In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Shakira Bedoya
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In November 2009, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance held an innovation fair introducing the notion of innovation as a key category within the humanitarian system (Betts and Bloom 2014). Since then, innovation has been the subject and focus of attention in the humanitarian policy agenda, within and across organizations. Additionally, special funds and partnerships, so-called “innovation units,” have been developed by several United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, governments, the military, and businesses ( UNHCR 2015; McDonald et al. 2017). Although the notion itself remains poorly understood in many international debates (Bloom and Betts 2013) and its “meaning and value remain contested” (Betts and Bloom 2014: 5), humanitarian innovation has been embraced as a strategic concern for organizations and the humanitarian field as a whole (Scriven 2016). Broadly put, humanitarian innovation refers to “a means of adaptation and improvement through finding and scaling solutions to problems, in the forms of products, processes or wider business models” (Betts and Bloom 2014: 5) with the aim of transforming the operations, management, methods, and partnerships of organizations (Scriven 2016).

The emerging discussion about the term draws mainly on the traditional understandings and models from management theory (Scriven 2016). While the concept of “novation” first appeared in the 13th century as a legal category signifying imitation, it later developed into the term “innovation,” which endorses “the concept of a new idea being scaled over time” (Godin quoted in Bloom and Betts 2013: 5). In the first studies that treated innovation as an independent subject of analysis, it was correlated with theories of diffusion, the manner by which ideas are adopted by people, and with business management, which aims at creating advantages for profit in the global market (Bloom and Betts 2013). The importance of humanitarian innovation has been linked to its capacity to change the trajectory of humanitarian assistance allowing for improvement, and therefore the opportunity to overcome programmatic and operational obstacles (Scriven 2016) in categories including grants and finance, research and development, and/or collaborations and networks (Betts and Bloom 2014).

However, precisely because humanitarian innovation’s processes rely heavily on learning and readaptation to aimed results as its “causal pathway for change is unknown” (Obrecht 2017: 6), it introduces untested technologies and methods into unstable environments, making their potential harm and long-term consequences invisible to aid recipients and communities alike (McDonald et al. 2017). Here, innovation’s “effectiveness” is permeated by the desirability of transformative and radical change “to both what humanitarian actors do and how they do it,” consequently creating or increasing risk (Sandvik 2017: 7; see also Ramalingam et al. 2015). As such, alliances and partnerships fostering innovation are forged in the vein of new technological transformations focused on automation/artificial intelligence and data exchange. These innovations can only be unraveled as outcomes of a (fourth) industrial revolution “offering entirely new capabilities for people and machines and ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies” (RobotWorx 2018). Specific technologies such as blockchain or robotics/automation systems contain values and assumptions held by those who produce them (Forsythe and Hess 2002), not only impacting efficiency and productivity (WeRobotics 2018) but fundamentally redefining the boundaries of the humanitarian field (Downey, Dumit, and Williams 2013).


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