Technology in humanitarian programming: agility vs standardisation

Anna Kondakhchyan Humanitarian, ICT4D

Laura Eldon and Anna Kondakhchyan reflect on how new technologies are used in humanitarian work, and share learning from Oxfam’s experiences

Here at Oxfam, we are passionate about the potential for new technologies to support the delivery of high quality field activities. Crucially, we believe in taking a ‘responsible’ approach to the use of Information Communication Technologies (or ICTs). Essentially this means ensuring that we take a “do no harm” approach to introduction of digital tools: respecting privacy, enabling trust and balancing these concerns with practicality. In an organisation as large and diverse as Oxfam, navigating the most sustainable and impactful way of doing this can often be a complex job.

Just over a year ago the Editor of the third edition of the ‘Humanitarian Logistics’ publication approached us to contribute a chapter in relation to the introduction of ICTs into Humanitarian Programming. We took this opportunity to reflect on our combined experience of introducing the Last Mile Mobile Solutions (LMMS) digital beneficiary information management platform to Oxfam – a process which proved both cathartic and thought-provoking in equal measure.

While Oxfam has been integrating digital tools at the field level for some time, we have found that the path from experimentation to widespread adoption of new tools is rarely as straightforward as one might imagine. Drawing on an ‘Innovation Pyramid’ approach inspired by Gartner, our chapter explores how far, having started with a small-scale pilot of the LMMS system back in 2013, the platform has been mainstreamed across Oxfam programmes. It’s been an interesting reflection process thinking about how new tools are introduced to the organisation, and the tension between having the agility to try new things given the fast-moving pace of the digital world, versus the push to standardise to facilitate greater scale of engagement. Not to mention the accompanying support that needs to be in place to ensure appropriate and responsible deployments of such tools.

While the pyramid can be a helpful way of articulating approaches, it’s not without its limitations. Inevitably we find the process needs to be somewhat cyclical in nature to allow the flexibility to keep an eye on trends and ensure relevance as technologies and processes develop. And not all our projects take a linear path, which means that we might struggle to move down from the ‘Systems of Innovation’ phase to continue the journey into ‘Systems of Differentiation’. For tools that we do move down to the final ‘Systems of Record’ stage, the amount of work involved to reach this landmark can be significant, yet still requiring regular review given the speed with which the technology space moves.

New research into biometrics for example, highlights the need to stay on top of sector-wide developments, taking into consideration not just technological advances, but also important ethical considerations in how Oxfam operates as an organisation.  Advocating for the responsible deployment of digital tools whilst keeping on top of trends, we find, sometimes means being a lonely voice against the hype of new hot topics, questioning the rationale for technology choices and assumptions about their value add in humanitarian aid delivery. In recent months these have caused us to consider blockchain, biometrics, and Artificial Intelligence, to name but a few – ensuring our focus is on understanding the problem before we jump to a solution, and seeking to remain true to our core beliefs in relation to ethical and responsible usage.

While creating an enabling environment for Oxfam staff to model best practice usage of ICTs is fundamental, we also want to ensure that we’re able to engage with local actors to support them to navigate rich digital landscapes and make good choices.  We’re increasingly finding that this often requires a greater degree of flexibility than we might have internally given the different types of priorities local partners have. Do these challenges in testing and mainstreaming new technologies ring true for you? We’d love to hear from other organisations and practitioners about their experience engaging in this space.

You can download our article from Oxfam Policy & Practice and read it as part of the newly published third edition of ‘Humanitarian Logistics: Meeting the Challenge of Responding To and Preparing For Disasters’

Download the article

Susan Grace Duku


Rosa Polaschek

Rosa is a New Zealand qualified lawyer with an interest in corporate accountability. She is currently working in Oxfam GB’s Private Sector Policy team on business and human rights developments.