Expert analysis

20 December 2018

Donors are ready to innovate, what about humanitarians?

Three generations of refugees live in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in Kenya. Established in 1991 in response to the Somali civil war, today it hosts 44 per cent of the country’s refugees. Despite 27 years of operations, refugees in Dadaab still face limited access to services such as education, jobs and sustainable housing. With no opportunity for return to Somalia in sight, integration in the Kenyan society represents a major challenge too. Lessons learned from Dadaab and other similar protracted situations are generating debates within the humanitarian system on how to rethink, and possibly reshape, the way aid is delivered.

The Innovation Lab on Innovative Financing for Refugee Crises, organised by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), brought together humanitarian workers, innovators, government and private donors, as well as impact and philanthropic investment managers. The goal of the workshop, held in November at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, was to bring some fresh thinking on how to maximise the impact of humanitarian response by providing funding in a timely, predictable and appropriate manner.

My main takeaway from the workshop is that donors and investors are ready to innovate and listen to the needs of responders to have more timely, predictable and long-term funds. They are looking for solutions to move away from traditional funding schemes, which haven proven to be inadequate for the rapidly evolving emergencies but also for protracted displacement situations. Catastrophe bonds, parametric insurances, engagement of the private sector, facilitation of lending, microcredits, and more strategic use of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) are some of the options that were on the table for discussion.

Exciting times are ahead. Humanitarians and donors have big opportunities in front of them but also great challenges.

Innovation should start with an improved understanding of the situation on the ground
Innovation cannot be discussed only at headquarters and should probably start from the ground.
Today, in a country like Nigeria where there are more than 500 languages spoken, basic communication is still a major challenge. According to Translators without Borders, just 23% of internally displaced people (IDPs) and host community members understand written Hausa or Kanuri – the languages used to communicate at over 90 percent of sites.

In the context of disasters, we found that for more than half of the events we have been monitoring over the past 10 years, data on displacement is only available for the first month after the disaster. After this first phase of emergency, most of the data providers stop collecting and disseminating data. This lack of reporting prevents us from understanding protracted displacement and bringing it to the attention of the international community. 

Innovation in the humanitarian sector cannot ignore this. Low-tech innovations in the field can have a significant impact. It may seem less catchy than talking about artificial intelligence, machine learning or blockchain, but it’s probably a good place to start.

We should invest in reliable, robust and replicable analytical products
Better data deserves better analysis. The degree of data literacy in many organisations is still very low. Very few organisations are investing in improving the way they produce and communicate their analytical products. Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, a number of studies, analyses and models claimed they would have been able to forecast the ’next Syrian crisis’. 

I doubt that any donor or investor would provide funds based on ‘crystal ball’ models. Innovation should take the form of better decisions made by context specific, political and social scientists experts - informed with improved data, analyses and risk assessments. Some of the funding tools that are on the table for discussion rely on analyses and indicators to trigger payouts. While there are already some good examples in the context of disasters, when it comes to conflict situations these analyses and indicators are missing or incomplete.

A platform for collaboration to ensure that innovative solutions are used to answer the important questions - and that tools are used appropriately
Only a close collaboration between all rings in the humanitarian chain will allow for successful innovation. Organisations collecting data on the ground should clearly describe methodologies, challenges and limitations of the data collected. This is not always easy to dig out from field reports, Humanitarian Needs Overviews and other assessments, as we’ve learned at IDMC. 

Analytical tools, especially when used to make decisions, should be transparent so not misinterpreted or misunderstood by policy makers and donors. It may be boring to produce (and read) good methodological notes but the devil is in the detail. Donors, on the other hand, should understand and rely on better and timely analytical outputs which are actionable and easy to interpret.

At the moment the space for coordinating the dialogue between all these different actors is quite limited. Humanitarian organisations should also engage with academic institutions, social scientists and anthropologists in an open collaboration to peer review, to validate and question the methodologies and the findings. Some 'scientific contamination' in the humanitarian sector can only be beneficial.

Innovative financing should involve host communities and governments
Donors and responders together are looking for ways to transform an emergency response into a development opportunity, reducing the cost in the long term and mitigating the suffering of displaced people. Over 80 per cent of refugees are hosted by middle and low-income countries. This is not possible without empowering and supporting host communities with targeted impact investments. Lastly, durable solutions are not possible without the political will of the host government to ensure displaced populations have access to basic services such as education, health care and the job market.


At IDMC we see innovation as a way to tackle some of the practical challenges we face in our daily work with the best tools at our disposal, rather than an opportunity to experiment with the impact of new technologies and tools in the humanitarian sector.

We will keep investing in open source solutions and engaging with all of our partners from academic institutions, international organisations and UN agencies when it comes to innovation. We will continue to be curious and learn from other sectors. I had the opportunity to join the World Health Organization Epidemic Intelligence from Open Source technical workshop recently and it was amazing to realise that most of the tools developed to identify new events in the field of epidemic intelligence could be adapted for IDMC’s work. 

Finally, IDMC will continue to take advantage of its position as the analytical and methodological layer between the field, donors and policy makers and strengthen its convening power to allow this innovation to happen.