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Humanitarian Innovators Swap Ideas at Annual AidEx Conference

By Nicholas Rutherford, Neha Bhat | AidEx | November 8, 2013

CREDIT: Oxfam International (CC).

Neha Bhat interviews Nicholas Rutherford, event director of the AidEx humanitarian and aid innovation conference.

NEHA BHAT: AidEx was launched in 2011 and is now in its third year of operation. Tell us what influenced the creation of AidEx and how its annual symposium has evolved.

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: Besides the occasional conference, there was no European event for professionals in the aid sector before AidEx. Then as now, there was a big debate on the sector's effectiveness, and a platform was urgently needed to bring everyone together to consider more transparent and efficient delivery of aid.

In the commercial arena, I remember listening to the UN discussing ambulances for Africa at a defense show, surrounded by weapons and uniforms. I remember thinking: Shouldn't there be an alternative event where manufacturers can talk to the UN about products for peace?

The first AidEx event was exclusively focused on humanitarian emergencies but in 2012 we included development-related aid and now AidEx is a 50:50 mix of the two. It was created with direct input from the professional aid community. Since the very beginning, AidEx has relied on its steering committee to help ensure that we remain on the inside track, in tune with the key issues, and to better understand the community's complexities.

NEHA BHAT: AidEx gives out the Innovation Challenge and Humanitarian Hero awards at its annual symposium. Tell us more about these initiatives and how AidEx helps highlight the work of the participants.

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: The Aid Innovation Challenge is open to anyone who has an idea they believe could help people suffering from natural or manmade disasters around the world. Entries can come from individuals, inventors, design agencies, engineering companies, or young designers and engineers who are not currently working at a company/organization. It is a unique chance to pitch life-changing inventions to a panel of experts from the community.

The winning company or organization receives a free booth at next year's show, and individuals receive a cash prize. Last year's winner was India Impex with the Portable Solar Red Lantern.

The Humanitarian Hero Award aims to recognize individuals from the humanitarian and development aid community who make a difference in the communities they serve. Nominations are open to anyone, including those who work for suppliers, NGOs, and governmental and intergovernmental agencies.

Last year's winner was Dr. Abbas Gullet, Secretary General, Kenya Red Cross. The winner was publicly voted for on the AidEx website and was announced at the AidEx drinks reception at the event.

NEHA BHAT: Since 2011, conflict situations requiring humanitarian assistance have increased dramatically, placing an immense strain on resources. Do you think the current aid delivery system is equipped to meet these challenges?

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: There has been considerable change and improvement during the last decade or so. Most professionals agree that the commercial sector should be encouraged to help out, but this is a delicate issue.

About ten years ago there was a sea change in favor of pre-positioning. But nothing of scale has really happened recently to test the pre-positioning infrastructure. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has invested heavily as have many NGOs. There has been a gradual and progressive move in the right direction.

The crisis in Haiti benefited from pre-positioning but this was a new kind of urban disaster on a much bigger scale than ever before and no amount of pre-positioning would have made that much of a difference.

NEHA BHAT: Humanitarian aid delivery has come under criticism for its lack of effectiveness and sustainability. David Damberger from Engineers without Borders talks about it in his December 2011 TED Talk. You have often spoken about the need for collaboration with local counterparts and transparency to ensure increased effectiveness. Has the field of aid delivery been responsive to these criticisms?

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: Fifteen years ago, anti-corruption and transparency in aid were largely ignored. Since the mid-1990s, multilateral and bilateral official donor agencies have paid much more attention to these issues. A multitude of projects and programs were started throughout the world, supported by many aid agencies, yet over the past few years, the priority of good governance in aid has slackened. The strategies and programs that donors implement nowadays are concentrated more on the "supply side," while often ignoring the need for supporting measures.

But sustainability is driving improvement in procurement as NGOs turn to long-term development programs rather than short-term fixes. A good example is the UN. It is now procuring products by evaluating their five-year lifecycle rather than simply buying off the shelf, which is what happened in Haiti, resulting in millions of dollars of aid being wasted.

NEHA BHAT: More and more private corporations—IKEA and Microsoft, for example—are helping international organizations to develop aid solutions. IKEA is working with UNHCR to develop shelter solutions while Microsoft helps provide ICT solutions. How do you think other private corporations can get involved in international efforts to improve aid delivery and assistance?

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: Innovation is the key to improving aid efficiency. Introducing a competitive private sector drives this innovation, increases capacity, and reduces cost. As others see the success IKEA and Microsoft have in this area, it will inevitably drive more participation by other large businesses. This is already happening on a small scale with businesses like Lifesaver Systems developing water purification systems that are accessible and affordable on a large scale for NGOs.

Sunlite Solar has developed a sustainable lantern for refugees that was recognized at AidEx, winning the Aid Innovation Challenge. Polynor supplies disposable medical sanitation products, to help reduce the spread of disease and risk of infection.

With greater awareness of the pivotal role the private sector can play in aid and development, we will say a dramatic change and hopefully sufficient capacity to meet demand.

NEHA BHAT: Could you share your views on how the field of development and humanitarian aid assistance is responding to the challenges of climate change and issues of climate change adaptability?

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: Local, national, regional, and municipal authorities that were often bypassed in the past should form a central part of disaster response, and could play an increasing role in the future, as climate change promises an increased frequency of natural hazards, leading to more life-threatening famine and flooding. The environment and the nature of humanitarian crises are changing. The mechanisms for ensuring the quality of aid response need to adapt ahead of these changes to remain effective.

NEHA BHAT: In the next couple of years, which area do you believe is likely to see the most development in the humanitarian assistance sector?

NICHOLAS RUTHERFORD: Collaboration and innovation!

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Read More: Aid, Business, Development, Environment, Health, Human Rights, Innovation, War, Haiti, Africa, Americas, Europe, Global

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