For this episode of Edge & Main, Future of Good’s podcast featuring the ideas, people, and innovations shaping tomorrow’s world of impact today, we sat down with Rahul Chandran, a world-renowned humanitarian leader and recent Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation.
Rahul has found himself working in some of the world’s toughest humanitarian contexts like Afghanistan and has led large scale policy, peace-building, and innovation efforts, including at the United Nations. Rahul was also the author and managing editor of Humanitarianism in the Network Age, a major report on the future of humanitarian action. The report argued that information was a basic need in crisis response and was described as a “turning point for the use of mobile and ICT in humanitarian crisis situations.
We met recently and sat down to discuss what a global humanitarian sector that’s fit for the many challenges of the 21st century looks like and we also talked about how to thoughtfully close down organizations—not something the people in the world of social impact like to open up about—but Rahul tells us why it’s about time we should discuss it and get good at it.
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Get us going here. How would you characterize the state of the global humanitarian sector today?
I guess I’ll give you three things. It’s in a state of flux because it is fundamentally overwhelmed by immense, rapidly rising and unmet need. Whether that’s the scope of the refugee crisis, the ongoing and increasing climate emergency or just needs and conflict ridden countries like Syria and Afghanistan, that continue to be unmet. It is underwhelmed at the same time by the lack of change. So, there have been calls for change, evolution, real revolution, everything in the system, for the last 10 or 15 years.
And this change hasn’t really happened. I suppose I’d say that the system is confused by its own reality because it’s actually not a system. It’s not a sector even really, it doesn’t have very clear foundations. There’s a general assembly resolution everyone likes to mention for the humanitarian principles, but it’s actually built on a little bit of an idea, which is that we meet need irrespective of where that need occurs. And that’s just unfortunately not true because meeting that need requires funding and that funding is political.
So there are serious problems facing the sector as whole. And the reason that I continue to engage and work in it is it that it is so deeply inspiring because there are thousands and tens of thousands of people. Often it is the people you see the least in the formal humanitarian sector or the large scale humanitarian sector, people from the communities with the fewest resources, with the least capacity who step in to help each other in times of need. And that is ultimately what the humanitarian imperative is about. And that to me remains one of the most profoundly inspiring things that I ever am privileged to see.
Tell us about this state of flux you see in the humanitarian sector.
Well, the, there’s been a lot of pressure on the system for the last few decades from the global South. Countries that are receiving humanitarian assistance have started to insist on having a greater say. Communities are saying, “Hang on, you’re not giving us the assistance we need.” Individuals are saying, “This doesn’t work for us. The way that this is structured doesn’t actually give us what we want. It gives us what you feel we should want and that’s not okay.” And that pressure has built in a sort of a wonderful way, and what you’ve seen is organizations have been driven by people and on the simple need around them.
These organizations have developed into a sort of full fledged international participants in the system. And they’re saying, “Hang on, it’s not just that I have a right to receive some of the money at the end of the rainbow.” Even that is a UN inadequately addressed problem. Not enough money goes to local organizations, full stop. We need a seat at the table and we need the ability to determine what is done and how it is done because we are the people that the system such as it is, serves. So who better to be shaping, guiding, and nurturing it than the people it’s supposed to serve.
I wonder if part of the tension is coming from the professionalization of the social impact space more broadly.
I’d actually say the professionalization as a positive response to this pressure because you can no longer get away with what I’ll call the “inadequate or incompetent.” At worst, it’s not common, but it happens. The incompetent provision of services just because we are “doing good.” And most humanitarian action is at its heart about doing good and is meeting an incredible need at a time of great urgency. And that’s a wonderful thing. It still needs to be done well.
There is still a professional obligation. It’s still public money. So I welcome the professionalization. I welcome the rigour that is slowly being introduced to the sector. Certainly it’s not actually where it needs to be at and there’s a long way to go. But with the introduction of that rigour, it’s started to become more and more apparent where we aren’t doing things well, where they aren’t sufficient to the task.
Give us a couple of examples where you are seeing areas of promise, when it comes to the future of humanitarian action?
There’s a lot that excites me, the organizations of networks, the work of Aarathi Krishnan at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent who is thinking about how to decolonize the way we think about the future, how to be radically inclusive in the way we approach building the system. And that’s brilliant. There’s also sort of smart community demand driven technology stuff. Meena Palaniappan is the CEO of Atma Connect in San Francisco. Atma Go is a neighborhood-level social network. I guess all of those examples happen to be women of colour. That is a function of increased inclusion in the system that is new and it’s wonderful. And it really, really is exciting. So it’s a great time to be in the humanitarian system, even if the system is struggling.
