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ECOSOC HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON PROMOTING HUMANITARIAN INNOVATION FOR IMPROVED RESPONSE
17 July 2013

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) this morning held a panel discussion on promoting humanitarian innovation for improved response.
 
Masood Khan, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said that this panel’s topic showed the importance placed on the United Nations and its partners to be as effective as possible, using all the tools and services that were available to meet the needs of people affected by crisis.  Governments, the private sector, civil society and the United Nations all had to adapt to advances in technology and to changing methods to address the needs of constituencies.  Using innovation was essential for humanitarian organizations to ensure they were able to respond with the best partnerships, services, skills and products. 

Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that many of the tools and processes which they used now to respond to humanitarian crises were developed in the 1990s and no longer addressed the challenges and needs of today’s operating system.  Innovative approaches were needed to deal with dramatic changes to their operating environment.  Research had shown that humanitarian organizations were sometimes reluctant to try new tools and systems, so they all had to try to be more innovative in what they did, while continuing to adhere firmly to their humanitarian principles.

Wendy Harman, Director of Information Management Situational Awareness for the American Red Cross, said that the Red Cross had opened a digital operation centre last year, which raised real-time awareness about incidents and crises.  It also identified gaps in service by using comments and enquiries from users, and got as many people involved in its activities as possible.  The centre had also developed a training course, which provided certification and taught staff, volunteers and employees the right skills to enter social engagement and deal with people in a humanitarian crisis situation.  

Elizabeth Rasmusson, Assistant Executive Director, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy, said that innovation was key to ensuring that humanitarian assistance was informed by, and best met, the needs of those affected by crisis.  The World Food Programme was working to develop a complete software platform for the cash and voucher system, which was designed to make it easy to compile many different sources of information, such as beneficiary records in national safety net databases or from its own cooperating partners.  The World Food Programme had also been engaged in an intensive internal review called Fit for Purpose.

Mohamed Osman, Managing Director, Star FM, Nairobi, Kenya, said that Star FM was established in 2006, with the aim of improving the livelihoods of refugees and the local communities and to act as a channel between the aid agencies and the refugees.  It produced popular, public-interest programmes on key humanitarian and refugee affairs, and economic, political and social issues.  It was working with aid agencies but partnering with them was difficult as they were not allowed to work with private institutions, expect on a contract basis.  For this reason it had registered a sister organization called SMDC, a non-profit organization.  Each aid agency had to co-ordinate with the local media by sharing information and press releases to inform refugees, internally displaced persons, and vulnerable people through the radio.  The radio had played a major role in bringing about dialogue between agencies and refugees. 

During the interactive discussion which followed, delegations stressed that innovation involved adopting new methods of working and adapting to new ways of thinking, not just using new technologies.  They also underlined the importance of using new types of communication to ensure the early prevention and fast relief of vulnerable populations in crises or natural disasters.  Speakers raised issues concerning innovation funding methods, public-private partnerships to promote innovation, and ways to avoid misinformation or the political manipulation of information diffused during crisis periods.   

Participating in the interactive dialogue with comments and questions were Haiti, United Kingdom, Finland, Burkina Faso, Sweden, Norway, Kenya, European Union, Japan, Switzerland, Dominican Republic, and United States.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Telecommunications Union also took the floor. 

The Economic and Social Council will resume its work this afternoon at 3 p.m., when it will continue and conclude the general discussion it started on Monday, 15 July under the Humanitarian Affairs Segment and then take action on a draft resolution “Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations”. 
 
Panel Discussion on Promoting Humanitarian Innovation for Improved Response

MASOOD KHAN, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said that the choice of this panel topic showed the importance placed on the United Nations and its partners to be as effective as possible, using all the tools and services that were available to meet the needs of people affected by crisis.  Governments, the private sector and civil society had to continually adapt to advances in technology, changing methods and tools to communicate with and address the needs of constituencies.  The United Nations was no different.  To better meet humanitarian needs in a changing world it would be essential for humanitarian organizations to integrate innovation and new ways of working to ensure they were able to respond with the best partnerships, services, skills and products.  In Pakistan, they were seeing the difference that technology was having on the way they communicated and responded to people during crises, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters.  During the 2010 floods, the use of mobiles phone technology changed the way assistance was delivered. 

