The gap between the magnitude of humanitarian need and the global capacity to respond is massive and growing. Here we describe an attempt to map ways in which that gap might be closed (see ‘Top 10 Humanitarian Grand Challenges’).
Humanitarian crises directly affect more than 140 million people in 37 countries, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). More than 65 million of these people have been forcibly displaced from their homes — the highest level since the Second World War. Nearly 60% are currently in Africa and the Middle East, including in Turkey, Lebanon, Uganda and Ethiopia1. The rest include refugees, asylum seekers, people displaced internally, those not yet seeking asylum and many more.
Much of this humanitarian need derives from violent conflicts and civil wars that target civilians and their support systems, including shelters and hospitals. Much also follows natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and drought. With climate change, it is highly likely that some of these disasters will get worse and more frequent1.
All of these people need aid, and the funds available are increasingly inadequate1. Just one-third of the US$25.4 billion required for humanitarian aid for 2018 will be covered. In other words, the current humanitarian system is buckling. It desperately needs much more programme funding to close the gap. At the same time, it needs more funding for innovative solutions: uses of technology, products and processes from other sectors; new forms of partnership; and drawing on the ideas and coping capacities of crisis-affected people — in a way that is iterative and rigorously evaluated2,3. A balance of the two types of funding would help the humanitarian system to become more efficient and more effective.
To this end, humanitarian agencies met with governments, private-sector representatives, philanthropists and affected persons (people who were refugees, were born in refugee camps or who worked closely with such affected people) in November 2016 in Toronto, at an event convened by Grand Challenges Canada (GCC; see ‘What are Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation and Grand Challenges Canada?’). Participants agreed that innovation in the humanitarian sector would be catalysed by a list of priorities, systematically identified and agreed upon. Here we set these out, and describe how they were reached.
Participants agreed on the definition of a grand challenge as a specific critical barrier that, if removed, would help to solve an important humanitarian problem. They agreed that humanitarian assistance is aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during, and in the aftermath of, human-made crises and natural disasters, as well as aid and action to prevent such situations or prepare for them. Participants advocated the empowerment of affected communities, especially women and girls, and the inclusion of actors beyond the usual humanitarian community — such as youth, the private sector and affected persons. Finally, participants specified that action should be governed by the four humanitarian principles — humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence (see go.nature.com/2kb88h7).
The participants also foresaw the need to create partnerships around the identified priorities. The Toronto launch meeting culminated with a ‘dry run’ to identify a few potential grand challenges (see go.nature.com/2tjms5k). The participants asked GCC to identify grand challenges in humanitarian innovation through the Delphi method4, a technique that builds consensus using iterative feedback from dispersed experts. The participants also agreed to serve as the nucleus of the Delphi panel. There followed a three-round Delphi study, similar to previous exercises in health and disease5–7.
GCC built a panel of 68 experts in humanitarianism and innovation. Those who had taken part in the Toronto launch suggested one or two names from their networks to join (a technique called snowball sampling). Also invited were ten affected individuals who had attended the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in May 2016 and were recommended for the Delphi panel by an official of UNOCHA. These included, for example, the founder of the Feminist Dalit Organization, which represents the discriminated group in Nepal known as ‘untouchables’; a refugee ambassador for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and a nominee for the 2015 US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award.
Sixty people took part in at least one of the three rounds. The first launched in January 2017; the last closed in July 2017. All communication with panellists was through e-mail.
In the first round, each participant answered the following question: ‘What one grand challenge, if solved, would make humanitarian work more effective and efficient for the long term?’
Panellists submitted 106 answers. We lightly edited these to ensure consistency (deleting duplicates and collating analogues). This generated 83 unique statements. These we grouped into categories including: financing, economic empowerment of affected communities, gender equity/gender-based violence, digital identity, documentation/data management and tools.
In round two, panellists chose 20 challenges of these 83, and ranked them from 20 (highest priority) to 1 (lowest). Scores for each statement were then summed across all participants to identify an overall top 20.
In round three, the panellists ranked their top 10 from these 20, with 10 being the most important. Scores for each statement were then summed across all participants to identify an overall top ten list (see table, in which the rankings have been inverted so that the priority with the highest cumulative score is ranked first). In the second and third rounds, participants were encouraged to add comments or suggestions for rewording or combining statements.
Of the 60 panellists who participated in one or more rounds, 50 completed round three (83.3%). This is a high response rate for this type of large-scale international study with dispersed participants. Only four of the ten invited affected persons participated in all three rounds of the study; the others struggled to take part because they were still living and working in crisis situations (a difficulty not unique to this study). For the other participants, the distribution of organizations, geographical regions, gender and expertise was not significantly different between those who completed all three rounds and those who did not.
For the final ten Humanitarian Grand Challenges, participants were also asked to suggest potential research questions (see table). Some challenges — denoted with an asterisk (*) — were reformatted and/or slightly reworded from the original submission to increase clarity and cohesiveness. Many participants also suggested important practical steps that are more actions than research questions (see Supplementary Information).
In a conference call in September 2017, panellists discussed designing and implementing partnerships and large-scale innovation funding programmes to address the research questions.
The ten humanitarian grand challenges identified in this study encompass many sectors. They call for a reduction of the distinction between humanitarian and development efforts. Of course, these do not cover all potential barriers or gaps in either realm. Some of these challenges are long-standing. To be addressed, they now need collaborative thinking, large-scale funding and leveraging of new technologies. Some have been tackled in ways that could do with more impact evaluation — for example, identifying the best way to deliver supplementary nutrition for poor families with young children in food crisis situations2.
Identifying priorities, as in this study, is just the first step in a long-term, continuous process of trying to effect change. Ideally, most of the research questions provided here will examine how to scale up solutions in specific locations, and in ways that will inform the global humanitarian community and help it to prepare for future emergencies.
Already, this initiative has begun to make a difference. In February this year, the US Agency for International Development’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID OFDA), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and Grand Challenges Canada launched a multi-million-dollar initiative to support innovations that engage the private sector and involve affected communities to provide, supply or locally generate safe water and sanitation, energy, life-saving information, or health supplies and services to help conflict-affected people. This initiative is called Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge (see go.nature.com/2kscfa2).
Within 2 months, 615 proposals were received from 87 countries; approximately 300 came from low- and middle-income countries, including more than 100 from countries in active conflict. Seed grants of around US$250,000 will be awarded to pilot projects, and grants of up to $1 million will be awarded to a select number of ‘transition-to-scale’ projects. Announcements are expected in late 2018. More funding partners are likely to join soon.
Once a robust pipeline of innovations is established, the challenge will be to scale them in a sustainable manner. With sufficient funding and effective partnerships, we hope to see progress on the priorities identified here.