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Organization and governance in the era of digital humanitarianism
Andrej Verity & Mary Milner

 

 Now: disruptive innovation in humanitarianism

When looking back at the evolution of the humanitarian system, one realizes that the current structure is the result of a century’s worth of innovation - experimentation, success and failure. Yes, the increased systematization of humanitarian action into standards, codes of conduct, policies, and procedures - or in other words, a ballooning of organizational structure - is the result of a century’s worth of innovation. V&TCs are now challenging the ‘status quo’ of humanitarian affairs and are regarded within the humanitarian community as having both benefits and risks for the system. They are presenting the humanitarian system with disruptive innovation.

V&TCs and the services they provide offer massive potential to benefit disaster response and affected populations. Therefore, it is the responsibility of both the V&TCs and the formal humanitarian community to ensure that their efforts are sustainable and continue to grow, adapt, and integrate. As seen through history, the problem of integrating volunteer movements and new technologies into humanitarian affairs is not new. Digging deeper into some of the “successful” V&TCs, it is clear that they are not so much a departure from the traditional system as one might expect, and therefore, the greatest obstacle to their integration may not be policies and procedures, but an acceptance from both sides that they are similar in nature will mutually benefit each other once they start working together constructively. But, how can they better contribute to the humanitarian system as it already exists? This question remains unanswered and, therefore, V&TCs as actors are seen to be a nebulous, unfamiliar, and unfortunately at times, an unwelcome addition to humanitarian affairs.

In looking back on past collaboration efforts between formal humanitarian organizations and V&TCs (Libya, Japan, Haiti and most recently the Philippines), it became very clear that effective collaboration is possible when a framework is established that allows the volunteer network to work organically, while still ensuring the reliability and protections that the humanitarian system requires. Such a framework is exactly why the Digital Humanitarian Network [4] (DHNetwork) was established and why guidance material has been drafted (Guidance for Collaborating with V&TCs [5] | Guidance for Collaborating with Formal Humanitarian Organizations [6]). It is also why V&TCs have pushed for clarity of Decision Makers’ Needs [7] which has resulted in the Decision Makers Taxonomy [8] and the workshop to define Decision Makers Needs in Sudden Onset Emergencies [9]. Providing relevant, targeted and properly presented information during emergencies is key.

UN-OCHA [10] has recently initiated a modest effort to define detailed use cases where V&TCs can improve, augment and amplify existing UN-OCHA products and processes. But this is just a tiny step towards the integration that is needed. UN-OCHA, and others, still need an interface with the V&TCs. This niche is where the DHNetwork has the potential to become the vehicle through which integration and effective collaboration between V&TCs and the formal humanitarian system can happen.