How did they better embrace technologies, along with other innovative practices in humanitarian action?  What were the opportunities and barriers to changing current approaches?  The Secretary-General outlined in his report that enabling greater innovation in humanitarian response would require most investment in research and development to adapt ideas and technologies to humanitarian uses.  Organizational reform to create cultures that were conducive to implementing innovative practices and learning from practices at the regional and country levels would be essential.  It would require more involvement of affected people, adopting ideas developed by communities themselves.  Today they had a distinguished panel to explore these ideas further.  There would also be a live feed from Dadaab camp where Somali refugees who were being trained in journalism would provide insight into how improving communication was transforming the way people were able to access humanitarian assistance and have a voice in how it was delivered. 

VALERIE AMOS, Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination, said that many of the tools, services and processes which they used now to respond to humanitarian crises were developed in the 1990s and no longer addressed the challenges and needs of today’s operating system.  Technology growth had enabled communities better to articulate their needs and seek resources from their governments, so innovative approaches were needed to deal with dramatic changes to their operating environment.  Innovation was not just about technology, but also about creating new tools, adopting new approaches and fostering new partnerships.  They needed to take advantage of opportunities emerging from new technologies and partnerships.  One such example was Souktel, a Palestinian-based group which used mobile phone technology to help non-governmental organizations respond to crises.  Research had shown that humanitarian organizations were sometimes reluctant to try new tools and systems, so they all had to try to be more innovative in what they did, while continuing to adhere firmly to their humanitarian principles, said Ms. Amos.  Souktel would run a live poll during this morning’s session.  The question was: “Innovation in humanitarian action is most useful to…”.  The four answers from which to choose were: a) improve communication with people affected by crises, b) utilize new developments in technology to improve response to crises, c) develop new tools to respond to the evolving nature of humanitarian crises, d) create a culture where humanitarian organizations were able to identify problems and create solutions.  Voting would take place by text message and the results would be announced at the end of this morning’s session.

WENDY HARMAN, Director of Information Management Situational Awareness for the American Red Cross, said that the Red Cross had opened a digital operation centre last year.  Building a physical room was an important development because there was now a physical space where media took place.  The centre raised real-time (and sometimes also anticipatory) awareness about incidents and crises.  It also identified gaps in service by using comments and enquiries from users, and got as many people involved in its activities as possible.  For example, when a tornado warning was issued, the centre would communicate with affected people via Twitter, provide advice, and put them in touch with other affected people in the same area.  The centre had also developed a training course, which provided certification and taught staff, volunteers and employees the right skills to enter social engagement and deal with people in a humanitarian crisis situation.  During the recent Hurricane Sandy crisis, 2.5 posts were pulled in for review, 31 digital volunteers were used, and 229 posts were sent to Mass Care teams about needs in affected areas, our of which 88 posts resulted in action on the ground.  Ad-hoc volunteer groups had proved to be very helpful, and Ms. Harman said that they were trying to involve more volunteers groups in their work.     

ELIZABETH RASMUSSON, Assistant Executive Director, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy, was happy to report that innovation was alive and well within the World Food Programme.  It was constantly searching for new and innovative ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its operating model.  Innovation was also key to ensuring humanitarian assistance was informed by and best met the needs of those affected by crisis.  Its pioneering work on cash and vouchers was one example of this; it was being put into practice and illustrated how the World Food Programme had managed to adapt its business processes to better deliver responses to the needs of beneficiaries and to work effectively with Governments and the private sector.  The initiative had taken time to evolve, and had been deliberately managed to allow country offices space in which to innovate and develop practices and systems within certain boundaries.  The World Food Programme was also working to develop a complete software platform for the cash and voucher system, System for Cash Operations that would be made available to all its partners.  It was designed to make it easy to compile many different sources of information, such as beneficiary records in national safety net databases or from its own cooperating partners. 