Let’s dive into the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI). Tell us a bit about the vision behind it and walk us through a few of the highs and low points in the journey.
The vision was quite simple. It came out of the World Humanitarian Summit, and the international community’s consultation process who all said the system isn’t doing enough. They said, “It’s not innovating enough, it’s not reaching enough people.” And they took a careful look at innovation. There is a lot of investment in startups. There are small grants for anything that you can claim is innovative and humanitarian. They are reasonably easy to find and so that’s great. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of pilots reaching a hundred people, 500 people, maybe a thousand people in rare cases may be maybe 10,000 people. We have 200 million food insecure people. We have more refugees that at any time after World War Two so we can’t be continually piloting programs that are reaching a thousand people.
We have to solve the problem of scale. How do you reach 100,000 people or a million people with innovations? And so that was the simple challenge. And by simple, I mean the not simple at all. It was the challenge that was posed to GAHI, and my Board let me dive into it. The problem is complex. You’re trying to reach women and girls who have been systematically excluded from education. When you’re in refugee or migrant contexts, they are further excluded than their original rates of exclusion bias, by a factor of three to one, which is not just going to be solved by money.
So, how do you build a systematic and systemic approach to scaling innovations to massively complex problems in the hardest places to work where it’s not simply going to be about injecting more money to do it. That was the vision. And in a sense that was also the high point of the journey. It became clear that without collective action, there was no way forward.
Scaling innovation in the humanitarian world is going to take millions of dollars of serious sustained long-term and failure tolerant investment. And we have to be realistic that governments don’t necessarily have that and aren’t necessarily comfortable with that. Their aid agencies and their budgetary processes aren’t set up to make that kind of investment. So we had to build pathways for people to sort of fund that kind of change, to find the right ways to work together, to invest in that kind of systemic change that allows experimentation in the public sector to go beyond prototyping to go beyond the Silicon Valley model of innovation and into a public sector model of innovation.
Well, what about private philanthropy? What’s your take on their level of support for experimentation and what level of risk tolerance?
I think there’s plenty of private philanthropy dabbling in prototyping and experimentation. I want to see private philanthropy understanding that it has the potential to provide the catalytic funding to allow things to get to scale in a way that governments can’t. There’s a gap right now in the sort of space between, let’s call it a half a million dollar grant and the five to $10 million grant that no one funds right now. It’s too small for governments. So, governments can let small amounts go on dabbling, but they can’t invest five million dollars and then have it fail or not work out exactly the way it’s supposed to.
This is where philanthropic capital could partner smartly with government, where as public capital may be willing to pay for the programming and the delivery. But it’s the learning. It’s the building of the innovation ecosystem. It’s the entire in the environment that would make scaling possible that no one is willing to invest in because that’s public sector. Humanitarian funds are seen as meant to feed people, not build a system. So someone’s got to support, enable, enhance, and empower that system with the capacity to really drive things to scale. And some philanthropists have started to think about this. The Hilden Charitable Fund released a memo outlining 15 areas where it thought philanthropic capital could help. What I am unsure of is if philanthropic capital has the humility, frankly, to do it, to understand that. It means they’re not going to control the entire journey to its end or control the outcomes.
Tell me, what was it like for you personally at that moment when you and the team decided that this is it, we’ve reached into the line, let’s close up GAHI.
It was emotional. It was exhausting. It was eviscerating. We built a great team. We had a great culture. We were doing things. It was really a privilege for me to work with and learn from the people that I was fortunate to have around me and the people that we were serving. To be candid, and I’d said this to the board when I was hired, that I didn’t want to carry on the organization if I didn’t think it could deliver that if the conditions were not appropriate for us to actually deliver on the mandate, the organization should be shut down because there are too many things in the system that just continue on and on. Yes, people have children and families and they need to feed them, but you hold onto a job for too long and actually if you occupy a space but don’t do anything, you prevent other things from emerging in that space.
So I just thought it was the right thing to do, to ensure that the organization shut down, given that it was going to be unable to fulfill its potential. It was a tough call. Was the donor community as supportive or as committed as it needed to be? The generous interpretation that global donor attention is focused elsewhere and on specific crises rather than on this sort of systemic investment. The less generous take might be that, you know, donors don’t want to seed control or see massive change in the humanitarian system. Both things can be true simultaneously.
If you just occupy space, then you’re going to prevent new things from emerging. Broadly speaking, what is the value in shutting things down and ending things?
