies to do so. It’s a common misconception, however, that innovation is all about that light bulb moment, or creating things that are entirely new. While creativity is essential, it can be most useful when applied to an existing technology or process that works successfully in one sector, and adapting it to the needs of another.

At the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) we have supported more than 50 innovative projects since 2011. Our grantees have deployed their innovations amid some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises: today seven HIF projects are being used to fight the spread of Ebola in nations affected by the disease.

One such project is Translators without Borders (TWB), an initiative designed to aid in the communication of lifesaving messages about how to avoid Ebola infection. Following a crisis, one of the most immediate priorities for both relief workers and victims is disseminating and receiving information. However, in countries such as Liberia where only 20 per cent of the population speaks English, this represents a tremendous challenge as language barriers on the ground frequently complicate response and recovery efforts. In Ebola-affected countries, untranslated posters, flyers, banners and billboards that are aimed at educating the public are, in fact, only intelligible to a small elite who speak English, rather than local languages.

TWB’s Words of Relief Crisis Response Network is a global translation and localisation initiative. Leveraging both human and technological resources, the project builds capacity to facilitate and improve communication among victims, field workers, and relief agencies during and after crises. It aims to eliminate linguistic barriers that can impede vital response and relief efforts during and after a crisis by building a pool of translators and interpreters, as well as machine translation capacity, in under-resourced world languages; preparing a digital file of essential crisis response information in multiple local languages that can be accessed on demand by aid organisations, frontline relief workers, and affected communities; and maintaining a network of human and technological linguistic resources that can mobilise immediately in response to a crisis.

Although the HIF has funded TWB to pilot their service in Kenya, TWB has also responded to the Ebola crisis in West Africa to roll out its services there, where people at risk need to know how to prevent infection and what to do if someone around them catches it. Communicating this information is a key strategy to halting the epidemic – and for aid agencies and governments, prevention is far cheaper than cure.

The World Food Programme (WFP), meanwhile, is using new remote mobile phone technologies (mVAM) developed using a grant from the HIF to assess the food needs of people living in the three worst Ebola-affected countries in West Africa. A total of 850 people across Sierra Leone were questioned about their coping strategies regarding hunger – for example whether they are borrowing food or borrowing money to buy food, or whether they are cutting down on meals – but also more generally about their livelihoods. Were their income sources stable? Were they working their farms? Was the price of foods on local markets shifting?

The results showed that purchasing power was low due to unreliable work, and that few people produced their own food, but instead relied on markets. The problem with the latter in a health epidemic is that illness can lead to people avoiding crowded places, or food sellers not being well enough to sell – reducing the food availability to others, and possibly leading to a rise in food prices.

The Sierra Leone survey is the first in a series of assessments being conducted with remote technologies by WFP in the three countries over the coming months. These results are helping to devise appropriate responses by aid agencies to food shortage based on evidence. In Sierra Leone, the survey was sent to cell phone subscribers randomly by location. They answered a series of 10 text messages by pressing a number. Not only is this method quicker than sending around teams to do surveys face to face, it also helps to protect the agency’s health workers by reducing their exposure to communities potentially affected by Ebola.

Both projects, although hugely encouraging, are not without risk, and the willingness of humanitarian agencies to experiment and be prepared to fail is crucial. In such cases, we hope that even when an idea turns out not to work, agencies will be able to learn from that failure so that future attempts can build on what has gone before. For the HIF, this means acknowledging that not all projects we fund will succeed, but also pushing for open and honest dialogue, encouraging conversations online and in person, to share both what has worked and what hasn’t. Balancing laborious reporting tasks with a need to manage risk is challenging; however, we ensure a mid-term review is built into all projects, so that amends to methodology – often inevitable when innovating – are thought through carefully.

What remains is to manage the risk of failure so it does not increase the dangers to which vulnerable people are exposed. In a system faced by such stark internal and external challenges, there are few other options than to innovate, learn and adapt.

About the writer

Kim Scriven is manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, a grant-making facility that supports the development and testing of innovations in international humanitarian action. Previously he worked within the secretariat of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, where his work focused on supporting innovation in humanitarian organisations and promoting learning around innovation.

Photo credit: WFP