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Researching the role of technology, innovation and the private sector in refugee protection

Created in 2012, the Humanitarian Innovation Project undertakes research that rethinks the frontiers of the humanitarian system. Beginning with an initial focus on the role of innovation, technology, and the private sector in refugee assistance, it has expanded the scope of its work to four main sub-projects. The project actively engages with practitioners from across government, international organisations, NGOs, business, and crisis-affected communities. It has strong partnerships with UNHCR and the World Humanitarian Summit, and convenes the Humanitarian Innovation Conference.

Bottom-up Innovation

This work begins from the recognition that the emerging global debate on humanitarian innovation has generally been focused on improving organisational responses. Although important, this dominant focus risks missing an important perspective: the creative problem-solving of refugees and other crisis-affected communities themselves. This sub-project serves as a corrective to that, examining through extensive fieldwork the diverse ways in which refugees engage in bottom-up innovation. On a theoretical level, we have developed a conceptual framework through which to understand such processes and the barriers and obstacles that displaced populations face in innovation. On an empirical level, the work has examined a number of contexts including through research in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Jordan, the United States, and Australia. Outputs include Refugee Innovation: Humanitarian Innovation that Starts with Communities (RSC 2015) and Research in Brief: Bottom-up Humanitarian Innovation (RSC 2015). A monograph provisionally entitled Humanitarian Innovation: A People-Centred Approach is in progress.

Refugee Economies

This research strand explores a simple but crucial question: what difference does it make, in economic terms, to be a refugee? Although refugees participate in economic activities and markets in their host states, their economic lives are shaped by different institutional contexts that relate to being a refugee. Despite growing interest in this area, little theory or data exists. By developing a conceptual framework and methodology for exploring ‘Refugee Economies’, we investigate what makes refugees’ economic lives analytically distinctive and explain the factors that lead to variation in economic outcomes for refugees. Between 2012 and 2015, we carried out a large-scale study on refugees’ economic activities across four sites in Uganda. Following the success of this research, we are now embarking on research in Kenya, collecting new data in the Kakuma refugee camp and in Nairobi. We are working to develop the first panel data set on the economic lives of refugees, comparing two countries with very different regulatory environments: Uganda and Kenya. We are also collaborating with UNHCR Zambia to enable them to use our methods to collect refugee economies data in Zambia. The research aims to advance a better understanding of the economic lives of refugees, while informing policy and practice by rethinking refugee assistance. A major output is a book entitled Refugee Economies: Development and Forced Displacement, published by Oxford University Press in November 2016.

Military–Humanitarian Innovation

The military has de facto become one of the largest ‘humanitarian’ actors. Its research and development spending leads to outputs that are increasingly used for humanitarian applications, and it is present in conflict zones and humanitarian spaces around the world. Yet, mutual suspicion and misunderstanding often lead to sub-optimal outcomes. This sub-project has therefore begun to explore questions relating to knowledge creation, diffusion, and exchange between both communities. How do aid workers learn, adapt, and ‘rebrand’ military innovations for civilian use, and to what degree are military actors adapting humanitarian concepts and practices for their own use? What sensitivities, risks, and dilemmas do such interactions pose for humanitarian practice, principles and, ultimately, the lives of crisis-affected communities? In the past year, the project has explored military-humanitarian knowledge diffusion and exchange in areas such as networked technologies, remote sensing, and risk management approaches used in humanitarian natural disaster response. It has also explored the interplay of knowledge exchange between military and humanitarian medicine and public health in the wake of the Ebola response, as well as ‘bottom-up’ perspectives towards civil-military coordination amongst affected and beneficiary communities themselves.

Governance Innovation

Humanitarianism is generally understood to be apolitical and yet in order for it to be effective it needs to engage with and respond to its political context. This leads to a need for reflection on how the humanitarian system can adapt at an institutional level to better respond to politics at the global, regional, national, and local levels. It also gives rise to a more general challenge of how we can think creatively about the global governance of humanitarianism, enabling institutional design to be fit for purpose in the Twenty-First Century. This work takes a primarily International Relations perspective and seeks to inform policy-makers in better institutional responses. Key outputs to date are: two RSC Occasional Policy Papers called ‘The Post-Nansen Agenda: the global governance of environmental displacement’ and ‘Principles for Ethical Humanitarian Innovation’, a Foreign Affairs piece (co-authored by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier) on designing responses to the Syria crisis, and a forthcoming textbook co-authored by Alexander Betts and Emily Paddon titled The Politics and Practice of Humanitarianism (Oxford University Press).

To find out more about HIP, take a look at their website:

The team


Refugee Economies: Forced Displacement and DevelopmentRefugee Economies: Forced Displacement and Development

Written by Alexander Betts, Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan, and Naohiko Omata. Oxford University Press, November 2016

HIP2015: Humanitarian Innovation Conference

The second Humanitarian Innovation Conference took place in Oxford in July 2015. The theme for #HIP2015 was ‘facilitating innovation’. In the lead up to the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, conference participants worked together to explore the challenges of creating an enabling environment for humanitarian innovation. Full details can be found here >>

The report of the inaugural conference, HIP2014, is available here >>

Impact Case Studies

Humanitarian Innovation Project

HIP has a dual research and policy engagement mission. It is working not only to engage with a fundamental rethinking of the political economy of the refugee experience, but also to directly inform the work of humanitarian actors. Find out more >>

Refugee Economies in Uganda

The report Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions was launched on World Refugee Day 2014. Drawing on research in Uganda, the report sought to explore the economic lives of refugees. It has had a significant impact on policy, practice, and public debate. Find out more >>

Selected publications