Skip to content
The Innovation Process
Humanitarian Parameters

Crisis-affected populations

The most important stakeholders in any emergency are those affected by the crisis, whether this involves conflict and political instability, natural disaster events, or health emergencies such as an epidemic or pandemic.

We use the term crisis-affected populations to refer to the individuals, groups, and communities that are directly or indirectly affected by a humanitarian crisis.

Crisis-affected populations are sometimes the target group for humanitarian assistance but they are also the first responders to humanitarian crisis – this includes local citizens, municipal government workers, community-based and faith-based organisation staff, volunteers, and social entrepreneurs, etc.

Crisis-affected people therefore often co-develop, support, carry out, and deliver humanitarian assistance themselves. The fact that many crisis-affected people have both of these roles (assisters and recipients of assistance) brings up two particular points innovators should be aware of when working with crisis-affected populations.

Vulnerabilities and needs

Natural disasters and conflict situations bring untold human suffering to civilian populations. Communities affected by floods, drought, famine or war might have lost their livelihoods, homes and their loved ones. There are therefore a range of vulnerabilities faced by survivors of humanitarian emergencies, and indeed, the humanitarian response architecture has been set up to respond to these needs through the provision of protection programmes, psycho-social support, health programmes, distribution of food items and cash-based transfers, the provision of temporary shelter accommodation, etc.

Furthermore, as covered elsewhere in the Guide, people living with disabilities, older people, children, pregnant and lactating women all have capabilities like anyone else to provide solutions, but they are also often disproportionately affected by disasters. They can be inadvertently (such as through damaged infrastructure making places more inaccessible) and deliberately excluded (such as through laws, policies and cultural norms) from receiving humanitarian assistance or taking part in the design of humanitarian innovations.

Similarly, there are often protection issues that arise in humanitarian environments, particularly for women and children. Best practice regarding protection needs to be fully integrated into any innovations. Guidance on this can be found in the sections on context and the humanitarian architecture in this guide as well as below. It is absolutely critical that time is spent understanding best practice in working with vulnerable groups and for inclusive design before embarking on an innovation journey.

Innovators must do their utmost to ensure that all vulnerable groups have access to the assistance that is being provided and are included in the innovation process as much as possible, using inclusive design techniques.

Resilience and local capacities

The second point is to consider the resilience and capability of the survivors of humanitarian crisis. Against incredible odds, many affected people, including refugees and displaced populations, show great resilience and often bring a diverse set of skills, experiences, and motivations to bear for not only finding new ways to solve their own problems, but also often contributing to their own communities.

Recent research has shown that refugee communities, for example, are vibrant and inter-connected economic spaces, where refugees play many roles as ‘beneficiaries’, employees, entrepreneurs, and customer (Betts, Bloom and Omata, 2012). This suggests that refugees and other disaster-affected people can be great ‘change makers’ in their own right, with incredible resilience in the face of “political insecurity, social discrimination, financial loss, and psycho-social trauma,” to “not only find new ways of personal survival, but … often [to] contribute to their own communities” (Betts, Bloom and Weaver, 2015).

Not only do individuals in crisis-affected communities demonstrate resilience and ingenuity, but local organisations are often incredibly innovative as well. Working closely with such organisations on innovations offers new opportunities to ‘localise’ humanitarian response. Ensuring that humanitarian action is localised – that it is locally relevant, meaningful, and sustainable – requires knowledge about local socio-cultural systems (Guay and Rudnick, 2017).

Such organisations, when they are embedded in the local community, have this knowledge. When the local community are engaged in problem identification through inclusive, user-centred design processes, people in these local organisations – using their local knowledge – hold often-untapped potential to develop game-changing innovations. Where such organisations are linked to larger national and international organisations, it requires the fostering of more equitable and meaningful relationships between international and local actors in the co-development, field testing, and scaling of such solutions.

However, actors at all levels of the system continue to grapple with how to achieve localisation in practice (Guay and Rudnick, 2017). Without inclusion in problem identification, solution design, and the decision-making process, local actors are kept from having ownership over humanitarian assistance programmes.

The box below spotlights just some of the ‘bottom-up’ innovation approaches that have been used successfully by local people and organisations in some of the world’s crisis-affected countries.

Symbiotic Innovation is a service-user-led innovation practice that is gaining attention in humanitarian contexts.

It is an innovation management approach that changes the relationship between the “service-user community” and the “aid agency” by integrating services users (affected populations and local communities) into the management and delivery of humanitarian services through equal and inter-dependent relationships that strengthen (not erode) community functions.

By leveraging “mutual learning through mutual action”, “creative adaptation”, “participatory design”, and other social-cohesion-building techniques and principles, Symbiotic Innovation might be relevant in thinking through what a locally-owned shared value innovation framework looks like.

In the context of humanitarian action, this means that affected communities are increasingly participating in the design, production and delivery of innovative solutions.

Such ‘bottom-up’ approaches have been examined in depth by the Humanitarian Innovation Project at Oxford University. Refugee innovation, as they termed it, recognises and understands the innovative capacities of affected populations and puts these communities at the heart of the process.