The World Food Programme had been engaged in an intensive internal review, called Fit for Purpose.  One of its major challenges, among others was that there was a significant time lapse between when donors committed to giving funds and when these were received.  To reduce this, it had created three internal advance financing facilities that provided cash to country operations before funds were received.  This served as an internal loan, which could save up to 50 days in distribution of commodities from when project needs were assessed.  Such innovations were grounded in the World Food Programme’s strategic shift from food aid to food assistance.  This reorientation was in response to a rapidly changing environment of humanitarian work, one that demanded that it be more accountable to beneficiaries, governments and other partners. 

MOHAMED OSMAN, Managing Director, Star FM, Nairobi, Kenya, said that Star FM was established in 2006, with the aim of improving the livelihoods of refugees and the local communities and to act as a channel between the aid agencies and the refugees.  It produced popular, public-interest programmes on key humanitarian and refugee affairs, economic, political and social issues targeting the Horn of Africa region and the Somali-speaking listeners.  Radio could save lives in times of humanitarian crisis by providing critical information to affected communities, as well as offering a forum for discussion and dialogue.  During humanitarian crisis people had an urgent need for information.  Information and communication was vital and could be life-saving to communities affected by crisis.  Star FM radio mainly worked closely with aid agencies, refugees and the host community.  It was currently working with Internews in training journalists and broadcasting of the daily humanitarian program called Gargaar, funded by ECHO.  Social media platforms were used to post topics of discussion, updates and incidents, and were used at a way of getting feedback.

Star FM was working with aid agencies but partnering with them was difficult as they were not allowed to work with private institutions, expect on a contract basis.  For this reason it had registered a sister organization called SMDC, a non-profit organization.  Security was really getting out of hand in Dadaab and sometimes its staff on the ground could not bring news because of insecurity, their lives were sometimes in danger because of what was aired.  Other challenging areas included lack of network and lack of electricity.  Each and every aid agency had to co-ordinate with the local media by sharing information and press releases to inform refugees, internally displaced persons, and vulnerable people through radio.  Improvement of working relationships between humanitarian agencies and the private sector was recommended.  Also recommended was that agencies, if possible, distribute solar radios.  Mr. Osman’s message from the field was that information was aid and that radio was the most informative tool for affected communities.

A live stream was started to Dadaab with a Star FM resident radio journalist, and two refugee reporters.  Several journalists were trained in most of the refugee camps within Dadaab.  Before the radio programme, the major challenge had been lack of communication between refugees and agencies.  Most of the refugees often did not know which agencies were operating and what services were offered and in place, including concerning food distribution.  After the Gargaar programme, the communities in the camps came to know which agencies and what services were being provided.  Organizations were asked to provide information on what they were doing, such as health services in hospitals, and this was then shared with communities.  Blogging had also been an effective way of sharing information.  However, it could be challenging as some persons in the community could not read or write and had no access to computer, internet or mobile phones.  The community could be educated through the radio.  In terms of the impact of the radio on humanitarian agencies, the radio had played a major role in bringing about dialogue between agencies and refugees. 

Haiti said that humanitarian aid could not be dissociated from official development assistance.  Since the devastating earthquake in 2010, Haiti had been working tirelessly to meet the needs of its people, and to that end it was collaborating closely with United Nations agencies involved with humanitarian aid.  Haiti had just updated its national contingency plans to provide more effective responses and increase the resilience of its people to disasters.

United Kingdom said that it was important to acknowledge that not all ideas worked equally well, so they should help communities filter the good from bad ideas for the promotion of innovation to be effective.  Responding to the need to set the principle which would guide their work, the United Kingdom said that they needed to be ethical, since they were working with highly vulnerable populations, they needed to collaborate with the community to ensure the quick diffusion of new ideas.  

Finland asked how they could promote innovation in a more systematic way and what the donors’ role in this could be.  Moreover, how did the American Red Cross verify and screen the messages which it received through social media applications? 

