innovation | ethics | impact

2021 humanitarian-development sector’s trends: our top-3 frustration list and top-3 inspiration list for 2022

By Ophelie Namiech, Mindset-PCS managing directorDecember 30th, 2021.

Last week, my colleague shared with me an interesting article on the 2021’s most overrated and underrated globaldev technologies. This prompted me to reflect on some of the trends in the humanitarian-development sector that frustrated me the most in 2021 (I had to limit myself to 3…) and those that intrigue, encourage, and inspire me ahead of 2022.

Let’s start with my top-3 frustration list – i.e. overrated trends, or trends I wish we would not see anymore in 2022.

  1. 1. Localization and aid decolonization paralysis: Everyone in the humanitarian sector has been talking about the importance of localization and the need to decolonize aid. I could not agree more. But beyond the hype, we all know that these discourses were very rarely translated into actual practice. This is due to the inherent structure of the aid industry (yes, I said industry) which lies on immutable contradictions, including the clear aid dependency most international organizations have an interest to perpetuate, or the politicized nature of a large part of humanitarian funding that curbs flexibility, adaptability and true independence. In 2022, we long for less philosophical discourses, and more genuine action on shaking up the deeply anchored status quo.
  2. 2. Innovation fatigue: Everything became innovation, but nothing seems innovative anymore. Last week, I interviewed a South Sudanese colleague working for a Community-Based Organization who wondered why, from 2019, donors and international partners suddenly started talking about innovation describing some of the activities his organization has been conducting for decades as innovative (e.g. using theatres to vehicle sensitive messages in communities):

    “They asked us to say that what we have been doing for years was innovative to get the funding, but innovation has been the very essence of our work with communities for decades. Every day we have no choice but innovate to adapt to a constantly evolving and complex crisis environment.”

    Likewise, because the innovation trendiness has become synonymous with funding, I have seen in 2021 (and before) too many organizations seeking to inject, very often from the Global North, uncontextualized, irrelevant and sometimes unethical products into geographically and cultural distant contexts – thus fueling the gadgetization of humanitarian-development work and contributing to a landscape of stagnating pilots that fail to scale. In 2022, we seriously need to curb tech-centric and solution-obsessed approaches and prioritize more systemic and demand-pulled ways of thinking and doing innovation.
  3. 3. The anachronic siloed thinking: In our sector, we love siloes. But, in my view, it does undermine our systemic thinking. Let us agree, once and for all, that the nature of emergencies have become so complex and protracted – and the needs so entangled – that the old traditional dichotomies between humanitarian, peacebuilding, development are outdated. And the same goes for innovation. As the ‘traditional’ humanitarian-development dichotomy is being redefined, innovation analysis should consider how this shift affects and/or shapes the innovation discourse and practice.

And now, to finish on a more optimistic note, here is my top-3 inspiration list for 2022 highlighting some of the trends I wish to hear more about in 2022.

  1. 1. Leaving the mainstreamed for a bit: At Mindset-PCS, our partners often ask us to conduct mapping of what is out there, what we know, what we see (e.g. humanitarian innovation trends). We love it, but in 2022, let us try and distance ourselves from the mainstreamed humanitarian-development discourse and practice and explore the unknown, i.e. what we don’t see nor hear about. There is an amazing world out there, “in the margins”, with a variety of perspectives and different ways of thinking and working that have the ability to really transform our conceptualization and delivery of humanitarian action. These could be: alternative indigenous innovation approaches, in Latin America (‘Buen Vivir’) or Southern Africa, that move away from the leading Silicon Valley innovation-generating model; or the work of local digital rights groups in the Middle East that tackle the role of big tech in fighting misinformation; or displaced communities who are changing the face of the innovation ecosystem in Jordan by bringing much needed light on social impact; or the quiet voices within the big aid industry. The list is long.
  2. 2. Looking at alternative financing methods: I am convinced. One of the answers to address the many gaps in the humanitarian-development sector is to move away from funding models that exclusively rely on traditional philanthropy. In 2022, the sector must further dive into alternative financing models, including: bold and creative ways to engage the private sector beyond CSR (CSR is the private sector’s version of philanthropy after all) by focusing on smartly linking the private sector’s commercial interests to social and environmental action; circular economy models; or (yes…I am going there…) cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and other scary concepts that are, in my view, at least worth exploring to disrupt our sector.
  3. 3. Continuing learning: One thing I love about our sector is the wealth of perspectives (not always visible) and opportunities that encourage us to continue questioning, reflecting, and learning. Whether it will be about collective crisis intelligence, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics for frontline humanitarian response, metaverse worlds as educational tools, blockchains and humanitarian cryptocurrencies, refugee-lens or gender-lens investing, humanitarian disaster risk financing, or other emerging topics, we have plenty to learn in 2022 to shaken up the status quo thinking and doing in our sector. 

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