What do you get when you cross a doctor and an impact investor? A reviewer’s perspective on the Humanitarian Grand Challenge

Kirsten Gelsdorf

October 22-27 is Global Week at the University of Virginia. Stay tuned throughout the week for stories highlighting the global impact of Batten students, alumni, faculty, and staff. This blog was originally published by Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge.  

What happens when you have a Burmese doctor, a former head of MSF, an executive from Mastercard, a professor from Johns Hopkins University, a health specialist from a government agency, a former UN official, a Syrian refugee, and a venture capitalist all sitting at the same table? For starters, you have a range of different perspectives shaped by their varying backgrounds and professions — and what researchers insist are the best ingredients to become innovative. 
A few years ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin arguing that combining inherent diversity — traits you are born with, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation with acquired diversity — traits you gain from experience such as working in another country can be the key to truly unlocking innovation and creating an environment where “outside the box” ideas are heard.[1] While the humanitarian sector has long been talking about becoming more ‘innovative,’ last month I had an opportunity to truly experienced this practice come to life. 
In August, I was lucky enough to be part of an External Review Committee that evaluated the hundreds of proposals submitted to the Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge.  In early 2018, recognizing that hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people in conflict zones are currently unreachable by traditional humanitarian aid delivery, Grand Challenges Canada together with the United States Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA), and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) launched a call to find solutions to reach the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people in conflict-generated humanitarian crises. 
This summer they received 615 applications from 86 countries and ran them through an initial Innovation Screen that narrowed the pool to 222 proposals which were given to external expert teams that included four reviewers each—one with expertise in the proposal’s priority area (health, water and sanitation, energy, and life-saving information); one ethics expert; one private sector expert; and one person affected by conflict. 
Individually, we spent the summer evaluating proposals on the basis of 18 questions. Some of which included: “Does the proposed idea apply to the most vulnerable in conflict-affected areas and have the potential to address inequalities?,” “To what extent will affected people be meaningfully engaged in designing, testing and iterating of the proposed innovation?,” “Is there evidence provided to indicate the likelihood of success, and a rigorous assessment of project risks, corruption/bribery risks, risks of diverting aid, safety and security risks, and associated mitigation strategies?,” “Is there a connection with the private sector that will increase the likelihood of success?” Finally, in Augustthe review process culminated with everyone coming together and meeting in Toronto to debate and discuss their analysis. 
So yes, this all may sound fairly standard. But here is where I think the magic happened. Around that table in Toronto discussing health and water and sanitation projects, Grand Challenges Canada brought together that inherent and acquired diversity. There were not just traditional humanitarian health and water and sanitation experts. In fact, there was an astonishing range that included a researcher, an operations manager and a technical expert—all of whom had decades of experience funding or carrying out global health projects and also decades of practicing medicine in their home countries of Somalia and Myanmar. From individuals who for the first time were hearing about the use of prosthetics in the aftermath conflict but meanwhile had spent decades thinking about sustainability of funding and investment. This meant you had the expertise to combine knowledge on the latest published research on a topic about proposed funding models seemed sustainable, and how local populations may in reality respond to the interventions. 
What did that mean? It meant a discussion and evaluation process that was not held back by ‘this is the way we have always done things’; ‘this can’t work.’ Rather, it was more a discussion on ‘if this works, if this can be done ethically, could it dramatically change our ability to assist people?’ It allowed for the debate and the discussion to move beyond a singular focus on technical intervention as the driving force of innovation, and instead, also unearth perspectives on an intervention may actually reshape accountability practices or apply more ethical perspectives in experimentation.
Despite the innovation rhetoric, all too often humanitarian policy and practice is still siloed to those who have traditionally had a seat at the table, and ideas are incremental. This makes many people question if the ‘innovation agenda’ is just a fad or a buzzword. I think the Grand Challenges review process shows that it is possible to bring that rhetoric to life and change working processes. New solutions are around the corner. This is an exciting time.  

​Kirsten Gelsdorf is Professor of Practice and the Director of Global Humanitarian Policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, at the University of Virginia (UVA). Prior to joining the faculty at UVA she worked for over 20 years in the humanitarian sector most recently serving as the Chief of Policy Analysis and Innovation at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Her career also includes serving on responses to major emergencies including the Ethiopian Famine, the Liberian War, the Tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina, the Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake. She has a book coming out together with Daniel Maxwell, Understanding the Humanitarian World (Routledge Press, 2019). 

[1]Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation.”, Harvard Business Review, December 2013.  

Garrett Hall at Sunset

Stay Up To Date with the Latest Batten News and Events