Burkina Faso said that in the case of Pakistan, 71 per cent of the population had cellular telephones, meaning that communication with them was easier.  They had to ensure that communication could flow and that networks were available because in countries where access to communication was a problem, it was not sure how these systems could be used to reach the maximum number of people in need.  As far as the Red Cross was concerned, there was a really good system but it seemed that this was more for inter-agency communication.  It was suggested that a database mechanism be set up on innovative measures to be shared with all countries.

WENDY HARMAN, Information Management and Situational Awareness, Domestic Disaster Services, American Red Cross, Washington, D.C., United States, said that as far as verification and screening of incoming social data, there was a software system being used that did cost money but allowed to put key-word searches into buckets.  Risk was taken of having some information not being as valid or quite true as this was so fast.  If ever unsure of the veracity of a tweet, the person was tweeted back to triangulate information.  There was also a training process to ensure that there were people with great judgment and that were used to handling vast amounts of information and in talking with people.  There was a huge desire to know how information could be better shared.  It would be very difficult to do this, especially due to the way that the web and social communities were structured.  They had to change their minds about how they could be flexible and nimble to fit into the communities which they were trying to assist. 

ELIZABETH RASMUSSON, Assistant Executive Director, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy, said that donors could be encouraged to contribute to so-called innovation funds.  It was not a lot of money that was needed, but flexible money that had to be made available to test out new ideas.  Donors could be used to encourage private sector actors to participate.  When it came to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and the Working Group, the whole purpose of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee was to improve humanitarian response and seek out how to better work together to better understand and respond to the needs of beneficiaries.  The Transformative Agenda was precisely an innovative way of looking at improved humanitarian response.  They should not stop the partnering of individual organizations, but perhaps the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Working Group could be given more responsibility to bring it all together and ensure there was no doubling of efforts.  It could also be a place to promote more innovation.

MOHAMED OSMAN, Managing Director, Star FM, Nairobi, Kenya, said that public-private partnerships were very important and that private companies could carry out sustainability plans for their own territory.  Organizations should have an innovation partner promoting innovative projects and providing guidance.  The collaboration between agencies and donors was very important and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had an important role to play in coordinating between agencies and Headquarters. 

Sweden said that working in more innovative ways was no longer an option, but, rather, a necessity.  Innovation included new products and the adoption of new processes and partnerships, not just new technologies.  Communication with and from beneficiaries should be at the forefront of their discussion.  They should learn to better harness the information provided through social media to ensure that it was used to benefit vulnerable populations on the ground.   

Norway said that the role of the private sector was increasingly important in humanitarian innovation, especially technological innovation.  Innovation could be used to adjust certain products to the needs of humanitarian agencies.  Norway asked the panellists how they went about funding innovation projects.  How could they make sure that those in need were helped as fast as possible and how could the international community ensure that they had flexible financing mechanisms?

Kenya said that it was confident that contributions would help meet the challenges and needs of today’s complex environment for humanitarian response.  The presentation on the role of Star FM had been very interesting, comprehensive and insightful; it was a template on how innovation could serve refugees and the wider communities.  What was the feedback on repatriation of refugees to Somalia, if this had been talked about on the Radio?

European Union said that it fully agreed that innovation could help the international community adapt to a changing global landscape.  It had witnessed and actively supported innovative processes, especially with regards to food assistance and shelter.  Approaches however often remained scattered and isolated to a specific context.  What were the main reasons for this situation and what obstacles had to be overcome for the humanitarian community as a whole to adopt new and wide-ranging approaches?

Japan said that it was vital to work in cross-sectoral cooperation with a wide range of actors.  During the Great East Japan Earthquake the smooth transport of supplies was impeded by the fact that those involved in distribution had not participated in the initial stages.  Preparedness was very important to maximize the usefulness of innovative techniques. 

Switzerland asked who had the “ownership” of innovation and how was the process driven forward.  Innovation needed quality control, so it was important to develop standards.  Who would do that, how would standards be developed, and who would control and monitor the whole process?   

Dominican Republic said that it was increasingly hit by natural disasters as a result of the effects of climate change, as were other Caribbean countries.  Efforts had been made to empower people through innovative approaches, so now the population demanded early prevention and relief from their authorities.  As a result, fewer lives were lost each year.  Communication helped people to receive adequate protection and relief.   

