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Humanitarian innovation has rapidly emerged to become central to discussions about the future of humanitarianism. Innovation practices are framed as a means by which the humanitarian community can identify the paradigm shift that it needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. However, this framing is based on a misunderstanding of economic theories of innovation and particularly of the nature of humanitarian economics. The lack of both a true market and a profit mechanism in the humanitarian industry means that innovations can be generated but will never be sustained. Unless this obstacle is addressed – perhaps through emerging networked approaches to economic activity – humanitarian innovation will continue to be a dead end.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs

Language and its translation are important operational concerns in humanitarian crisis response. Information sharing, coordination, collaboration and relationship-building all revolve around the ability to communicate effectively. However, doing so is hampered in many humanitarian crises by linguistic differences and a lack of access to adequate translation. Various innovative practices and products are being developed and deployed with the goal of addressing these concerns. In this theoretical paper, we critically appraise the ethical terrain of crisis translation and humanitarian innovation. We identify ethical issues related to three broad themes. First, we foreground questions of justice in access to translation and its prioritisation in contexts of widespread and pressing needs. Second, we consider the relationship between humanitarian ethics and the ethics of crisis translation. We argue for the importance of attending to epistemic justice in humanitarian crisis response, and consider how Ricoeur’s conception of linguistic hospitality provides insights into how relationships in humanitarian settings can be understood through the lens of an ethics of exchange while also acknowledging the steep asymmetries that often exist in these contexts. Finally, we identify issues related to how translation innovations intersect with humanitarian values and humanitarians’ ethical commitments.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Editors’ Introduction
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
Digital Bodies, Data and Gifts

This is an initial exploration of an emergent type of humanitarian goods – wearables for tracking and protecting the health, safety and nutrition of aid recipients. Examining the constitutive process of ‘humanitarian wearables’, the article reflects on the ambiguous position of digital humanitarian goods developed at the interface of emergency response contexts, the digitisation of beneficiary bodies and the rise of data and private-sector involvement in humanitarian aid. The article offers a set of contextual framings: first, it describes the proliferation and capabilities of various tracking devices across societal domains; second, it gives a brief account of the history of wristbands in refugee management and child nutrition; third, an inventory is given of prototype products and their proposed uses in aid. It is argued that what needs to be understood is that, in ‘the making’ of humanitarian wearables, the product is the data produced by digitised beneficiary bodies, not the wearables themselves.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Building High-tech Castles in the Air?

Medical documentation poses many challenges in acute emergencies. Time and again, the reflection of those who manage healthcare during a ‘disaster’ involves some reference to poor, inadequate or even absent documentation. The reasons for this are manifold, some of which, it is often argued, would be negated by using technological solutions. Smartphones. Tablets. Laptops. Networks. Many models exist, and yet we have not reached a status quo whereby this single aspect of disaster response is fixed. Should we abandon technology in favour of a traditional paper solution? Perhaps not; however, it seems that the answer may lie somewhere in between. As simple as the problem might seem on the surface, its answer requires thought, investment and practice. And while it is being answered, it is essential to remain mindful of the hazards posed by gathering healthcare data: who owns it? Where will it be stored? How will it be shared? Academics and practitioners are equal guests at the table wherein this challenge is approached.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
Four Decisive Challenges Confronting Humanitarian Innovation

When former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon encouraged the humanitarian sector to innovate and create a new paradigm to respond to people in crisis, the sector answered with an unbridled number of new enterprises and laboratories to create tools, products and new initiatives. As these emerged, so did the reality of the changing complexity of communities in need of humanitarian assistance. The deterioration of the natural physical environment, along with burgeoning population dynamics and threats to humanitarian workers themselves, has tipped the balance of complexity beyond the capability of the system to respond effectively. The humanitarian sector as a whole must urgently commit to reconciling four critical challenges to reinvent itself and its effectiveness: reconciling the meaning of innovation; developing an overarching strategy that addresses the radically changing global context in which communities require assistance; agreeing on an integrated structure to deliver innovation; and addressing how innovation is financed. Unless the sector addresses these four elements, the action and effect of innovation will fail to realise the transformational change necessary, to respond to communities in crisis now and in the future.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
Architecture, Building and Humanitarian Innovation

Humanitarian innovation has come under considerable fire in recent years for its uncritical technophilia, its links with the private sector and its tendency to fetishise objects rather than focusing on politics and process. There are many examples of these issues in the shelter sector, yet this article argues that a clear distinction should be made between innovation and architecture. By comparing the Ikea-funded Better Shelter with the series of architectural interventions in Vienna, collectively known as Places for People, this paper argues that architecture can productively engage with humanitarianism not by constructing shelters but by designing at a smaller scale in a way that does not involve any building at all.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Rethinking Digital Divides by Linda Leung
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
Planned Obsolescence of Medical Humanitarian Missions: An Interview with Tony Redmond, Professor and Practitioner of International Emergency Medicine and Co-founder of HCRI and UK-Med

In this interview with editors Tanja R. Müller and Gemma Sou, Tony Redmond reflects on his long career as a professor and practitioner of international emergency medicine and founder of UK-Med, an NGO that provides international emergency humanitarian medical assistance and which hosts the UK International Emergency Trauma Register (UKIETR) and UK International Emergency Medical Register (UKIEMR). He questions the usefulness of prioritising innovation in medical humanitarianism and advocates aiming for the same duty of care that one would offer in one’s everyday practice at home. In this, Tony is also critical of the term ‘humanitarian space’, as it by definition proclaims an imagined geographical entity where normal rules should not apply.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs

Despite the imperative for change in a world of persistent inequality, racism, oppression and violence, difficulties arise once we try to bring about a transformation. As scholars, students and activists, we may want to change the world, but we are not separate, looking in, but rather part of the world ourselves. The book demonstrates that we are not in control: with all our academic rigour, we cannot know with certainty why the world is the way it is, or what impact our actions will have. It asks what we are to do, if this is the case, and engages with our desire to seek change. Chapters scrutinise the role of intellectuals, experts and activists in famine aid, the Iraq war, humanitarianism and intervention, traumatic memory, enforced disappearance, and the Grenfell Tower fire, and examine the fantasy of security, contemporary notions of time, space and materiality, and ideas of the human and sentience. Plays and films by Michael Frayn, Chris Marker and Patricio Guzmán are considered, and autobiographical narrative accounts probe the author’s life and background. The book argues that although we might need to traverse the fantasy of certainty and security, we do not need to give up on hope.