World Humanitarian day 2020 - Humanitarian Innovation, What, Why, How?




On August 19th, we celebrate the 17th World Humanitarian Day. Each year, World Humanitarian Day focuses on a theme, bringing together partners from across the humanitarian system to advocate for the survival, well-being, and dignity of people affected by crises, and for the safety and security of aid workers.

This year, considering that the work carried out by humanitarians has been made even more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic, UN OCHA decided to feature the stories of humanitarian workers. Have a look at the campaign #RealLifeHeroes, focusing on what drives humanitarians to continue to save and protect lives despite conflict, insecurity, lack of access, and risks linked to COVID-19.


The World Humanitarian Day is an opportunity for us to look back at the development of the humanitarian innovation ecosystem, making sure that the basics are set. How technology can help the global humanitarian crisis? What is humanitarian innovation and how can entrepreneurs enter that field? In this blog, we are featuring humanitarian innovation’s definition and potential impact as well the Pears Program’s activities related to this growing field.


What is humanitarian innovation?

Today’s emergencies are more protracted and complex than ever before. Over the past 10 years, the number of people affected by humanitarian crises has almost doubled, and the cost of international humanitarian aid has more than tripled. 79.5 million people are compelled to live away from home this year, according to the UNHCR report published to mark World Refugee Day in June 2020. There is a need to adapt to the current realities, join forces to address these global challenges and maintain human dignity.


There is a need to find faster, cheaper, more effective, and more sustainable ways to reduce global risks and work with individuals and communities affected by crisis and displacement, and eventually increase the resilience of the communities.


Humanitarian innovation is “an iterative process that identifies, adjusts and diffuses ideas for improving humanitarian action.” The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) explains that, “in contrast to standard programming, innovation is a process of creative problem-solving that seeks to generate new and improved ways of operating and to contribute to lasting positive change in how assistance is delivered and how communities can become more resilient.”


According to OCHA, a humanitarian innovation isn’t necessarily a new invention. It could simply be an existing product, process, model, or technology that is adapted to new realities.


As an example, Everest is a decentralized platform incorporating a payment solution with a multi-currency wallet and a native biometric identity system. The startup uses blockchain technology to help establish a legitimate identity and create a digital wallet, or more understandably, kind of like a digital bank account. Everest’s technology can thus be used as a means to verify identity, prevent human trafficking, store medical records, store vouchers that serve to provide food and keep refugees in contact with other family members. The ID authentication is a massive problem in humanitarian context, as highlighted by the World Bank’s Mission Billion Challenge.


To know more, read about inspiring initiatives of humanitarian innovation on our World Refugee Day blog.


How can interested entrepreneurs enter this market and what is the Pears Program doing to support humanitarian innovation?


We can identify two ways in order to enter the humanitarian market:

  • Develop a new technology according the needs in humanitarian settings and the NGO organisational processes

  • Pivot and adapt existing technologies to address humanitarian needs


Pears Program for Global Innovation has been operating for the last twelve years and its mission is to build bridges between the Israeli innovation ecosystem and the developing world in order to increase the relevance, professionalism, and impact of Israel’s contribution to innovation for development.


We have been operating in the two directions with a few programs in order to encourage entrepreneurs and startups to engage in humanitarian innovation.


Indeed, the Pears Challenge 2019, our venture builder program, was focused on WASH in humanitarian settings. A group of 25 entrepreneurs, selected over 300 applications, have brainstormed and worked for 4 months to develop new solutions addressing water or sanitation needs in humanitarian settings. Read more about the six promising ventures that came out from the challenge.


Pears Challenge 2019 participants during the validation trip in Uganda, in November 2019. From left to right: visit to MIT-Lab, visit to UNHCR, village Central Uganda.


Additionally, in 2020, we have launched a program enabling existing technologies to be field-tested in humanitarian settings: the Pears Program - IsraAID Pilot Fund. We have selected seven technologies addressing WASH and education challenges, identified by IsraAID field representatives.

The program was created to improve WASH and Education conditions for communities affected by humanitarian crisis through field testing Israeli technologies, toward their long-term, sustainable deployment. On top of it, the program is designed to tune technological development to the specific needs of humanitarian contexts and introduce it in an ethical, impactful, and locally-driven manner. A pilot is a necessary prerequisite for commercialization.


What does our partner IsraAID say about humanitarian innovation?

Naama Gorodischer, Senior Director of programs at IsraAID says: “In the humanitarian field, communities are constantly faced with new challenges, varying needs and different types of emergencies. Remaining flexible and innovative is key to completing our tasks. Innovation can come in the form of technology, adaptation of existing practices, or challenging perceptions of what is possible. This is complemented by appropriate adaptive technologies that make our responses more precise, adaptive and relevant. Now, more than ever, we must include communities in addressing those challenges, in finding the most appropriate solution and the most relevant technology to remain flexible and agile. No emergency looks like another, and neither should our responses. IsraAID is committed to working with communities and technologies to create the best plans to overcome the crisis.”


IsraAID's innovation activities: Left: Mathika, edTech platform teaching mathematics non-language based, is currently field-tested in Lesvos Regufee camp in Greece. Right: NUF technology in IsraAID's emergency actions.


What are the challenges of humanitarian innovation?

Developing effective, sustainable and financially-viable “humanitarian innovation” is challenging. Therefore a few institutions are existing in order to help and guide entrepreneurs who would be interested in entering this market.


Here are a few challenges to have in mind:

There is often a “clash of mindsets” between the entrepreneurs and the humanitarian world. Both parties need to adjust their approach of innovation, their vocabulary and their implementation processes in order to make a successful partnership. However, more and more agencies tend to develop the required resources to manage innovation, such as UNICEF Innovation or World Food Programme accelerator.


The customers in the humanitarian market are often not the end users themselves, but donors and humanitarian organisations. Whereas it is a B2NGO model, the technologies need to address the needs of the communities. Therefore it is important to connect the 3 groups of actors involved: the entrepreneurs, the practitioners/ donors and the beneficiaries (end users). Without such a strong connection, the technology may not create the expected impact, may entirely miss the scaling opportunity and even create harm for end users.


There is a key difference between innovation as an output and innovation as an activity. The humanitarian system has the ability to produce innovations, but struggles to take good ideas to scale quickly.


Some tips, as a starter:

  • Read more about humanitarian innovation (ELHRA): The Humanitarian Innovation guide by Humanitarian Innovation fund: The Humanitarian Innovation Fund supports organizations and individuals to identify, nurture and share innovative and scalable solutions to the challenges facing effective humanitarian assistance, available

  • Have a look at Response Innovation Lab Tool Kit: Response Innovation Lab (RIL) aims to complement the traditional humanitarian system by strengthening connections between response implementers and the holders of innovative solutions to their challenges.

  • Check out the funding opportunities available and the pilot opportunities - Subscribe to Pears Program newsletter here in which we publish every month the open calls for proposals!


The humanitarian market has a huge potential in terms of impact and financial return. However, the humanitarian settings are a complex environment and the challenges to enter this market can dissuade the entrepreneurs from exploring its full potential. Additionally, we believe that Israel’s innovation ecosystem can contribute to the development of the market and that way improve the humanitarian response globally. Therefore, at the Pears Program, we are dedicated to working with both Israeli entrepreneurs and humanitarian practitioners, guiding them for mutual understanding and constructive cooperation and removing barriers to unleash humanitarian innovation impact.


Anyone interested in hearing more about the potential of the humanitarian market, wanting to pivot or adapt its technology, feel free to contact us!


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