Too tough to scale? Challenges to scaling innovation in the humanitarian sector

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Over the past decade, the humanitarian sector has started to invest more heavily in innovation, seeking new and more efficient solutions to humanitarian crises. Elrha established its pioneering Humanitarian Innovation Fund in 2011, responding to the sector’s need for more innovative approaches to aid delivery, and advocated strongly for an increased focus on humanitarian innovation, including at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. More recently, innovation units have become commonplace in the large agencies that dominate the sector, while innovation focused incubators and funding initiatives continue to emerge. While this is an overwhelmingly positive trend, investment in research and development in the humanitarian sector remains low compared to other sectors; the best effort to quantify spending to date on research and development identifies it at less than 0.2%.6 Given the increased investment in humanitarian innovation, however, we may expect to start seeing significant numbers of innovations beginning to achieve scale. Although we are seeing some examples of innovations that are scaling or have scaled, in the main this is not the case. This is because:

There are significant barriers to scale in the humanitarian sector which are inhibiting innovations reaching their full potential. These barriers increase the time, effort and financial investment required to scale, and are preventing the type of transformative change we want to see.

The need to address these barriers is therefore critical. Not only does the humanitarian system urgently require the development of robust new solutions to make limited resources more effective, but it also needs to ensure that the limited resources targeted at innovation are used effectively and achieve the expected impact.

This report presents the key barriers to scale at both an operational and systemic level. These are grouped into five broad challenge areas for clarity. At the end of each challenge, we describe how the humanitarian sector is currently tackling the challenge and give clear calls to action for key humanitarian actors at both operational and systemic levels. We end each challenge with a set of questions to reflect on.

The report concludes that:

there has been significant progress on overcoming operational barriers to scale, but very little action is being taken to address the more complex, systemic barriers. To achieve transformative change, we need to address the key systemic barriers. These systemic barriers remain significant and intractable. To date there has been little or no action to tackle these. Moreover, they can only be addressed through collective action and collaboration.

The report’s Calls to Action highlight the most pressing priorities for scale. It concludes that we urgently need:

  1. Funding structures to support innovation. We are calling on donors to:

a. Make every effort to increase the level of core or unrestricted funding available in the sector, particularly for smaller organisations b. Ensure funding can be made available for evaluations - both for evaluations of current best practice approaches to provide a baseline, and for postinnovation funding assessment of an innovation’s impact c. Provide more longer-term funding to support innovations 2. Structural adjustments to the humanitarian architecture. We are calling on donors and global innovation actors to collectively define:

a. Pathways and incentives to enable humanitarians to mainstream the adoption of innovations into their programmes b. What we can adopt/adapt from the for-profit innovation architecture c. How we move toward more investment-style behaviours d. What individual roles are required to sustain an environment for investing and co-investing?

  1. Enhanced knowledge and insight. We are calling on innovation hubs/labs/ accelerators and global innovation actors to:

a. ‘Test out’ as yet untested pathways to scale and share case studies and insights thereby building on our hands-on experience b. Research and publish how many innovations that receive funding and technical support at an early stage progress to achieve scale c. Conduct more cross-portfolio impact evaluations, particularly looking at the impact of innovations over time


To show our commitment to addressing both operational and systemic issues, Elrha commits to continue to tackle more complex challenges, pushing the boundaries of our understanding and experience. We will continue to share best practice on how to scale. We will also work with our portfolio of innovation teams to ensure that, at the appropriate time, we produce high quality challenge briefs, increasingly robust impact assessments, and solid, detailed scaling and sustainability plans.
In addition to this, we will work with others in the sector to start to tackle some of the tough systemic barriers that we need to overcome if innovation is to achieve truly transformative change. We will work with key donors to develop a consistent and coherent approach to funding stages and risk management across the sector. We will also collaborate with the largest humanitarian organisations, and particularly gatekeepers or key decision makers, to better support this route to market for innovators.