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The Innovation Process
Humanitarian Parameters

Humanitarian contexts

Emergency response is carried out in different contexts, in response to different types of crisis or emergency events, that occur over different timeframes.

Having clarity about the situations in which your innovation might be deployed will help you to communicate your aspirations and design an appropriate solution. In our framework, the base of our box constitutes the context. This covers the geography as well as the typologies and issues outlined below.

Types of disaster

Disasters are frequently characterised by the hazards that drive them, the speed at which they occur, their severity, and the locations in which they occur.


Natural hazard-driven disasters

Natural hazards include earthquakes (geophysical), hurricanes (meteorological), floods (hydrological), droughts (climatological), or epidemics (biological). It’s the vulnerability of human populations and infrastructure to the impact of natural hazards and the disruption that follows that results in a disaster or crisis. In many humanitarian crises, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees can end up living in cramped and unsanitary conditions, leading to disease epidemics, such as cholera. These are sometimes referred to as secondary humanitarian crises, and recent examples of these include Haiti in 2010 and Yemen in 2017.

Conflict-driven disasters

Where an emergency is within and/or due to armed conflict, there are specific international laws, norms and standards that will dictate how humanitarian agencies should act. Conflicts can involve different types of armed actors such as state, non-state and mandated peacekeeping forces, and are often unpredictable, with periods of relative calm followed by acute surges of violence, sometimes referred to as a ‘spike’. Innovation in conflict zones presents its own unique challenges and requirements due to instability and logistical difficulties and the need to abide by humanitarian principles and standards. It is vital to ensure that any innovation activities are conflict-sensitive and adhere to the principle of ‘do no harm’.


Emergencies begin, and develop, at different speeds, but there are three main types:

  • Rapid onset: These are emergencies that happen extremely quickly, often with devastating impact. They may have little or no warning, like an earthquake, some warning like a typhoon or hurricane, or may be anticipated, such as an expected conflict or cyclical flooding.
  • Slow onset: Slow-onset emergencies are those where the signals of the impending emergency can be seen a considerable time before it becomes an acute humanitarian crisis. The classic slow-onset emergencies are droughts, which are often climate related and cyclical.
  • Protracted: This type of emergency lasts for years, and in some cases decades. They are most often a result of ongoing conflict situations, and often relate to refugee or IDP camp settings.


When a disaster occurs each humanitarian agency categorises the scale of the emergency and what this means for how they respond. The main reference point for emergency categorisation is the one used by the UN system. The UN has three categories of emergency:

  • Level 1 is a localised emergency.
  • Level 2 is an emergency that is at a larger scale but can still be dealt with within the capacity of the agencies, government and other actors who are present in-country.
  • Level 3 is the largest type of emergency and requires an international response, with the need for capacity and resources to be ‘surged’ into the country to help with the response.


In the past, the focus of humanitarian response has often been in rural environments or refugee camp settings. However, with increasing urbanisation, growth in the numbers of refugees and IDPs seeking shelter in other ‘host’ communities, and intense conflicts that limit access to affected communities, traditional humanitarian actors are working in different contexts and having to find new ways of working.


When people are forced to flee a conflict or disaster, they often seek shelter in either informal or official/planned camps. Where displacement occurs within a country (in the case of internally displaced people), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is often the lead agency in managing camps.

When displacement occurs across borders (in the case of refugees), UNHCR has the global mandate for protection and will lead or co-lead camp management with the government of the receiving country. Depending on the context, camp management can be delegated to other agencies, with UNHCR focusing on refugee protection processes along with government officials. The legal status of camp residents varies from country to country (Betts et at, 2015), and camps can last from as little as a few weeks, to decades.

There are often permissions required by the host government for humanitarians and other actors to access these camps, and the camp managing organisation will need to ‘sign off’ any organisation or individual that is working in the camp. In refugee camps, you need to be aware of the rules and regulations, and it is vital to ensure that you have the necessary permissions to work in these settings.

Camp settings – particularly in protracted refugee situations – can provide a relatively stable context for innovation, with a range of different services being provided. While camp settings have been the focus of many ‘top-down’ efforts to introduce innovative products and processes by the international community, they also represent a huge opportunity to harness the creativity and resourcefulness of refugees themselves, through participatory approaches and other modes of support (Betts, et al, 2015).


Many refugees and IDPs find shelter in host communities in urban environments, rather than camps. There are also significant disasters that impact urban areas. Humanitarian actors are struggling to become operationally effective in responding to urban crises. This is because:

  1. The urban context is characterised by complex, dynamic and interconnected communities, economies and political systems. This level of complexity is different to a number of the rural environments and coordinated camp infrastructures in which more traditional responses have occurred. Where IDPs and refugees are hosted in existing urban centres, their underlying vulnerabilities can intensify inequality, resource scarcity, competition, social conflict, and protection challenges during crises. These challenges are not addressed in a ‘vacuum’ but in a place with long-standing pre-existing infrastructure, social relationships, resource scarcity, and economic and political complexities.
  2. Urban settings pose unique challenges for both the people living in them, including displaced populations, and for humanitarian actors. In urban environments disasters have a disproportionate effect on those who are living in poverty, and those with vulnerabilities. Where urban settings are host to IDPs and refugees, they have usually experienced loss of assets, are staying in insecure housing, with limited social networks, and little documentation, resulting in poor access to services. Both poor and vulnerable residents of a town or city, and any refugees or IDPs seeking shelter in the city are often exposed to exploitation, extortion, organised crime, and antagonism from host communities.
  3. Operational elements such as data collection, communication, and coordination can be surprisingly difficult in urban locations. Particularly if the affected population are widely spread across a town or city.
  4. Where there is a functioning market, access to basic services and goods (like education, WASH, health, food, housing) are dependent on both the individual’s finances and their ability to access these markets.

