innovation | ethics | impact

How to effectively integrate innovation into NGO programming?

This was the core question Ophelie Namiech (from Mindset-PCS), Yau Ben Or (from Rural Senses) and David Githiri (from UNHCR Uganda) addressed this week at the Google for nonprofits summit.

We are sharing the highlights and core messages from the session in this blog post as well as an attached list with key recommendations for NGOs!

The article below and the attached list are joint contributions from Mindset-PCS, Rural Senses, and UNHCR in the framework of the Google for non-profit summit.

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Innovation. This word has been buzzing around our humanitarian spheres for quite some time now.

What does it truly mean for us NGO practitioners? Is it merely another buzz word or can it be a meaningful tool to help us improve the way we think and work, and increase our social impact?

As the nature of emergencies changes and development challenges are more complex and intertwined than ever before, current ways of conceptualizing and providing humanitarian and development assistance are being challenged.

There is a need to find safer, more cost effective, and more sustainable ways to support and work with individuals and communities affected by crisis, displacement, and inequalities. Aid actors and donors have been looking towards technology and “innovation” as vehicles for introducing these changes.

It is true that innovation and technology offer many opportunities.

First, innovation has the potential to increase the scope of impact and sustain positive change at scale. It can help connect with hard-to-reach communities using, for instances, drones to deliver medicines in remote communities; or maintain the provision of vital services despite harsh security challenges, such as virtual safe places for women and girls in war-torn countries; or promote diversity, inclusion, gender equality by addressing the unique needs of specific groups, for instance, with toilets for people with disabilities in refugee camps; or can help communities, like farmers, better prepare and mitigate risks related to climate change with early warning systems or remote sensing technology. Examples abound.

Innovation also offers opportunities for NGOs to reflect on their effectiveness and sustainability . For example, it can generate new ways of communicating internally and externally, or new means of collecting data to inform programming. It can also help NGOs explore more self-sustaining financing mechanisms, like circular economy models, to move away from the heavy reliance on charity-based channels.

Finally, it provides opportunities for entrepreneurs, start-ups and the overall private sector. Finding solutions to the world’s greatest challenges opens new business opportunities, such as providing low income communities with access to affordable, quality products and services around health, education, water and sanitation, energy, and finance.

Some large NGOs have gained the resources and institutional spaces to develop their own in-house innovation hub to develop technology and innovation that reflect their specific organizational and programmatic needs. But most of the time, innovation is about partnerships – new, creative, bold partnerships between start-ups, academia, NGOs, UN agencies etc.

The challenge however is that we often witness a ‘clash of mindsets’ between the ‘NGO /humanitarian sector’ and the ‘traditional’ innovation/tech ecosystem which embody two different worlds – each with its own priorities, approach, and jargon.

Yet both worlds have a great potential, together, to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

How can NGOs untap this potential?

Yau Ben Or, managing director at Rural Senses, a social enterprise which has developed a AI-based solution to engage communities more meaningfully, explained why NGOs should be less risk averse when dealing with innovation and technology: “Taking risks does not mean risking people”. Start-ups are ‘inherently user-obsessed’. The startup culture relies on using tools and methodologies to constantly capture user feedback and act upon it. This leads to incremental improvement of services and products.

Working with start-ups can help NGOs find faster solutions to mounting global challenges. According to Yau, “failing fast leads to more targeted solutions and saves long-term costs”.

Yau also raised the importance of ‘breaking the public/private silos’. Indeed, engagement, especially with the private sector, is imperative for the 2030 Agenda to succeed, and for NGOs and their partners to address the needs and maximize the resilience of the most at-risk communities in a meaningful, effective, and sustainable manner.

David Githiri, WASH coordinator at UNHCR Uganda, explained how UNHCR integrates innovation into its programmatic strategy.

Asylum seekers and refugees – mainly women and children – are often hosted in locations usually at the margins of society where access to basic services is poor or non-existent. These areas are usually underdeveloped and marginalized, making it extremely challenging to provide emergency live saving services.

“Such contexts provide fertile grounds to think outside the box, push existing boundaries and innovate: by testing prototypes, failing, learning and iterating quickly.”

David Githiri, UNHCR Uganda

For instance, IOT (Internet of Things) innovation is paving the way for real time monitoring and can facilitate stronger remote engagement with communities, and improve the accountability, quality, and cost effectiveness of services.

UNHCR recently won the prestigious EIC Horizon Prize on affordable High-Tech for humanitarian aid  from the European Commission for  its IOT water monitoring technology.

The innovation uses LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network) Internet of Things (IOT). This technology is traditionally applied in Smart Cities, and was adapted to refugee settings to monitor emergency water operations in real-time (‘smart camps’).[1]

The humanitarian system is being challenged to do more, for more people, with greater cost efficiency and increase transparency. Smart City Internet of Things technologies have the potential to radically change the way organizations monitor humanitarian operations. With many refugee settings still in lockdown with COVID-19, the importance of real-time remote-monitoring has never been greater.

Creative thinking and bold partnerships beyond the ‘traditional’ aid ecosystem can maximize the true potential of innovation and technology in the humanitarian-development nexus, and provide an opportunity to build new best practices on resilience and sustainability.  This requires us to innovate, collaborate, and adapt mindsets.

Click on the link below to read the top recommendations that were shared during the session for NGOs!

Many thanks to Google for hosting the event, and to the speakers for their valuable contributions.

Picture credit on the blog menu: UNHCR.


[1] UNHCR installs radio communication infrastructure which has helped in hosting LoRaWAN gateways on existing towers. Coverage prediction software is used to map networks. When IOT devices are installed the strength of the network is checked using a Aduenis single strength tester.

Fore more information about alternative water delivery models in Uganda, see a joint contribution from UNHCR and the World Bank on “A paradigm shift on water delivery for Uganda’s refugees – Bridging humanitarianism with development”.

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