There’s something about working at the nexus between innovation and humanitarianism that feels a little bit like you’re flying by the seat of your pants. You’re always trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, while at the same time balancing a whole range of different expectations, different understandings, and different pressures.

As humanitarian innovators we talk a lot about shared values and about core competencies. But, what we need to talk about now are ethics in humanitarian innovation. We need to talk about this right now, and we need to begin by framing this conversation in the context of the needs of field operations.

We need to think about creating a system of ethics for humanitarian innovation to ensure that when we innovate and push boundaries we do so ethically.

As we actively question and seek new solutions to humanitarian challenges, we must ensure that we don’t act unethically and, above all else, that we stick to the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, and impartiality.

This system of ethics should be accessible, understandable, and applicable to a range of unique contexts. This not only includes field staff, refugees, and our NGO partners, but new allies such as corporations and foundations.

So how do we make sure that when we put the end-user (in the humanitarian world, those we call “persons of concern”) are at the center of design and experimentation, that we do so ethically? And, how can we ensure that the now ever-evolving, ever-growing group of non-traditional actors and new allies also do the same?

Here are five things I suggest we must do as we create a system of ethics for humanitarian innovation:

1)  Involve, consult, and include opinions of colleagues serving in field duty stations from the outset. Unless field colleagues have some ownership, it’s just going to be another example of top-down management from Headquarters to the field.

2)  Make the system of ethics as accessible and understandable as possible for the range of actors in the humanitarian space. If it is accessible and understandable this will in turn make it easier for partners to apply.

3)  Keep humanitarian principles central, but don’t simply adapt what exists already. Innovation is new, and necessarily so. Have principles that reflect this.

4)  Remember that innovation is a new profession, or at least a new practice within our realm of work; we’re no longer going to be the custodians of any ethics that emerge – the new approach includes new partners, and spread accountabilities.

5)  Education and knowledge exchanges are going to be key to helping people to adhere to humanitarian innovation ethics.  This presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge will be how to clearly understand everybody’s position and approach; the opportunity will be using this to more closely align end games.

Photo credit: UNHCR/A. D’Amato


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