By Kirsten Gelsdorf, Director of Global Humanitarian Policy, Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy
Last July, the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia completed a study—together with the Global Emergency Group and Integrated Risk Management Associates—as part of the ELRHA Global Prioritization Exercise. Our objective was to map research and innovation around the globe. We wanted to understand where and how investments in innovation are being made. The study was itself innovative, demonstrating the potential for collaboration between the academy, NGOs, and the private sector.
We already knew that investment in humanitarian innovation had grown over the past few years. Our study revealed that innovation was happening even faster than we had realized: between January 2016 and April 2017 there were over 450 different actors engaging in some form of humanitarian innovation. Just a handful of these projects illustrate the broad range of innovation activities that are taking place. For example, WFP’s innovation accelerator is helping to develop and scale a variety of innovations; ICRC is pioneering the use of humanitarian impact bonds; and MSF is hosting ‘Scientific Days’ research conferences to generate and share evidence.
But despite the wide range of activities, we also found areas that may need more attention. First, few projects have focused on improving the protection sector or finding new ways to support the most marginalized groups. We need more projects focused on protection, especially of the elderly, the disabled, and other vulnerable populations. Second, most projects are focused on developing new ideas—but the infrastructure for scaling up the most promising of those ideas remains too limited. Third, there is a continued need to use and generate high quality research and evidence.
Such challenges are exactly why the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is excited to be a member of GAHI. How can we ensure that in scaling innovation we don’t neglect the most vulnerable populations? What standard of evidence should be required before scaling up? And what new global policies and processes do we need to develop? At the Batten School, we believe that answering these questions requires the leadership of a partnership like GAHI. We need to bridge the academic-practitioner divide and find new ways for research to impact policy and practice. In order to address complex questions, we need an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach.
Fortunately, the newest generation of humanitarian practitioners is diverse and comes from all disciplines. We now have over 250 students a year enrolled in our humanitarian courses at Batten—coming from backgrounds in engineering, nursing, entrepreneurship, computer science, economics, and anthropology. As someone who spent most of her career at the UN, working alongside people with similar backgrounds, I find this diversity incredibly exciting.
GAHI comes at the right time to address emerging challenges as well as to build on new energy in the humanitarian sector. But its success will ultimately depend on our own contributions as members and participants. It faces a challenging task—convening stakeholders, raising controversial issues, and slowly building towards shared solutions. It will need to overcome barriers of culture, motivation, and even semantics and language. But we believe that such barriers need to be overcome in order to have innovation that is evidence-based, effective, and ethical.
The humanitarian system sometimes resists change. But the scale and complexity of today’s challenges require that we develop new ways of working. We at the Batten School embrace the idea that we can harness the accelerating energy of change to improve lives around the world. That’s why GAHI matters—it is the platform where we can come together to make conscious and conscientious choices about the future we want. Innovation is no longer optional, and it’s up to us to decide where it takes us.
Director of Global Humanitarian Policy
Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia
Former Chief of Policy Analysis and Innovation, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA)