Lisa Smith

Thoughts On Strategic Transitions From Humanitarian to Development Work

I recently attended the 10th Annual Wege Lecture on Sustainability at the University of Michigan. The speaker was Larry Brilliant, who wears many hats, including president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and former Google vice president and the first executive director of, the company’s philanthropic arm.

Brilliant spoke about sustaining humanity and discussed his experience improving the human condition globally, as well as the current challenges the next generation will face as a result of population growth, globalization and unconscious consumption. (The video of the speech is here) Brilliant’s new role at the Skoll Foundation, directing the Global Threats Fund, requires that he examine and address both immediate and long-term challenges to sustaining humanity. However, based on his discussion of the topic, it would seem that the gap between these two formerly distinctive challenges is closing.

Citing Jared Diamond’s main points in the book Collapse, Brilliant pointed out that we will experience global ceilings on resources, increasing media surrounding inequalities and injustices, and widespread societal collapse rather than local collapse due to the interconnectedness of today’s communities (e.g. the recent financial crisis) in the foreseeable future. All of these points he brings up with the limiting factor of time, as in time to act. Brilliant suggests that our long-term challenges have now become connected in important ways to our immediate humanitarian challenges. We must learn, he said, to make decisions “under conditions of uncertainty.” He quotes Bill Clinton saying “the increasing disparity between the wealth of the few on top compared to the billions at the bottom of the pyramid is unequal, unfair, unprecedented, unstable [and] unsustainable.”

One of my takeaways from this discussion is that we must address our global inequities through sustainable (particularly environmentally-sustainable) development practices within increasingly uncertain and unstable contexts.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), outside of improving humanitarian aid practices, may present an opportunity for us to better examine this cross-section of modern change by innovating programs that consider the important transition from short-term (humanitarian) to long-term (development and beyond) ownership of projects.

The HIF provides one opportunity for organizations and individuals to create new solutions for effective humanitarian aid delivery. The fund is a product of the partnership between the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) and Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) (hosted by Save the Children UK) with funds from the Department for International Development and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Sweden.

According to its website, this is the first year the HIF is available to support the development of new ideas – “taking them from the drawing board or small-scale application to wider dissemination.” (More on this below). The fund was developed in part as a response to ALNAP’s 2009 report on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action. You can find a copy of the full report here. The report explores opportunities for innovating new ways to improve existing practices, norms, policies and rationales. ALNAP’s team of researchers finishes the report by describing ways to promote and enable positive innovation within the humanitarian aid model. The authors echo many of the themes discussed within the second edition of the BoP Protocol.

The ALNAP team and the authors of the BoP Protocol identify that innovations need time to develop as well as long-term investment. Additionally, they recognize that innovative processes should be given a safe and appropriate space for experimentation and innovation. Ultimately, both sets of authors suggest that experience and practice with a particular innovation/innovative model should be shared in a systematic fashion. Organizations that learn from each other’s successes and failures will be able to collectively move the field forward using continually improved best practices.

The parallels between the recommendations of the ALNAP’s report and field of BoP venture development work made me think more about the relationship between humanitarian and development work. It seems both schools of thought require the same support mechanisms for improvement and growth. While humanitarian aid typically refers to aid delivered during humanitarian crises or in an effort to alleviate immediate suffering, there may be opportunities for involvement of stakeholders from development oriented work.

Are there organizations that you know of that address both short-term humanitarian relief as well as long-term development projects?

How can we better integrate our perspective to consider long-term change from the outset of humanitarian aid delivery?

What types of models and innovations do you know of that work well in this transition process?

More background information:

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (the HIF) creates an opportunity for organizations to develop innovative projects and models that help address sustainable change in aid delivery, particularly within humanitarian efforts. If you are interested in applying, there are two grants available through this fund, one for smaller grants (up to £20,000) and one for larger grants (up to £150,000). The application for small grants is open until February 2012 and another request for large grant applications will occur later this year. In addition to more specific information on the types of grants, eligibility and selection criteria, proposal information is available directly from the HIF site here. Proposals and innovative projects will be judged based on their relevance/potential impact, approach/methodology, feasibility/effectiveness and team capacity/capacity to implement.

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