Autonomous Innovation uses “appropriate technology” and “technology justice” frameworks to present a grassroots, bottom-up, inclusive approach to innovation.

It draws heavily from participatory development, autonomous adaptation (ensuring adaptation processes are informed – and where possible set – by those who must adapt), and  jugaad (a Punjabi-Dogri word for ‘homemade fix’ or simply ‘workaround’, used for solutions that respond to the problems of everyday life in India).

Autonomous Innovation is encapsulated by five principles: it is inductive, indigenous, intuitive, inexpensive, and iterative. In short, “Autonomous Innovation refers to ‘good enough’ unaided innovations developed by people in low-income communities, producing solutions that iteratively respond to the challenges or opportunities facing their local situation and their interests and values. These innovations are often frugal, simple, and based on indigenous/traditional knowledge by nature.” (Bahadur and Doczi, 2016)


Crisis-Affected Populations and the ‘Digital Self’

Advancements in information communication technologies (ICTs) and a concerted effort by humanitarian agencies to invest in innovation and technology have fundamentally transformed the humanitarian sector.

New opportunities for more efficient, effective, and inclusive response have emerged. However, the development and deployment of emerging communication technologies, humanitarian information activities, and digital data services in absence of the requisite frameworks, protocols and tools for mitigating the risk associated with such practices, poses major challenges for contemporary humanitarian action.

A useful way to think of this aspect for crisis-affected populations is to think of each individuals’ ‘digital self’, we often think of the physical, emotional and psychological perspectives of individuals in humanitarian action, we now need to add in the digital perspective.

A recent blog post by Gus Hosein states, “Protecting the digital beneficiary—constituted of data beyond the beneficiary’s control—is even trickier for the humanitarian sector than protecting the physical person. While the sector’s organizations and institutions have become experts on the latter, there is so much to learn about protecting the digital person. No institution we can identify is doing this well, and few sectors must do so with such urgency. Despite much excitement in the sector for digitization, we aren’t yet seeing the same zeal for protection” (Hostein,2018).

According to Do No Digital Harm, “Those caught up in conventional violent conflict and natural disaster situations have to contend with digital exploitation, erosion of privacy, the so-called ‘spotlight effect,’ dis- (and mis-) information campaigns, surveillance, the fallout of data breaches, mishandling of sensitive information, and unintended disclosure of sensitive data that might be used to target them for immediate harm or subsequent discrimination.

“The protection of information systems, digital communications networks, and beneficiary data is therefore quickly becoming a prerequisite for effective, impartial, and accountable humanitarian assistance in today’s increasingly complex operational landscape.”

Much of this digital ‘zeal’ has driven a lot of innovation efforts in the sector. Therefore you need to ensure that if your innovation is collecting, storing, processing or using digital data regarding individuals in crisis affected communities that you maintain the highest standards of protection for that data and ensure that the dignity of the individual is maintained.

It is in this context that the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has developed the Signal Code and Core Obligations to serve as the first comprehensive and widely-recognised set of rights and obligations concerning matters of humanitarian information activities.

The Signal Code brings together “extant international humanitarian and human rights law and standards, as well as other relevant and accepted international instruments, that provide all people basic rights pertaining to the access to, and provision and treatment of information during crisis.” (2018)

The subsequent obligations attempt “to apply the foundational sources of ethical humanitarian practice to humanitarian information activities,” by “translating the humanitarian principles and related standards of professional conduct, which ostensibly form the basis of ‘humanitarian ethics,’ into the specific context of HIAs” (Ibid).

The Signal Code Rights

  1. The Right to Information
  2. The Right to Protection
  3. The Right to Privacy & Security
  4. The Right to Data Agency
  5. The Right to Rectification and Redress

The Signal Code Core Obligations

  1. Affected Population Needs
  2. Competency, Capacity, & Capability
  3. Agency of Affected Populations
  4. Minimize Adverse Effects
  5. Meaningful Consent
  6. Ensure Data Privacy & Security
  7. Reduce Future Vulnerability
  8. Coordination
  9. Transparent and Accountable

Further resources

Help Age International (2018). Humanitarian inclusion standards for older people and people living with disabilities
[A set of standards, key actions and practical guidance for including older people and people with disabilities in emergency responses]

Fletcher, H. (2006). The principles of inclusive design, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.
[Five key principles at the heart of inclusive design]

Child Protection Working Group (2012). Minimum standards for child protection in humanitarian action
[A set of standards developed to support child protection work in humanitarian settings]

Global Protection Cluster (2015). Guidelines for integrating gender based violence interventions in humanitarian action
[Practical guidance and effective tools to coordinate, plan, implement, monitor and evaluate essential actions for the prevention and mitigation of gender-based violence]

Unicef (no date). Including children with disabilities in humanitarian action
[A set of six booklets full of practical actions and tips]

Communicating with disaster-affected communities (CDAC)
[Tools and resources on communication, listening and engagement with crisi-affected populations]