Innovation has reached a stage of maturity in humanitarian aid, but still faces two significant problems. The first is that often, the contribution made by innovators to humanitarian performance remains invisible. So much so, that when I started working on the HIF-ALNAP case studies of humanitarian innovation in 2014, I was worried I had stepped into a world of jargon and gadgets that was good at producing one-off ‘silver bullets’—and not much else. Instead, our research found that innovators and innovation teams have created measurable benefits and, along the way, have made a sizable contribution to the quality of evidence in the humanitarian system. Yet, sharing the learning and evidence generated by innovating teams, so that it can be picked up by the broader system, remains a challenge.
Second, while we are generating a lot of evidence of what works in individual pilots, as a broader sector, humanitarians have not made much progress on spreading these innovations more broadly. Donors have funded successful pilots for years. The question on everyone’s mind now is: how do we turn a good innovation into common practice? How do we assess whether an innovation that worked in one context is ‘scalable’, i.e. will be successful elsewhere, and can be replicated at a reasonable cost?
The Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA), a DFID-funded partnership between UNHCR and UNICEF, is addressing both of these gaps, and the potential for this programme was on full display when UNHCR and UNICEF brought together the five HEA teams in Lebanon in May 2017. One striking feature of DFID, UNHCR and UNICEF’s approach to managing the HEA is how much energy has been put into creating a collaborative environment for their grantees – something we identified in our research as a key factor for success – in order to support learning and reflection. Aside from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund’s Accelerating the Journey to Scale initiative, I haven’t seen a donor take such a hands-on approach to creating opportunities for grantees to learn from one another and to build their internal capacities for learning and evidence generation.
When it comes to the five HEA teams, while they feature many interesting differences, they also share similar challenges for scaling. Following these innovations will help UNICEF and UNHCR –and the rest of us—learn how scaling works in humanitarian education, and what factors can be looked at in the future to assess the ‘scalability’ of an innovation that has been successfully piloted.
For some of these grantees, the question is how to move from one country context to another: how can War Child Holland take a tablet-based education programme that was a success in Sudan and achieve the same outcomes in Jordan? And from that learning, how can they modify the programme so that it can be tailored to multiple other countries? What partnership strategies allow for the Libraries Without Borders’ ‘Ideas Box’ to be most effective in improving learning outcomes and psychosocial measures amongst refugee children, as they look to expand the roll out of their ‘Ideas Box’ to more settings worldwide? How can Kepler and the World University of Canada roll out their secondary and tertiary education programmes to new communities and countries across East Africa at a sustainable cost? And how will Caritas take its innovative holistic education programme for conflict-affected children, designed by a pioneering education practitioner, and train other educators to deliver this programme at a consistent level of quality across multiple sites in the Middle East?
These are all challenging questions of scale—HEA’s pursuit of answers to these questions will help build a better understanding within the sector of how and why scaling is successful for certain innovations and not others. In doing so, it will also serve as another example of innovators helping the broader humanitarian sector learn about its own performance and how to improve it.