Five Ethical Principles for Humanitarian Innovation

Peter Batali, Ajoma Christopher & Katie Drew in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “…Based on this experience, UNHCR and CTEN developed a pragmatic, refugee-led, “good enough” approach to experimentation in humanitarian contexts. We believe a wide range of organizations, including grassroots community organizations and big-tech multinationals, can apply this approach to ensure that the people they aim to help hold the reigns of the experimentation process.

1. Collaborate Authentically and Build Intentional Partnerships

Resource and information asymmetry are inherent in the humanitarian system. Refugees have long been constructed as “‘victims”’ in humanitarian response, waiting for “salvation” from heroic humanitarians. Researcher Matthew Zagor describes this construct as follows: “The genuine refugee … is the passive, coerced, patient refugee, the one waiting in the queue—the victim, anticipating our redemptive touch, defined by the very passivity which in our gaze both dehumanizes them, in that they lack all autonomy in our eyes, and romanticizes them as worthy in their potentiality.”

Such power dynamics make authentic collaboration challenging….

2. Avoid Technocratic Language

Communication can divide us or bring us together. Using exclusive or “expert” terminology (terms like “ideation,” “accelerator,” and “design thinking”) or language that reinforces power dynamics or assigns an outsider role (such as “experimenting on”) can alienate community participants. Organizations should aim to use inclusive language than everyone understands, as well as set a positive and realistic tone. Communication should focus on the need to co-develop solutions with the community, and the role that testing or trying something new can play….

3. Don’t Assume Caution Is Best

Research tells us that we feel more regret over actions that lead to negative outcomes than we do over inactions that lead to the same or worse outcomes. As a result, we tend to perceive and weigh action and inaction unequally. So while humanitarian organizations frequently consider the implications of our actions and the possible negative outcome for communities, we don’t always consider the implications of doing nothing. Is it ethical to continue an activity that we know isn’t as effective as it could be, when testing small and learning fast could reap real benefits? In some cases, taking a risk might, in fact, be the least risky path of action. We need to always ask ourselves, “Is it really ethical to do nothing?”…

4. Choose Experiment Participants Based on Values

Many humanitarian efforts identify participants based on their societal role, vulnerability, or other selection criteria. However, these methods often lead to challenges related to incentivization—the need to provide things like tea, transportation, or cash payments to keep participants engaged. Organizations should instead consider identifying participants who demonstrate the values they hope to promote—such as collaboration, transparency, inclusivity, or curiosity. These community members are well-poised to promote inclusivity, model positive behaviors, and engage participants across the diversity of your community….

5. Monitor Community Feedback and Adapt

While most humanitarian agencies know they need to listen and adapt after establishing communication channels, the process remains notoriously challenging. One reason is that community members don’t always share their feedback on experimentation formally; feedback sometimes comes from informal channels or even rumors. Yet consistent, real-time feedback is essential to experimentation. Listening is the pressure valve in humanitarian experimentation; it allows organizations to adjust or stop an experiment if the community flags a negative outcome….(More)”.