International humanitarian organizations are increasingly confronted with an urge to innovate. Innovation is now framed and described in strategic documents as key to be efficient and effective, a holy grail to be competitive in face of tight budgets and a growth in number and size of the sector. Humanitarians are “in scene”, present in competitions and calls for innovative “ideas”, in research papers, and in social media groups. New technologies, adopted products, dedicated labs and even academic courses populate the concept of humanitarian innovation. Companies also increasingly deliver combined services and new business models.
However, humanitarian organizations are, by virtue of their history and essence, innovative. The term humanitarian innovation, how it is used within the sector and in most of what is written about it, uses a “market” jargon and a mixed sense of identity and concretization. Humanitarian organizations exist from the need of rupture with common institutions and their processes, to achieve what governments, companies and the civil society cannot, objectives such as fulfillment of basic needs and equitable access human rights. They work in ways that respond directly to humanity problems. And, that nature makes them very different, even if complementary, than markets and governments.
The systematization of innovation comes in as a solution to address objectives that finally, are secondary for these organizations. Whereas the objectives of cutting across religions, genre and age to guarantee equal access to education or health is the ultimate objective of some of these organizations, innovation brings along a second kind of objective, often confused with a primary one, which moves the focus from the real problems they are addressing.
Innovation is not a result you deliver. Innovation is a means, a culture, a systematized process set to reach an objective. It is thereby embedded in processes all across an organization. Innovation is not, and cannot be an objective in of itself. In order to generalize good practices, international humanitarian organizations don’t need to adopt the discourse of the market. They can choose to innovate and create measures for it, but what innovation means to them must come from inside.