A New Approach to an Age-Old Problem
We’ve all seen it too many times. The empty shelves of a rural health clinic. An expensive
piece of donated equipment collecting dust because of one missing part. Activities ground to
a halt because of a lack of basic essentials. Across all sectors, massive gaps in efficiency and effectiveness exist because of broke supply chains. Without meeting such fundamental
requirements, how can it be expected that more sophisticated innovations are ever realized?
In recent years, there has been important headway in addressing these problems. This
includes increased use of information technologies, a focus on coordination and upgrading
human resource capacity through training, certifications and the like. Yet, these
improvements have been incremental – not transformational.
The answer could be partially derived from technology but even that line of thinking is filled
with pitfalls. However, just as much as experienced humanitarians have seen gaps, we have
seen the failures of misapplied and inappropriate technological fixes. As Ian Bogost describes it, new fixes and conditions create what is known as precarity where uncertainty is heaped onto end-users which makes them worse off. The answer is not more technology, but instead the right kind, in the right place and in the hands of the right people.
The reality is that there are transformative technologies available that are – and, even more
importantly, in the future will be – available to those working to provide humanitarian aid.
Any approach, however, needs to start with a keen understanding of the context and
humanitarian principles. With this understanding, we do not support technologies or approaches that save labor such as “3D printed houses” or fixes that do not address issues of inclusion and vulnerability.
The other key element to understand is the type and place of technology. This can be
approached in several ways but two concepts are particularly illuminating. Appropriate
technology is one that is local and fitting to the context. This builds on the concept first
advanced by Fritz Schumacher in the early 1970s. Such technology suits the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental contexts in which it is used and promotes the self-sufficiency of those who use it. Examples include small-scale energy generation, various construction methods, different means of collecting and filtering water, and devices to increase mobility for those who have done without in the past.
At the same time, we are now living through an era of rapid technological change which has
ramifications that are still being studied and understood. Digital technology has accelerated a
range of developments allowing us to do things that would have earlier been viewed as
Our new approach, developed six years ago, is firmly grounded in the calls for localization. It combines and harnesses existing and emergent tech and techniques in humanitarian contexts in a variety of ways that addresses the problems discussed above. It is deeply rooted in participatory techniques (and the corresponding equivalents found in the commercial sector in what are known as human-centered design) that start to design and co-create solutions. Any aid agency worth its salt does this but what is special is that instead of relying on a slow, expensive and cumbersome supply chain, we make useful items in the field. We then openly share the objects and knowledge and try to get others to follow our examples.
For us, technology is simply a means to an end; tools that help achieve clear goals. We use exponential technology as well as appropriate technology to carry out local manufacturing in ways that have never been done before in the field. A focus on human-centred problem solving is more important than a simple application of technology. Instead of being weighed down by the constraints of traditional mindsets and bureaucratic inertia, we embrace complexity, abundance thinking and ‘skin in the game’.
Our non-linear process enables us to work across sectors whether DRR, search and rescue, health, WASH, livelihoods, education or food security. In following this process, we engage in a number of practices which help us arrive at novel solutions to very difficult problems. These include having a bias toward action, not differentiating between ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’ team members, and iterating by making lots of prototypes (which means allowing for failure but also for small successes that lead to bigger results).
Our growing list of programs and responses serve as evidence of this transformation. In Syria, our teams have locally-made health supplies and a rescue technology that has saved dozens of lives. We’ve made soap in northern Iraq that led to a four-fold increase in handwashing amongst children. In Nepal, we helped a local entrepreneur develop a new cookstove which he turned into a viable business. We have repaired well-digging equipment in South Sudan and made household-level water filters in Colombia. We have even made radio antennas (for a DDR-related activities), hydroponic gardens (in besieged conflict areas) and fixed damaged solar panels (following hurricanes). Each year we train hundreds of people in this approach. The results of this have been aid that is faster and less expensive but also better because it involves end-users. On average, we finding that items made can be done for a fraction of the price. And we are working on even bigger initiatives including distributed manufacturing and mass production.