Humanitarian aid: new roads to recovery

Advanced technologies now offer aid agencies sophisticated ways to respond to global disasters and help those affected rebuild their lives, as Vision finds out

Mobile phone applications to help connect refugee children with their families, low-cost wheelchairs strong enough to work on unpaved roads, emergency water-filtration systems, micro-mapping via Twitter and a refugee shelter designed by IKEA. These are just some of the exciting new developments coming out of the humanitarian sector as it seeks innovative solutions to tackle increasingly complicated crises caused by natural disasters and conflict.

Helping drive innovation in the aid sector is the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF). Managed by the organisation Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA), the HIF is a non-profit grant making facility supporting organisations and individuals to develop innovative and scalable solutions to the huge range of challenges facing the humanitarian sector.

Crisis landscape

“The crisis landscape is changing very quickly,” explains Joanne Burke, Partner-ships Manager at the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College London, listing as examples the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and the 2004 tsunami that ravaged South-east Asia. “The humanitarian sector has been prompted to think about whether it has the capacity to respond to an increasingly more uncertain world, where crises are becoming more complicated and funding is becoming tighter,” she says.

The HIF’s Fund Manager, Kim Scriven, says that while the humanitarian sector had always been creative, in the past five years there has been a new commitment to innovation. “Working in emergencies requires problem-solving and innovation,” he says. “People have been used to those creative processes, but because of bureaucracy and other factors, there weren’t systems to capture and celebrate it.”

Scriven has recently returned from Uganda, where the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, in partnership with ThoughtWorks, a software developer, and other NGOs, is piloting “RapidFTR (Rapid Family Tracing)”, which uses mobile phone applications to help reunite children separated from their families during emergencies. “If a child arrives in a refugee camp alone, staff take a photo and fill out an electronic form, and that is instantly linked to other databases to see if their family members can be traced,” he explains. “This replaces what was previously done on paper with carbon copies, which would take weeks or months to process, but now it is done instantaneously using mobile phones.”

Another project supported by the HIF is the prototyping of affordable and adapt-able wheelchairs that can function in emergency environments, where there may be no tarred surfaces or spare parts available. The project was conceived by international disability charity Motivation, in partnership with Handicap International and Johanniter International Assistance. “They came to us at the beginning stages and we gave them the initial funding for prototypes,” Scriven said. “They have been doing some field testing in Pakistan, and other places, and hopefully this will be taken on by larger aid agencies.”

Turning ideas into cost-effective solutions is a large part of innovation, and there is a new and growing engagement with the private sector. “I think we’ve had a shift since the tsunami with humanitarians looking at the private sector as more than just a source of cash, and now engaging with them for innovative purposes and also as a partner,” says Joanna Burke.

Fruitful partnerships

One such partnership is between the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the IKEA Foundation, the Swedish furniture giant’s charitable trust. Working together over three years, they have come up with a new emergency shelter to replace the standard tent that is rolled out during refugee crises. The working price is twice the cost of a tent, but while tents last for six months, the IKEA shelters are designed to last up to three years. “It’s important that the shelter is lightweight enough so that it can be easily and cost-efficiently transported, but strong enough to withstand harsh conditions,” says lead designer Johan Karlsson, from IKEA’s Refugee Housing Unit.

For Karlsson, its the outside panels that are the most exciting part of the design because they offer better insulation and protection from the environment and more privacy. “We designed the panels so that light can come through during the day, but shadow is not cast from the inside at night.” Each shelter also has its own solar panel, to supply light and electricity.

Tests of the prototype began in Dollo Ado camp in Ethiopia, home to mostly Somali refugees, in July, and a pilot was also due to start at Domiz Camp, sheltering Syrians in northern Iraq, in August. It is early days, but if the shelters are well-received by their refugee testers, this could fundamentally change the way the UNCHR responds to mass human displacement.

The next UNHCR innovation initiative was due to launch in August, with the creation of an “ideas-management” site hosted by global enterprise innovation platform Spigit. The Facebook-style portal will gather input from staff, partners and refugees from across the globe, and contributors will be able to post their own ideas, as well as rate and discuss other suggestions. The first topic for discussion will be how to communicate better with urban refugees, so they know about access to information and services provided by the UNHCR and partners.

“UNHCR is trying to achieve a higher degree of empowerment and self-reliance to increase dignity. Dignity is fundamental for UNHCR innovation,” says Olivier Delarue, the UNHCR’s Head of Innovation.