I have spent the day here at AidEx - the event where humanitarian and development agencies come together to meet suppliers and buyers. Exhibits of new products and business ventures alongside discussions about the future of Humanitarianism have been in full swing between the many attendees from NGOs, donors and private sector companies.

Activities of the day included the AidEx innovation challenge - four shortlisted candidates displayed their innovations to a panel of judges. The innovations were all product innovations, just past prototyping stage, showing potential for scalability in the humanitarian context. None of them have got to the point of local market development, and they are focusing on sales to NGOs. The winning entry, the India Impex solar lantern, showed a well thought out design, with features such as: carry handle, weatherproof in-built solar panel on top of the lantern, a port for mobile phone chargers, space to attach a chain (for security), and ability to detect light so it will only switch on if surrounding light is low enough (therefore saving battery power when not really needed). When asked about accessing the 'bottom of the pyramid' markets with this product, the exhibitor explains that pilots are underway with a co-operative women's group to loan or retail the lantern in their local markets in India.

Amongst the discussions on the future of Humanitarian Aid and new models of aid delivery, speakers from UN agencies, donors, international NGOs and a global private company chimed similar bells for moving forward in an ever changing environment - calling for the need for more 'collaboration and partnerships' across sectors - looking beyond the usual humanitarian actors to share knowledge and seek new solutions. In line with our own project aims, 'Innovation' has been a key topic all day as a method for adapting to change and improving ways of working when facing the challenges that lie ahead in future. Key challenges being around the increasing complexity of disasters, conflict and a limited economic environment.

Information management and social media were other hot topics discussed as opportunities for humanitarian actors in their work - such as in the collection of information from communities during needs assessments, to creating new funding mechanisms and communications with the public globally.

To give you a more of a taste of the first day, a video summary is already available online.
Louise Bloom
Freedom of movement is one of the most essential rights for refugees to engage in economic activities. Although the right to move freely is enshrined in Article 26 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as widely reported, a number of refugee-hosting countries restrict refugees’ mobility and often force refugees to stay inside the designated camps or settlements. In Uganda where I recently conducted the fieldwork, in contrary, refugees’ right to move freely is well respected by the host government. Refugees in the country utilised their mobility for their livelihoods; some moved to access livelihood opportunities while others moved in response to livelihood challenges.

A certain number of refugees in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, were taking advantage of sub-regional mobility for their economic activities. With their well-established trade networks, there were several Somali transportation companies covering most of East Africa and some Somali refugees were working as drivers for these companies. I also came across several refugees who were involved in trading between Uganda and their country of origin. For example, one of the Congolese refugee interviewees was purchasing plastic items such as jerry cans and water tanks in Kampala and exporting them to retail sellers in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During the interview, this Congolese trader suggested that he recently visited DRC a couple of times for his business.

Many refugees capitalised on freedom of movement within the host country. During the fieldwork, I interviewed refugees who were moving back and forth between Kampala and refugee settlements. Often these refugees were registered in the specific settlement and some of their family members were still living there. But, mainly for pursuit of economic opportunities, some of their household members, usually young male, came to the capital and returned to the settlement with earned money once in a few months.

Mobility was often employed by some refugees as an inevitable response to livelihood challenges. For instance, a considerable number of refugee vendors were making a long journey to border towns and villages between Uganda and their country of origin to sell their goods. I came across some Congolese refugee women who were buying accessories in the capital and selling them in villages between DRC and Uganda. The primary reason for their long travel was to avoid competition with local traders in Kampala. This mobile strategy provided refugee vendors with access to new markets outside the capital but also reduced their profits due to transportation costs between Kampala and the border villages.

Refugee merchants without a formal business license constantly moved around different markets in Kampala to avoid being arrested by the officials from the local municipality. In Kampala, everyone is required to obtain a license from the city council to engage in commercial activities. However, many failed to do so due to the inability to pay the high registration cost (there were also numerous Ugandan traders who could not afford buying a license). If those without a license were found by the local municipality, their merchandises would be confiscated by the government officials. This was why non-registered refugee traders continuously ‘wandered’ around different markets in the capital, which was significantly decreasing the efficiency of their businesses.

While freedom of movement was an essential component for livelihoods of refugees in Uganda, it is important to understand the reasons for their mobility. Refugees who were engaged in cross-border trading certainly capitalised on freedom of movement for their business; but some refugees inevitably had to move to cope with their livelihood problems. In the last two examples above, refugees didn’t necessarily want to move as it decreased the efficiency and profitability of their subsistence. Mobility was undoubtedly important for the economic activities of refugees in Uganda but their reasons to move were not always the same.

                                                                                                                                                                         Naohiko Omata
Investments in technologies and equipment for water provision, energy supply and other tangible resources may seem attractive solutions to donors and the media, in providing poor communities with access to basic needs and the struggle to alleviate poverty. Once the equipment is in place and tested, the project ends and funding for long-term monitoring and servicing may be scarce. Without resources or mechanisms for maintenance of this equipment, it seems obvious that these systems will have a limited working life and their contribution to “alleviating poverty” will be short lived.

The UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water 2012 Report, reflects that 780 million people are still without access to water. Despite Millennium Development Goals and targets that appear to be on track, disparities between countries targets are vast and only 7% of aid has gone to maintaining services. Lack of on-going data records and systematic maintenance means that it is even harder to measure the real impact and achievement under these water and sanitation goals.

Below David Damberger, from Engineers Without Borders Canada, discusses his learning from failure and the problem with traditional aid and technologies:
David suggests that long-term commitments and investment in “software” not hardware are required, and that “learning from failure” is something the aid sector must do more. Learning from failiure is also a concept that is also being explored in the private sector to seek improvements in provision of products and services.

In learning from failure “community participation” and “community ownership” concepts try to offer some solutions to long-term maintenance and sustainability of equipment. However these ideas are not always proven to create sustainable solutions either - corruption, movements of people, lack of resources, skills and financing may be some of the limitations communities face.

So what else can being done once lessons are taken from failure? Here are just a few examples I’ve seen so far where this challenge is driving innovative solutions and looking to private sector models: 

•    Sunny Money - an enterprise arm of the charity SolarAid, pride themselves in using enterprise methods to helping alleviate poverty. Sunny Money provides a range of solar lamps to customers in Africa, also training traders in repairing the lamps and supporting schools with access to the lamps. The lamps are intended to replace kerosene lamps. According to Sunny Money an “average of 20% of a household’s income each month” is spent on kerosene for lamps, and traditional lamps create “pollution” and “burns”. Sunny Money has an ambitious vision of eradicating kerosene lamps in Africa by 2020.
•    Africa Water Enterprises – is a charity that focuses on establishing enterprise models in communities and creating business moedles around the sale and maintenance of water supplies in communities. Again using private sector methods to help tackle long-term access to water, the initiative intends to stop the cycle of high costs of water, delays to maintenance of water sources and completely unused water distribution points and equipment.
•    Enterprise Developement Programme – This programme at  Oxfam links private sector investors and people to develop skills and facilitate business set-up in developing countries. This programme encourages innovation of local enterprises and resilient livelihoods.

These examples demonstrate part of the role private sector methods and approaches can play in finding sustainable solutions. Measuring the lasting impact is the next challenge, I'll see if I can find any examples where the private sector may offer some answers here as well.

Louise Bloom