The Humanitarian Innovation Project seeks to explore the emerging and under-researched way in which innovation can be harnessed to transform humanitarian assistance, particularly in relation to refugee protection. As an academic research project, based at the University of Oxford, the focus of the project is on research, but with the aim of making both a practical and an academic contribution. On a practical level, the project aims to creatively identify ways in which innovation, technology and the private sector can enhance refugees' entitlements and opportunities within both emergency settings and protracted refugee situations. It aims to make an academic contribution by conceptualising the changing relationship between states, markets and international organizations in humanitarian governance. The project is funded by Stephanie and Hunter Hunt, through the Communities Foundation of Texas, and has a cooperation agreement with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its recently formed UNHCR Innovation initiative.
Many existing activities are relevant to humanitarian innovation however there has been a lack of systematic research on humanitarian innovation. This is a significant gap because understanding and documenting what is ‘out there’ and what is applicable (or not) to particular humanitarian contexts has the potential to improve both humanitarian innovation initiatives and humanitarian response. Identifying best practices and analysing the sources and impacts of innovation across different sectors can make a practical contribution to ensure that the best information and most relevant analysis of what has been tried and what impact it has had is available to humanitarian actors. Addressing this gap, this project will seek to engage in systematic research and analysis of existing practices of humanitarian innovation and to make these insights openly available to humanitarian actors.
In addition to 'mapping out' these opportunities, the project will then focus on how these wider sources of innovation are being - or could be - applied to the refugee context. Reflecting the expertise of the Refugee Studies Centre, the project will explore how sources of humanitarian innovation might be adapted to the refugee context. Taking a 'bottom-up' perspective, it will examine how refugees' own skills, creativity and aspirations might be complemented by support from innovation, technology, and the private sector, whether derived from the local, national or global levels.
In addition to its practical contribution, the project aims to make an important academic contribution by understanding and conceptualising the changing nature of the relationship between states, markets and international organizations in the humanitarian field. Traditionally, humanitarianism has been understood as predominantly a ‘public’ realm, dominated by states or inter-state actors, and their implementing partners. It is in many ways the international analogue of the domestic welfare state. It serves to provide an important safety net of last resort. Literature abounds on the public international humanitarian response. More neglected, however, has been the analysis of the potential and actual role of the private sector. Recognising the emerging and potential role of private actors - at the local, national, and global levels - is central to how re-thinking the most relevant politics and channels of influence through which humanitarian governance, policy and practice is made.
In order to make both a practical and academic contribution, the project will engage in two simultaneous research tracks. It will, firstly, engage in systematic research of existing innovation activities relevant to humanitarianism (‘looking outwards’), and, secondly, engage in analysis of that data in order to explore its application and relevance to the refugee context (‘looking inwards’). These two tracks will be brought together in order to examine how ideas in other areas of humanitarian innovation might potentially relate to the refugee context.
Research Track 1: “Looking Outwards”
The research will explore innovation ‘out there’ in three main areas in order to empirically understanding what is happening in humanitarian innovation:
1) Humanitarian Innovation Initiatives
2) Humanitarian Innovation Practices
3) Private Sector Innovation in Relevant Sectors
Research Track 2: “Looking Inwards”
The other research track of the project will examine the relevance of humanitarian innovation for the refugee context by conducting research in three areas relating to the actual and potential ways in which refugees are and could be engaging with innovation, technology and the private sector. Here the initial pilot focus for the project is on Uganda - looking at urban refugees in Kampala and rural refugees in a number of settlements, within which refugees have access to so-called self-reliance:
1) Refugees' use of Innovation, Technology and Markets
2) Existing Institutional Processes for Innovation
3) The Impact of Existing Innovation Approaches on Refugees
The project will fulfil five core functions:
1) Research capacity
2) Knowledge platform
3) Convening role
4) Network facilitation
5) Process innovation