A team of UNU-MERIT researchers composed of Maximilian Bruder, Thomas Baar, Prof Shyama Ramani & Cristina Garcia Santos authored a literature review on humanitarian innovation commissioned by the evaluation department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The report’s aim is to answer the overarching question: What added value do innovative approaches bring in the pursuit of Dutch policy objectives and what are effective ways for the Netherlands as a donor and diplomatic actor to promote innovation?
Despite the expansive growth of the humanitarian sector globally, there is an increased operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond to growing humanitarian needs. Over the past decade, the humanitarian sector, including the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has started to invest more heavily in innovation, seeking new and more efficient solutions to humanitarian crises, in order to narrow the funding gap in the sector. Indeed, innovation has become a major topic in a broad rethinking of the humanitarian policy agenda as a whole. However, taking stock after several years of increased innovation efforts, there is a sector-wide perception that humanitarian innovation is falling short of its highly set ambitions to transform the sector and add value in tackling the prevailing strategic and operational challenges within the sector. Understanding the impact of innovation on strengthening effective and efficient responses to humanitarian crises continues to be a key policy and practice concern for donors and the broader sector.
This report presents the findings of a literature review on humanitarian innovation commissioned by the evaluation department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The analysed corpus of literature consists of 301 individual articles, from both academic and practitioner literature, spanning the period from 2015 up to and including the second quarter of 2021.
The primary insight gained from the review of the literature is that efforts to reform the humanitarian system by, amongst other things, leveraging innovation to provide improved solutions to humanitarian challenges have been primarily ad hoc, fragmented, and trying to serve diverse objectives. This has in turn resulted in the implementation of incremental improvements on the product and process level, rather than transformative change throughout the sector. Innovation in itself will not deliver radical, system-defining change unless organisations that hold power in the system adopt a more holistic and system-wide perspective and reform the system as a whole, which includes the outputs, institutions, actors, and contextual factors of the system.
Based on assessed literature, the study has come up with a set of strategic recommendations for donors:
- Ensure stronger coordination, knowledge exchange, and bundling of resources for innovation within the humanitarian sector between donors, innovators, humanitarian organisations, and private sector actors.
Accountability to the affected population
- Ensure active participation and inclusion of affected populations in innovation agendas and processes.
Strengthening the evidence base
- Facilitate evidence-based approaches and data-driven decision-making. Research and evaluations are essential.
- Increase the quality and quantity of funding going to innovation actors. Common pooled funds are expected to deliver more on innovation than one-off ad hoc support of individual donors. Steer funding towards innovations explicitly catering to the needs of affected populations
Read the full report below.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe