Humanitarian innovation and refugee protection
The global governance of humanitarianism has historically been state-centric (Barnett and Weiss 2011).When people are displaced by conflict, repression or natural disaster, the assumption is that the only viable response is led and coordinated by donor governments, based largely on a logic of charity.When a crisis breaks out, the humanitarian system – as an international analogue to the domestic welfare state – kicks in, and vulnerable people receive access to protection. The global refugee regime, for example, based around the role of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), enables states to collectively act to provide protection to people fleeing across international borders (Betts et al 2012). This predominantly state-led and state-coordinated response is crucial and saves lives. However, by itself, it has limitations.
First, it can be inefficient: humanitarian organisations may resort to the products, processes, and approaches that they have used in the past, even when they may not be the most efficient or effective available. Second, it can lead to dependency: the logic of charity underlying humanitarian response sometimes leads people to be caught in a situation of long-term reliance on international support. This can undermine people’s autonomy, depriving them of opportunities to use their skills, entrepreneurship, and creativity to help themselves and be a benefit to their host communities. Third, it can be unsustainable: long-term humanitarian assistance represents a drain on increasingly finite humanitarian budgets.
These challenges apply across the humanitarian system. However, they are starkly illustrated within so-called protracted refugee situations, in which refugees find themselves in an intractable state of limbo for more than five years, frequently confined to refugee camps in which they have no right to work and limited freedom of movement (Crisp 2003; Loescher et al 2008). Over half of the world’s refugees today live in such situations.When you speak to refugees, one of the most dominant responses is that they want the right to work, earn a livelihood, and move freely. And yet the dominant humanitarian model tends to crowd-out oopportunities for refugees to receive protection in sustainable ways that build upon their skills and talents. Part of this is a problem of host government regulation but part of it stems from the perception of refugees as an inevitable burden rather than a potential benefit to host communities.
In response to these challenges, this paper puts forward an alternative vision based on the role of ‘humanitarian innovation’. It understands innovation not as novelty or invention but as the adaptation of products or processes to a particular context. It is based on the recognition that there may be alternative, untapped solutions and solution-holders ‘out there’ that can provide new and better ways to approach the different sectors that comprise humanitarianism – water, sanitation, nutrition, communications, livelihoods, shelter, and health, for example. Furthermore, it is based on the recognition that sometimes private actors – including refugees themselves and businesses at the local, national and global levels – may offer creative and sustainable alternatives to state-led humanitarian dependency.