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                  The meaning of humanitarian innovation
 Roza Freriks worked as a humanitarian expert and senior innovation manager for DCHI from 2016-2021. Before joining DCHI she focused on South Sudan, Somalia, and Lebanon working for organisations such as UNFPA and INTERSOS.
“So what do you mean by innovation”? It was a question I would get asked a lot when working as an innovation manager for DCHI.
Ever since the launch of DCHI a lot of my work consisted of actually making this coalition a reality. We had grand, hopeful dreams of making a big impact by supporting our partners in working together, but in practice faced all sorts of resistance. Doubts and scepticism would often be packaged in questions around ‘ethics’ in innovation, in extensive explanations of how ‘complex’ the humanitarian system really was or, finally, in explanations about all the different ways that the organisation in question was already doing lots of wonderful, innovative work.
I would try to listen, understand, and relate to their points, considering my own experiences in the humanitarian field. I know what it feels like to work in a crisis that the rest of the world seems to have already given up on. I too had held a humanitarian job that had developed professional standards to such an
extent that the daily lingo could be hard to follow for outsiders. And despite working for DCHI, even I wasn’t entirely convinced that private sector capabilities and interests would do the sector much good.
What innovation could really mean, turned out to be difficult to explain over a cup of coffee. However, once people started to experience
it themselves, even former sceptics could be turned into believers; myself included! I will never forget how in June 2018 we gathered engineers, energy companies, NGOs, and policymakers in a tent at the Ministry of Defense’s Fieldlab Smartbase. Not only did
we talk about what an energy transition could look like for the humanitarian sector, but everyone also got a chance to interact with a whole range of new types of cookstoves, shiny solar panels, and smart storage solutions.
Somewhere in that tent, ‘innovation in the humanitarian sector’ transformed from a slightly vague ambition into an exciting prospect. Imagining a shift away from diesel generators to solar panels, saving resources and increasing the impact of aid did not seem at odds with one another anymore. In fact,
it started to look a lot like a deal one could hardly resist! Collaborating with partners from outside the sector did not seem so threatening anymore, and it would turn out to be one of the most effective ways to integrate
the new topic of ‘Energy’ into standing humanitarian practice.
Working together with the EnDev (Energising Development) team of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) in the years after,
it was a great joy to support an increasing number of Netherlands-based humanitarian NGOs to take steps in the energy transition journey. Participants in DCHI accelerator programmes would not just talk openly and learn together about the energy challenges the sector faces, but they actually opened
up to a whole range of new partners that could support them in their journey with potential solutions. Over time, at least ten new partnerships were formed and more
than eighty different organisations got involved, which resulted in numerous real-life experiments and pilots in the field.
I never got to the point of having a perfect answer to that question ‘what does innovation really mean?’. But I experienced what it has come to mean to me. A lot of meaningful, fun, and exciting work around endless opportunities to always keep doing better.
Roza Freriks
Humanitarian Impact Re-imagined

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