United States said that information tools were used more and more and asked how that had changed decision-making practices and responses during complex emergencies when information could be politically connected.  How could misinformation best be prevented?     

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees emphasized the importance of innovation.  It was nothing new and happened all the time, from the ground up.  What was new was the culture shift towards a more enabling environment for innovation, or safe zone, in which they could try things.  On inter- agency collaboration, it was important to share and exchange innovations and not re-invent the wheel.  Within the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there was an innovation initiative, highlighting existing innovations within the organization, connecting innovators at the field level, and giving them access to innovation.  UNHCR would begin testing in camps in Ethiopia a new shelter programme which would look at the technical performance of this new shelter concept and whether it could take its place within other shelter concepts used.

International Telecommunications Union said that it would like for everyone to look at the bigger picture and the need for infrastructure, as well as the importance of the private sector and private-public partnerships.  There was still a digital divide between developed and developing countries and urban and rural areas.  Member States were encouraged to include national broadband programmes in their humanitarian and development programmes.

MOHAMED OSMAN, Managing Director, Star FM, Nairobi, Kenya, said that one of the main issues discussed was the Kenyan Government’s decision to return refugees to Somalia.  According to refugees themselves, they were not ready to go back to Somalia.  Some agencies also made their decision not to return refugees to Somalia and requested the Kenyan Government to go back on its decision.  The decision on the integration system had also been bad in Dadaab.  After 22 years, refugees had not integrated into Kenyan society.  One of the problems in Dadaab was youth unemployment and youth gangs, or youth being recruited by Al-Shabaab.  Such problems had to be solved before returning refugees.  Southern Somalia was still relatively not at peace.

ELIZABETH RASMUSSON, Assistant Executive Director, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy, said that she hoped that they all “owned” innovation and stressed that they should create a more enabling environment for innovation and actively promote it.  Innovation required increased dialogue between the field and the Headquarters.  The way they shared information now had a huge impact on the way they worked.  For example, feedback received from beneficiaries helped to improve their programmes.  It was encouraging to see that private actors were now increasingly interested in forming partnerships relating to innovation.  It was very important not to bureaucratize innovation, because that could kill it, and not to compete for the ownership of new ideas.   

WENDY HARMAN, Director of Information Management Situational Awareness for the American Red Cross, commenting on financing methods, said that it all depended on how well they could identify private actors who could get the job done.  Forming easy partnerships was one of the biggest challenges they were facing today.  Collaboration and dialogue between partners were important.  The American Red Cross wanted innovation to be dispersed throughout the entire organization and become part of its operational activities.  Finding ways to bring about change was a challenge for large bureaucratic organizations, but innovation could advance in baby steps.  During the crisis in Haiti, it became evident that communications could make a huge difference to how natural disasters were handled.

VALERIE AMOS, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, referring to Haiti, said that it was a mixed picture but there had been positive innovations as well, such as mapping.  On sustainable development, the issue of funding for sustainable development was a gap that was very much recognised.  On the issue of what the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ role was on innovation, part of it was fostering an exchange of ideas.  It also saw its role as helping to link different partners with new actors, improving its own products and services and promoting the shift in culture that had very much been an underlying theme of today’s discussion. 

MASOOD KHAN, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, said that there had been a successful exchange of views.  The panel discussion had been focused and touched on the fundamental issues on the use of new technologies.  Innovation entailed a raft of tools and measures that would help stem and manage disasters.  Three important areas requiring further consideration were affordability, screening of information and financing.

VALERIE AMOS, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, thanked all the panellists and the refugees in Dadaab camp.  There was a need to think about standards to alleviate concerns, such as data verification, and a need to work with the private sector.  It was important to look at how they had maintained sustainable funding for innovation and how to better share information.  In terms of the answer to the poll question posed at the beginning of the meeting, answers were very evenly divided between the four possible answers.


For use of the information media; not an official record

ECOSOC13/025E


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