I think the value exists if you move out of the space you’re just occupying that someone else could occupy then you leave the ground fertile for other people to take over. Maybe I was a cover crop, you know, I was there to put some more nitrogen in the soil for a couple of years time. Someone will come along and plant. That happens. I think that happens in part by, by just simply ceasing to exist and preventing other people taking over one’s space. And that is, I see that happening in some of the some of the initiatives that we had championed. We did a lot of work on ethics because we felt our ethical obligation was profound. Ethics have to be involved in the design of everything.
And that made me bake that ethical work into the sort of core DNA of everything we did at GAHI. And other people are picking up that work and carrying it forward. And that’s exciting to see that it will strengthen the ethical core of humanitarian innovation in a positive way. But it really boils down to are we going to learn the lessons of what we did wrong and the mistakes we made and the mistakes I made personally. One of the things I’m very happy and grateful to the government of Denmark and is that they are hosting a lessons learned exercise on the shutdown of GAHI. That process is going to be chaired by the former president of MSF; a brilliant, insightful, and thoughtful voice who sort of sees the humanitarian system but isn’t in a sense captured by the humanitarian system.
We can learn some hard lessons all of us and make those public, which we will, it gives us the opportunity to actually understand what might be done better next time. And there’s obviously sets of lessons for scaling humanitarian innovation, but also for how do you start up systemic actors in a system that doesn’t want to seed space, right? And the system that’s already frightened and overwhelmed, what does that process look like? What’s the right way to do it? So I think there’s a lot of lessons that could benefit not just actors in humanitarian space or in the innovation space, but actually all kinds of actors looking at significant systems changes. I think that that will be immensely valuable if it gets all done well in a world where we, empower, support, and grandstand the startup of things.
What do we need to do to build up our own courage and skills to shut things down?
I read a piece calling for a commission on humanitarian failure. I’m saying we need to begin that process of exposing our failures and being able to talk about them. And we don’t do it right now because there isn’t safe space. Donors don’t want to hear about failure. So we don’t talk about failures. So we miss the opportunity to learn. And this is something that’s sort of the VC and the Silicon Valley community does better. Failures happen. People dissect them, they learn and they move on. We don’t do that. There are no failures, right? There’s nothing ever actually fails in the international system. It might sort of falter and we’ll talk about it less and it’ll slowly and painfully disappear. That’s the attitude.
The length of time for which things cling on is astounding. And that actually denies us the chance to learn from our own experience and from the reality of that experience. So I think it’s really, really important that we create a space to talk about failure, invest in failure learning, but that we recognize the real donor imperative, right? It’s also not fair to just blame donors for that in the sense that donors are accountable to their parliaments and their parliaments don’t want to hear stories of failure. So we can’t just go around and say, we failed, we failed, we failed, we failed. We’ll stop getting money for anything and then donors will be unable to work with us. And everyone generally has good interests. There’s no malicious intent here. It’s just complex work in a complex system. So we need to build that safe space with people to have genuine reckonings. I actually also think it’s not just about the institutional reckoning, it’s also about the personal reckonings and personal growth. That’s also unheard of in our sector. We don’t invest in people, you know, we’re all supposed to be divorced from our entities.
I will say that, I shouldn’t say this in public, but most of the lessons I’ve learned in my career and the reason I suppose I had this job at GAHI was having struggled with large scale systems change at the United Nations and the leadership of large scale reform, reform of peacekeeping, the reform of the procurement process, reform of civilian capacities and various other things. And it’s all about the failures. I know it’s a mantra and it’s an over beaten mantra, but it is the failure that teaches you, but only if you actually have the chance to live from it. So the personal learning is really important.
What’s the role of funders and donors in supporting this type of learning?
It’s where, again, I will say I am deeply grateful to the government of Denmark for doing that for GAHI. We need much more of that. I’m just so grateful that it happened because I was always scared it wouldn’t. And it tells you it’s perhaps a worrying sign that I’m that grateful for something that might be obvious in a sense that something that should happen actually happened. And for me, that’s amazing. We need to create the safe space but I don’t know whether the commission on humanitarian failure is the right idea.
There’s smarter people out there with better versions of that idea and visions. But it is, again, a classic space where philanthropic capital won’t get glamorous return on its investment. If someone really wanted to help the humanitarian system set up a small think tank that actually really studies failure and takes those lessons and has the resources not just to study it and produce the report, but to teach people about it and talk about it openly and invest in it.
The innovation is happening constantly in the field. People invent in order to cope with reality. The reality is complex and hard. It all gets lost and the struggles get lost on the way because that’s never captured anywhere. And so capturing that stuff could be incredibly valuable. It’s the, it’s the layer of R&D, if you will, that every smart company does because it will fail and it’s okay to fail if you learn from that failure. That’s how you find your way forward. And that level in our system is so close to zero.