“I think we are ready for a paradigm shift” was the conclusion of Alexander Aleinikoff, Deputy High Commisioner of the UNHCR at his keynote address at Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Conference last Saturday. What he referred to, is that the humanitarian system has so far aimed at sustaining innovation, instead of seeking a distruptive innovation approach. From a culture of dependency, he argued that “we” don’t move fast enough within the culture of dependency from relief to development. He said, we have to find avenues for self-reliance.
This was a very inspiring thought aligned with my research findings, and along with the keynote speech by Ntakamaze Nziyonvira, Co-founder of CIYOTA and himself a congolese refugee, set the scene for what should be innovative discussions on how to approach the future refugee challenges in a less harmful way.
According to system’s theory, the problem of being stuck that was described by Alexander Aleinikoff, could successfully be approached by allowing a generic response that allows for dealing with crisis at a lower scale. Basically, the humanitarian system has grown too big, and too top heavy, so the question about scaling everything becomes irrelevant. Allowing for local stakeholders to create adaptive ways of dealing with disasters will allow institutional learning, response with experience and adaptive (more resilient) local systems for handling reoccuring crises (Berkes, Folke from Panarchy):
Unfortunately, the agencies only partly followed this line of thought on paradigm shift. Particularly from UNHCR and UNICEF it sounded as if though “innovation from the bottom” could be harvested and made into “scalable solutions” if it was only made to “fit within the system”. By talking about user centered design of cook stoves without mentioning of fuel supply, ownership or the challenges of industrial capacity building, the innovation hubs will be not even sustaining innovation as described by Aleinikoff, but no innovation at all.
Having said that, the Humanitarian Innovation Conference 2014 gathered an impressive number of participants ranging from the main humanitarian implementing organizations, smaller NGOs, SMEs, entrepreneurs to academics and funders. Among the smaller innovators were also refugees connected to the Humanitarian Innovation Projects’ activities in Uganda. The effects of such a meeting place for innovative minds could provide an alternative avenue; and an interesting thought is, that perhaps this does not have to include the large scale humanitarian actors at all?
Among the plenary sessions there was some debate between innovation units at the UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and the IKEA Foundation. Per Heggernes from the IKEA foundation stressed the importance of Humanitarian assistance to start thinking more like privat sector, where the key factor is to always compete, always thinking that you need to produce higher quality for less money.
During the conference paralell sessions however, there were scholars presenting a deep understanding of the history behind the humanitarian system and how it has moved from one where refugees had a self explanatory obligation to build up their new future societies into one that is very much top-down and decided by central decision makers. It was particluraly interesting to talk to students and researcher at the Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity for and their local resilience approach to humanitarian action as well as Ennead architects (Stanford/UNHCR) who gave very positive feedback to the student design project that I presented in the session on bottom-up innovation. I also chaired the energy and environment session, including presentations on water supply, cook stoves in South Africa and and litium battery innovations.