Is innovation worth considering as an approach to our ongoing humanitarian crises and development needs? For these authors at theguardian.com, the very idea is “arrogant“. The same goes for disruption.
Our Terms Of Reference Podcast profiles innovators in the humanitarian aid and international development sector. Dozens of hours filled with stories about experiences in this very intersection. And they seem slightly at odds with the article’s premise. We have a couple of counterexamples for some of the authors’ claims, below:
“[T]echnologists understand their tools, but they don’t understand the context in which human rights organisations operate.”
“[H]uman rights organisations might understand the context, but not the technological tools they are being offered.”
Our 100th guest was Andrew Schroeder, PhD. He is internationally recognized by both his technological expertise and humanitarian acumen. He shared with us a couple of accounts of innovation cycles that move forward with a sound understanding of each area. And he is only one with similar cross-qualifications. We also featured Ryan Oksenhorn’s work at Zipline (115th) with delivery drones in Tanzania and Rwanda. Time and again our guests have a point about the pitfalls of coming to the field without a technical skill to add value.
“Human rights is not a marketplace.”
But more agile marketplaces have increased the efficacy of humanitarian response. Our 123rd guest, Kim Scriven, from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund; and more recently, Chris Wolz (137th), attest to the value of introducing marketplaces and market efficiencies to foster human rights. It is worth noting that not all marketplaces are alike.
“‘Move fast and break things’ is fine if you’re developing a gaming platform. It’s not fine if you’re working with a Yazidi population in Iraq facing genocide.”
But it is exactly on the worst case scenarios where ‘breaking things’ is the best thing you can do. Our 85th guest, Dr. Vincenzo Bollettino, shares how Rwandan communities use the latest technologies to ‘move fast’ and protect themselves from armed outbursts. For a more long-term vision, we invite them (and you) to listen to Linus Bengtsson, our 117th guest, and the big data operation his Flowminder Foundation has done to increase our understanding of rapid response.
“Some human rights organisations in the field – faced with limited budgets and immediate threats to human lives – struggle to adapt to even basic forms of technology, much less anything particularly advanced.”
But when it comes to ease of use, few things beat smartphones, and they are everywhere. You can pick one of our episodes at random and there is a high chance you find a guest talking about the many virtues of smartphones. Tina Cornely, our 63th guest, is a great example of how an all-encompassing effort, from agriculture to health care to energy and water, included the introduction of smartphones to people, sometimes before they knew how to read.
“[M]ost of the time, the underlying problem human rights organisations are trying to solve isn’t technical. It’s often a bureaucratic, institutional, process or workflow problem, and technology won’t solve it (and might exacerbate it).”
“While technology might disrupt some power structures, it might also reinforce them, and it is rarely designed to empower the most vulnerable populations.”
As any IT person can attest, technology has revolutionized process and workflow problems. Jacob Korenblum, Souktel president and CEO (and our 72nd guest), is a life’s work on technology that streamlines organizations and increases results while maintaining focus on the ground users.
“Software will offer no magic solutions. Technologists and their human rights counterparts should forego the allure of hackathons and code sprints.“
Let’s overlook the implication that for the authors, code is magic, and let’s focus instead on how awareness about the power of coding was the beginning of an impactful career for Ken Banks. Our 84th guest, he is not the only one with a strong conviction on how coding could be the ultimate skill for professionals in the field.
International development is not a perfect field of work. In fact, each of our guests is invited to tell us of a time where they had to deal with failure. But blanket statements fail to acknowledge the good things that happen on a regular basis.