Inaccessible locations

In conflict settings, such as Syria, Somalia and Yemen, where the intensity of conflict, political and bureaucratic restrictions, and violence targeted at aid workers limits the ability to physically access crisis-affected populations, new mechanisms and approaches are needed to deliver aid to otherwise inaccessible locations. When this is the case, aid agencies rely on remote-based management practices, which often involves the transfer of operational responsibilities to local partner organisations.

However, remote-based management practices tend to pose a number of distinct challenges for humanitarian actors (Guay and Rudnick, 2017; unpublished). This includes (but is not limited to):

  1. The inability to effectively monitor and ensure the quality of programmes. This is a particular issue for more intangible and important programmes, such as those addressing protection issues. It is widely considered that remote-based management reduces the effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian action, and this is particularly acute when it comes to matters of protection (Donini and Maxwell, 2013).
  2. Lack of approaches to understand and mitigate the transfer of risk from international to local actors and implementing partners. In addition to the technical difficulties in terms of monitoring and evaluating remotely-managed programmes and services, there is an ethical dilemma in the use of remote-based management when it comes to humanitarian protection: the transfer of risk to local partners and intermediaries without the requisite safeguards (guidance, tools, resources) in place to help local partners mitigate this risk (Zyck and Krebs, 2015).
  3. Bunkerisation. According to Collinson and Duffield (2013), bunkerisation is the “progressive withdrawal of many core expatriate personnel into fortified aid compounds, secure offices and residential complexes, alongside restrictive security and travel protocols,” which has “contributed to the growing physical and social detachment of many international aid personnel from the societies in which they work.” As bunkerisation hardens and remoteness grows, there is a greater likelihood that humanitarian actors or their partners “will do harm through their engagement,” as senior and expatriate staff relinquish the “accumulated understanding and knowledge of the social and political environment … [required for] effective security management” (Collinson and Duffield, 2013).

“We were on the ground in Juba to prove the water treatment system works in a humanitarian context and see if people can be trained to operate it. Most of that was achieved, but in summer 2016 the project was interrupted by deterioration of the security situation and all our partner staff were evacuated.” Caetano Dorea, Université Laval (interview)


One of the most significant security factors regarding emergency contexts is the type of conflict, whether ‘latent’ or ‘open’ in nature. How security is dealt with in such situations is key. Security can be defined as the absence of threats to the safety, well-being, and rights of an individual, organisation or community and their assets. When thinking about individuals, organisations and communities, the focus is on both the affected population in the emergency context, as well as staff and volunteers of the organisations seeking to provide assistance.

An asset is something of value that can be degraded, damaged, lost, destroyed, or otherwise harmed. It is becoming ever more critical for organisations to understand that such assets are not only physical, but also digital. Information gathered regarding any individual has the potential to be misused and ought to be protected from theft, loss, exploitation, distortion and disruption. For organisations, trust and acceptance within the local community is also a key asset that can enable an organisation to work more securely in an insecure environment.

Humanitarian innovation aims to develop solutions to the challenges faced by crisis-affected populations and the humanitarian actors who serve them. But working in emergency contexts presents a range of challenges and threats for conducting user research, designing activities, and pilot testing with crisis-affected populations. Insecure humanitarian environments are prone to both conventional threats as well as emerging digital threats.

Security Primer

We strongly recommend that you read our Humanitarian Innovation Guide Security Primer, which outlines security issues in more detail, as well as providing helpful advice and a list of key resources on various areas of security.

Further resources

European Interagency Security Forum
[More resources on physical and digital security]

World Vision International (2016) Good Enough Context Analysisfor Rapid Response
[Guidance to develop a short document analysing the country context and needs, key actors, sources of cohesion and division, and likely future scenarios]

Stuart R. Campo, S., Howarth, N., Raymond, N., Scarnecchia, D. (2018). The Signal Code: Ethical Obligations for Humanitarian Information Activities, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
[An attempt to apply the foundational sources of ethical humanitarian practice to humanitarian information activities]

FSG (2017). Systems Thinking Toolkit
[See pp 12-32 for an actor mapping tool]

Campbell, L.(2018) What’s Missing? Adding context to the urban response toolbox, ALNAP
[An exploration of whether ‘context tools’ can help improve humanitarians’ ability to think and act more effectively in urban environments]

CCCM Global Cluster (no date). What is Camp Management?
[Information on refugee camps and coordination]

UNHCR (no date) UNHCR Refugee Coordination Model.
[Explanation of UNHCR’s refugee response coordination model and the interface with broader humanitarian coordination structures]

Various authors (2018). The Remote Partnering Work Book.
[A useful starting point on remote partnering, and how it can become the prompt for better  partnering]