The Top Four Innovations in Emergency Response

Innovation is the word of the year in international relief and development. Here are four recent innovations we’ve seen in disaster response–and their potential downsides. 

1.       Plumpy’nut

Plumpy’nut changed everything. It saved the lives of more starving kids than ever before, by replacing the old f-100 formula (which tasted gross) with delicious, shelf-stable peanut paste. I didn’t require clean water and kids could eat it on their own. In addition to the innovation in product, Plumpy’nut is also an innovation in organizational structure. The product is patented, and it’s manufactured by a company, Nutriset, that sells it to NGOs.

Potential Downside: switching from formula to paste turned the whole system for treating malnutrition inside out. It changed the way that humanitarian groups categorized and treated starving children.  And the incorporation of a commercial product into the treatment of starving children makes a lot of people nervous.

More about Plumpy’nut at the New York Times.

2.       Crowdsourcing

Encompassing everything from gathering eye-witness reports for better media, solving problems through community expertise, or coordinating rescues of people trapped in earthquake rubble, crowdsourcing seeks to use the knowledge of large groups to change humanitarian aid.

Potential Downside: How do we make sure crowdsourced information is accurate? Will it make humanitarian response less professional, or of lesser quality? Is it all a big waste of time and energy that won’t lead to anything useful.

More about crowdsourcing

3.       Crisis Mapping

Crisis mapping is the field of using geographical information to enhance crisis response. One example is the Ushahidi platform, which is also a crowd-sourced tool. Other forms of crisis mapping may not be crowdsourced at all. A single person or organization can use GIS coordinates to map events, locations of humanitarian response resources or other relevant factors.

Potential Downside: It’s a big new way to think about data and how we use it. Information like the precise coordinate of aid agency outposts or IDP camps can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

More on crisis mapping.

4.       Cash Transfers

When disaster strikes, people exhaust their savings and resources to survive the disaster and its aftermath. Maybe we should give them money to get them back on their feet. In many famines, there is food for sale in markets but no one can afford to buy it. Maybe we could just give people cash to buy their own food. Providing cash stimulates local economies and lets people choose the solution that is most appropriate to their situation.

Potential Downside:In my opinion, it kind of calls into question the whole idea of capitalism. It implies that any of the existing humanitarian aid systems and models are unnecessary. And if done wrong, it can severely damage local economies by triggering inflation.

More on cash transfers

UPDATE FROM MARK:  More information on new technologies in disasters is available in the United Nations Foundation & Vodafone Foundation report New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts, co-authored by Patrick Meier of Ushahidi. Also, see Mark’s bloggingheads interview with Patrick Meier about his research into crisis mapping and crowdsourcing.