Reflections on the 2014 UN Global Humanitarian Policy Forum


Each year, the policy analysis and innovation section of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) blocks off the first week of December to gather at UN headquarters a broad range of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics and others for an intensive three-day reflection on the state of the global humanitarian system and its possible futures.

The event is called the Global Humanitarian Policy Forum. This year, under the banner of “interoperability” (the ability of making systems and organizations work together) and humanitarian action, Direct Relief was invited to participate.

UN OCHA Dec 2014

While a surprising succession of speakers criticized the term “interoperability” as unwieldy and nondescript, throughout the proceedings a clever and subtle shift of emphasis could be heard in the endless debates over data sharing and humanitarian effectiveness.

Rather than hewing to the path of negotiated inter-agency settlements (almost inevitably a political minefield), this year’s Forum zeroed-in on interoperability as an informational problem. Questions that arose included:

  • How can software mediate institutional interests in data security and competition?
  • To what degree is humanitarian coordination as such really a software problem more than a political problem?
  • What sorts of informational standards, from newcomers like Humanitarian eXchange Language (HXL) to standbys like Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) and Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), best allow software to play a greater and more helpful role in humanitarian coordination?
  • Can the shift to a more self-consciously informational set of problems in humanitarian space help to improve the relevance and positive impact of actors in the global humanitarian system amid a set of tectonic geopolitical shifts? (These shifts range from rapidly increasing wealth in emerging market countries, to new assertions of sovereignty and regional priority throughout the global south, to a startling set of post-financial-crisis shifts in the impact of private capital, the dissemination of mobile networked technologies and the potentially diminishing willingness of states to fund humanitarian action).

As the conversation shifted to more intimate group discussions by the second day, we heard compelling claims that humanitarian agencies may need to shift away from “innovation” per se as an organizing paradigm for humanitarian investment, in favor of pragmatic interests in “absorptive capacity” and appropriate technologies.

For more than a decade, NGOs have been funded to produce a huge array of pilot technology and data projects, the vast majority of which have had no impact whatsoever upon humanitarian operations. Representatives from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in particular emphasized that the humanitarian sector as a whole has been producing far more projects than can ever be meaningfully deployed in practice, leading to a classic risk of speculative crash and backlash.

Likewise, sacred cows of innovation funding, such as the imperative to take new technologies “to scale” as a demonstration of success, came under criticism for neglecting to think seriously about scale in ways that differ from private technology investments and which respect the multiplicity of spatial scales which define the problems that require humanitarian action.

As the Forum came to a close, OCHA marked out a series of new events over the next two years which will carry forward this discussion of coordination as an informational problem. Direct Relief, and through us our partners, will continue to be in the midst of this dialogue.


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