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Humanitarian R&D Imperative - How other sectors overcame impediments to innovation

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Innovation, and R&D as a driver for innovation, could potentially have a significant impact on the humanitarian sector

With climate change and rising geopolitical tensions, the need for humanitarian assistance is only going to grow. Given the limited resources devoted to humanitarian relief, it will be important to increase the impact coming from current spending, and this means innovation. However, the humanitarian sector’s current spending on research and development (R&D) – a key driver of innovation – is fairly low compared to other sectors. To match even low-tech industries’ spending on R&D, humanitarian actors would have to invest $75 million in R&D annually. The UK Department for International Development (DFID), broadly recognized as the sector’s leading spender on humanitarian R&D, is currently investing an average of $8.2 million annually in this area. Unfortunately, this figure far outpaces spending by other humanitarian actors like UNHCR, UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières, and World Vision, each of which spends between $300,000 and $2.6 million of their own budgets on innovation broadly, including R&D as well as adoption activities.

But there are concerns that key impediments will prevent the sector from realizing the impact of R&D

Humanitarian actors have legitimate concerns that two key bottlenecks or weaknesses in the humanitarian sector’s innovation ecosystem would prevent and/or reduce the potential impact achievable from R&D investment. First, actors are concerned that there is a lack of investment-worthy R&D ideas and researchers. Some funders expressed that even if there were more funds available for R&D, they would not make additional grants because they do not receive enough quality proposals. Second, interviewees expressed concern that the sector currently does not adopt or scale innovations and that even if R&D investment resulted in high-impact solutions, they would not be widely adopted.

While these are valid concerns, other sectors face similar bottlenecks and still achieve significant impact

We examined case studies in six sectors that exhibit similar impediments to understand whether these bottlenecks truly prevent impact. We conclude that, first, these impediments are not unique to the humanitarian sector. Rather, we found them across not only each of the six sectors profiled here, but also in numerous other cases and sectors researched.

Second, other sectors still saw returns on R&D investment, despite these impediments. Concerns about these impediments are legitimate—they caused real challenges for other sectors, most of which had to devise solutions to overcome them. In many cases, these impediments slowed down the innovation process, and the journey from R&D to impact spanned decades, not years. Nevertheless, all the sectors we examined were still able to realize returns on their R&D investments despite the existence of these impediments. And in each case, upfront R&D investment was needed to jump start the innovation process and put in place the foundational building blocks to eventually realize impact.

Finally, we identified four critical success factors that surfaced consistently across the case studies and that are essential to realizing results from R&D when faced with these impediments: (1) Leadership by at least one strong facilitating actor, often with funding; (2) Existence or development of an enabling ecosystem or backbone infrastructure to facilitate R&D; (3) Continual investment in an innovation throughout the innovation funnel, including adoption; and (4) Strong evidence demonstrating an innovation’s effectiveness.

More R&D investment in the humanitarian sector should yield results—as long as it is accompanied by investment in the critical success factors

Compared to even the lowest-spending industries, humanitarian sector spending on R&D is lagging. To begin truly reaping the rewards of innovation, the humanitarian sector would need to increase its spending on R&D. At the same time, we believe the humanitarian sector must also achieve progress in the four critical success factors to smooth the way for R&D investments to ultimately yield greater results.