RSIS Roundtable on Humanitarian Technology and Innovation: Critical Questions and Implications for Southeast Asia

The Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programme of RSIS’s Non-Traditional Security Centre hosted a roundtable on 11th June. It discussed the critical questions that have arisen since humanitarian technology and innovation became a dedicated focus of the aid sector approximately ten years ago.

The first panel – comprising speakers from academia and the aid sector – raised three challenges stemming from the rapid adoption of new technologies in humanitarianism. These were first the legacy impact on local government/society relations of outside responders using new technologies to enable dialogue with those they are assisting, in pursuit of accountability to beneficiaries. The second was the particular challenge of privacy when collecting data in conflict or disaster settings, both of which can render data acutely sensitive in ways that do not apply in ordinary contexts.  The third challenge noted how new technologies are being deployed by civil society disaster response actors in China in a way that challenges government monopolies on emergency action. This introduces a novel, technology-based tension into the relationship between aid and politics. 

 The second panel – consisting of NGO and private sector practitioners – discussed specific experiences of innovating in East and Southeast Asian humanitarian response, and the lessons learned. These covered some of the pitfalls NGOs and private sector actors can face when collaborating with each other on innovative projects. Those challenges were particular stark for smaller firms and aid organisations. Finally, there was discussion of “solutionism” – of focusing excessively on particular answers instead of properly understanding the questions being presented to innovators – and how it can lead to innovations that at best do not respond to particular needs, and at worst undermine the effectiveness of aid operations. Paraphrasing one presenter, 90 per cent of time spent innovating should be dedicated to understanding the problem, and 10 per cent on proposing solutions.