The continued evolution of the humanitarian innovation concept needs a critical engagement with how this agenda interacts with previous and contemporary attempts to improve humanitarian action.
Accountability and transparency have been central to discussions of humanitarian action over the past two decades. Yet these issues appear generally to be given scant attention in the discourse around humanitarian innovation. The humanitarian innovation agenda is becoming a self-contained field with its own discourse and its own set of experts, institutions and projects – and even a definitive founding moment, namely 2009, when the ALNAP study on innovation in humanitarian action was published. While attempts to develop a critical humanitarian innovation discourse have borrowed extensively from critical discussions on innovation in development studies, humanitarianism is not development done in a hurry but has its own distinct challenges, objectives and methodologies.
I will focus here on concrete material innovations, most commonly referred to as ‘humanitarian technology’. Discussions on such humanitarian innovations regularly acknowledge the need to avoid both fetishising novelty in itself and attributing inherently transformative qualities to technology rather than seeing how technology may fit into and build upon refugees’ existing resources.