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Humanitarian interoperability

Is humanitarianism coming of age?

  • by Startnetwork
  • 10 Dec 14

Blog Post

At the heart of the December 2014 UNOCHA global humanitarian policy conference was the concept of “humanitarian interoperability”. It is likely, as with all new buzzwords, that this concept will gather increasing momentum over the next 12 months, as practitioners, policy makers and decision-makers grapple to make sense of this new addition to the humanitarian lexicon.

Interoperability is a concept that originates from military and technology sectors. It is a concept that promotes the idea of tessellation across a system with the goal of increasing efficiencies. NATO see interoperability as a way of working that allows separate command and control structures to operate whilst offering human, procedural and technical compatibility across forces.

For NATO, interoperability does not necessarily require common military equipment. What is important is that the equipment can share common facilities, and is able to interact, connect and communicate, exchange data and services with other equipment.

A critical point in all of this is that military interoperability has only been achieved following decades of joint planning, training and exercises.

In other spheres interoperability could also include rail gauges that can carry overland and underground trains at the same time, or socket adapters that allow the use of electricity wherever you are on the globe, despite different plug fittings. In nature, interoperability is seen in migrating birds who form self-organising flocks, with dispersed leadership united under a common goal, and it is these analogies which define the essence of interoperability.

Within the Start Network collaboration is seen as essential to interoperability. The creation of the humanitarian behavioural competency framework in 2011 was a first step towards acknowledging the need to begin to create a common language – a language that empowers and unites rather than restricts and divides.

Similarly the new Transforming Surge Capacity Consortium, led by Action Aid, is looking at collaborative surge capacity, recognising that breaking down organisational silos will be necessary to provide the capacity needed to address humanitarian disasters at scale.

Central to humanitarian interoperability will be common standards, values and principles, particularly as the currently insular aid system will need to collaborate with the new voices needed to be able to take gains to the necessary scale to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

These normative standards could be the uniting force, which help the aid agencies and private sector, business and commercial organisations find a common ground in the humanitarian endeavour.

But dialogue will need to be held with these new actors not just during a response but before (in contingency and preparedness planning) and after (in recovery periods) to ensure that these normative standards unite and do not become divisive.

And this common ground with the private sector will only be found once aid organisations stop looking at the private sector as a cash cow for responses. Instead what will be needed is a language that creates a common ground where all actors can coalesce around improving disaster affected livelihoods and communities, because this is a language that business can understand.

As well as embracing new actors, it is essential that the system looks to existing capacity, and asks itself if it is being maximised. The cluster system should be the embodiment of interoperability but many evaluations tell us that it is not the solution that we wanted it to be. We need to ask ourselves if it is the architecture that is broken, or if we are simply not resourcing appropriately.

Similarly if interoperability is all about comparative advantage, the stakeholders with the greatest comparative advantage in any disaster response are the civil society, national NGOs, local populations, local governments and NDMAs in those disaster affected areas. And yet for some reason these are the stakeholders that have been systematically overlooked not only in most of the major responses of the last decade, but also in terms of investment in preparedness and response capacity.

The GHA tells us that in 2012 less than 3% of all response funding went to the local level and yet it is here that the majority of work takes place and it is here that the majority of lives are saved. Interoperability, and analysis of comparative advantage, can only be a pipe dream until this critical system anomaly is addressed.

Implicit within interoperability is the relinquishing of traditional notions of power and control. This will require an acknowledgement of where power currently lies and where power should lie.

In this respect it could be argued that the principle of subsidiarity should be pursued, where response decision making, leadership and initiative is as local as possible and only international when necessary.

But it is questionable whether the traditional power holders in the current humanitarian system are ready for this shifting of the centre of gravity yet. There is much talk of transformation within the humanitarian system, but this dialogue is largely being held within the existing paradigm.

At its best interoperability could be a concept that allows the system to embrace pluralism, diversity and the voice of the “other” in preparedness, response and recovery – a new lens through which to view the comparative advantages of actors in the system. At worst it will become another disruptive buzzword in the lexicon of jargon that already bedevils the system

Humanitarian interoperability will also require new ways of working and new skills, behaviours and competencies in the sector. There will need to be considerable suppression of organisational ego, and more value placed on “softer” skills such as partnership brokering, collaboration, alignment and facilitation in a sector typified by linear command and control and results led logic.

Similarly for interoperability to work, incentives for collaboration will need to be better understood. The Start Network, CDAC-Network and DFID attempt to define and measure “collaborative advantage” through the Disasters Emergency Preparedness Programme (DEPP) partnership will be a seminal step in this respect.

While the concept of collaborative advantage has been around in business since the mid-nineties[i], the humanitarian sector is beginning to learn that collaboration does not necessarily have to mean high transaction costs, particularly when we consider that most barriers to effective response have actually been programmed by ourselves.

While it is unlikely that humanitarian interoperability will become a technical area like DRR or resilience, and it is unlikely that we will see a raft of recruitments for Interoperability Advisers and mainstreamers, it is a useful lens through which to view where the humanitarian system is currently at.

In this sense humanitarian interoperability is a milestone, or an acknowledgement by the incumbents of how far the sector has come, in terms of a greater understanding of its delicate connectedness and mutual inter-dependence.

The cynics may say that it is an acknowledgement by the UN and others in the Western humanitarian system that the inevitable encroachment by non-traditional actors with new values, principles, business models and ways of working is imminent; that UN leadership in humanitarian response should no longer be assumed and that fragmentation is taking place.

There is, after all, no such thing as a hegemonic “Global South”, nor are there universal standards or values, and equally it can be argued that there are now many humanitarian systems in play at any one time; to those cynics, interoperability is one final technocratic buzzword, released by the incumbents to save a crumbling and fragmenting empire.

But against the backdrop of exponentially increasing needs and the failure of the current system to address the growing humanitarian capacity gap, there is an acknowledgement by others that the current humanitarian system is going to need to diversify its ecosystem, embrace new actors and rather than align around an impossible business model of continued exponential growth, instead adopt a smarter-not-harder philosophy.

This means greater collaboration leading to more human, procedural and technical compatibility across organisational boundaries, an embracing of diversity, alignment (not necessarily consensus) around common values, a quicker and more complimentary humanitarian financing architecture, a realignment of aid investment into local response capacity, languages and principles which empower rather than alienate, and the suppression of organisational ego in favour of the greater endeavour for humanity.

Humanitarian interoperability is not the silver bullet for the challenges that the system currently faces, but it is a signal that the system that might finally be coming of age, realising its weaknesses and limitations, and attempting to reach out across traditional boundaries to form new alliances.

At its best it is an acknowledgement by the UN agencies, international organisations, INGOs and their partners that in order to take gains to scale they are going to need to get used to working alongside, and with, actors that they are not traditionally used to working with.

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[i] “Collaborative Advantage; the art of alliances”; Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business Review, 1994

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