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Rethinking the International Humanitarian System

ThinkPlace + Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

 

In recent years, the international humanitarian system has witnessed huge changes. Crises have become more protracted and complex. An exponential growth in funding has taken place, and an emergence of ‘non-traditional’ donors has shifted the playing field forever. Despite these changes, the system is struggling to meet global demand. Attempts at change have resulted in small tweaks to current practices instead of disruption to the architecture and assumptions of the system. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) decided it was time for an international humanitarian system rethink.

ThinkPlace’s expertise in complex systems design led to an invitation from ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group to re-vision the global humanitarian ‘system’ through a human-centered design approach. Conducting research, ideation, and testing across three major humanitarian hubs: London, Nairobi, and New York, ThinkPlace created and led an international co-design process that began by establishing shared intent.

They conducted deep research with various groups including people affected by crisis, responders, donors, host communities, UN representatives, and government to gather human stories about the breakdowns and ‘pain-points’ within the sector. The research was used to inspire, provoke, and inform a co-design and ideation workshop in London where more than 50 humanitarian professionals and non-humanitarian ‘disruptors’ designed new concepts. The project explored what a future-state vision for humanitarian action could look like through a series of ideas. Of these, a smaller number have been developed into alternative models that aim to transform underlying assumptions, incentives structures and power relations in the humanitarian system. These models are being tested directly within the system and are already driving change.

The humanitarian sector’s rules and beliefs are derived from its Western origins and are so embedded in its institutions and culture that they frame the very nature of humanitarian work. This project represents a profound shift in how the customer, or ‘user’, of humanitarian aid is perceived in the sector – from passive recipient to individual community member with agency. This project emphasized the need for organizations to be committed in ethos but humble in delivery. They involve power that is shared and neither assumed nor imposed, as well as accountability that flows first to people and communities receiving support. The project proposed new models that increase value for the users themselves.

Just months after completion, this project is having widespread impact. The UK government is using Design Thinking methodology and the experience maps generated by the project to rethink their approach to cash-based assistance to refugees in Kenya and Iraq. And several networks of NGOs are already adopting outcomes of the project in their global work.


 
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