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Start at the Unusual Suspects Festival

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There are many reasons why the humanitarian NGO sector isn’t geared towards the promotion and development of innovation. Not least it’s because our business model is traditionally reactive, and the strict controls placed upon our funding mean that we’ve adopted a risk-averse way of working. In our mission to promote an NGO sector that is more proactive, we have enshrined a commitment to fostering innovation within our third work stream, Start Beta.

We know that there are innovative entrepreneurs within the humanitarian sector who have solutions to some of the problems we face or great ideas to make our work more efficient. But often they’re trapped within organisational silos, without the incentives to collaborate with peers across organisational or sectoral boundaries. Without this sort of peer-to-peer support, ideas may be disregarded before they have the chance to take hold.

When we were asked to join the Unusual Suspects Festival it seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore this idea further. What better way to explore cross organisational knowledge sharing than with a diverse group brought together by a mutual interest in innovation? The outputs would be tangible, too: a contribution to the design and conceptualisation of Start Beta.

The session took place in an echoey cathedral hall in Lambeth, and attracted participants from UK social innovation, international development and the humanitarian sector, including representatives from the Start Network membership.

Paul Currion from the Start Network facilitated the session, presenting three structures: centralised, decentralised and distributed. Paul argued that the third distributed model was the one the humanitarian sector should aim to emulate, as it’s the most resilient: cut any one connection and the rest of the structure remains intact.

Participants likened this model to a garden metaphor, in which big and small organisms coexist and survive or fail in a state of natural harmony. They reflected how a traditional command and control management style would be inappropriate in this distributed model, and how the gardener’s role is more about attending to problem areas to maintain an overall vision.

These reflections naturally led the group to discuss attitudes toward failure within the humanitarian sector. Participants from the private sector spoke of how failure is encouraged in the research and development of new ideas, but recognised that there would be higher stakes in the humanitarian sector. This was countered by the assertion from humanitarian participants that the problem, then, was the perception of these stakes. The challenge will be to change the stakes – to create a ‘safe space’ – so that failure doesn’t spell the difference between life and death. Only then may humanitarian innovators feel able to take more risks.

It was recognised that this isn’t the only issue hindering new ideas in the humanitarian sector, though. Humanitarian practitioners in the room expressed a frustration with the way in which well-intentioned ideas can be perceived as ‘back-seat driving’ – with aid workers wanting to see solutions in action. Linked to this was the idea of information overload; or, as one participant explained: “Instead of telling me about three academic papers I could read, I want to know the name of the expert I should speak to who can help me with my problem.”

The conversation then shifted to the differences between internal and external perceptions of the issues faced by the humanitarian sector. The traditional model of the ‘rich’ in the global North giving to the ‘poor’ in the South is being challenged by the rise of a new charity giving public in other growing economies around the world. At the same time, there is a growing disconnect between charities themselves and the ‘public’ who donates money.

Some reflected that this may be a reluctance to challenge what the UK public thinks of as a good humanitarian response. But others felt that this is a problem the humanitarian sector has created for itself, and perpetuates through its communications. We need to find a way to say “We’re all doing our best but it may not be achieving the results we were hoping for.” And the solution should lie in working with staff and communities involved in humanitarian assistance to innovate the way we communicate with and report back to the public and donors.

The session concluded with a challenge: to introduce Start Beta in a way that is sensitive to these issues. We will need to be careful in our roll out of Start Beta, mapping out and working with the social innovation that already exists in our target countries. In this way we may avoid repeating the mistakes our sector tends to make, and broker non-traditional connections for a more resilient system.

For more information on the Unusual Suspects Festival please visit the website.

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