Deforestation fire in the Amazon
Deforestation fire in the Amazon

NGOs need to include Indigenous philosophies and values in humanitarian innovation

Against the backdrop of global protests over racism and inequity, the humanitarian sector is facing a reckoning.

The sector’s deep roots in colonialism are well documented. Organisations are being challenged to reflect on how they are perpetuating a system of inequity and structural racism, and what they can do to change it.

At the same time, there has been a sector-wide move in the last decade to focus more on innovation in humanitarian response.

Humanitarian innovation in high-income countries (HICs) is associated with multiple approaches, such as human-centred design, lean start-up and integrated innovation. These approaches are heavily influenced by Silicon Valley paradigms and market-based ideology that commonly places emphasis on technology, access, economic efficiency, business models, and the potential for scaling up with geographical breadth.

In 2021, the Community Led Innovation Partnership (CLIP) partnered with Royal Roads University because we wanted to consider how to build a more equitable, inclusive, and global approach to innovation. The research interrogates the values that underpin Western practices of innovation and explores related non-Western and Indigenous philosophies that will help us to begin to decolonise the practice of humanitarian innovation.

Are dominant conceptions of humanitarian innovation perpetuating inequity?

Researchers have argued that innovation programmes tend to measure the value of an innovation based on whether it’s patentable, monetisable, or scalable, and represent ‘value for money’. From this perspective, innovation programmes are seen to have been co-opted and driven by the concerns and values of Silicon Valley.

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Imposing external, foreign ideas, concepts, and knowledge onto communities that invalidates Indigenous knowledge has been labelled “epistemic violence” or “cultural invasion“. It “actively obstructs and undermines non-Western methods or approaches to knowledge as the Other.”

The sector needs to understand innovation more expansively, in a way that respects and dignifies different perspectives and values.

What can we learn from Indigenous and alternative philosophies?

While Indigenous peoples and traditions around the world are by no means homogenous, philosophies related to innovation share similar notions of solving problems and driving positive change. They also tend to centralise on spirituality and interrelationships. Efforts to create and adapt new solutions for the community and overall social benefit retain traditional connections to the land and sky. Instead of focusing on the scaling of an innovation across geographical breadth, Indigenous innovators prioritise scaling across generations in their communities.

This research examined Indigenous and alternative philosophies such as Swaraj, Buen Vivir, and Ubuntu, as well as case studies of innovations from Brazil, the DRC, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The case studies collectively highlight a set of embedded values, such as equity and focus on collective good , that are often out of alignment with, and in some cases contradict, dominant Western philosophies of humanitarian innovation.

By focusing on relationships and collectivism, we learned that the social innovators, i.e. a person or group of people who design and adapt new solutions that could come in the form of products, processes, or services to improve the welfare and wellbeing of individuals and communities – in these contexts aim for equity, and valued equality of opportunity over profitability. Using their ideas, the innovators sought to promote self-determination and community empowerment and restore imbalances of existing social and political power structures. They did this by prioritising and investing in the community and collective good. They also sought to disrupt the stigmatisation of poverty by rejecting the predominant Western-based aid narrative of deficit. Instead, they promoted a narrative that nurtured and advanced the abilities and talents of community members. These innovators celebrated their local knowledge and expertise and sought to restore Indigenous values with a focus on sustainability of solutions across time and generations. Prioritising these values ensures new solutions are more contextually appropriate an ultimately impactful for communities.

Alternative philosophies in practice: Guatemala’s Pop No’J

Heavily influenced by colonial exploitation and systemic oppression of Indigenous communities, the founders of Pop No’J – a collaborative of Indigenous organisations, academics, and environmental activists – sought to find a solution to support Indigenous youth and future generations while promoting Indigenous identities and values.

Their model – a first of its kind in the region – focuses on programmes for Indigenous youth and community leadership that aim to create and encourage new leaders to promote change and create space for Indigenous voices in Guatemalan politics and governance. By empowering communities through leadership training and restoring Indigenous voices and values, their model facilitates both equity and mobilises self-determination across generations. Through an emphasis on sustainability, it prioritises protection of the earth – all critical Indigenous values.

Where do we go from here?

Based on what we have learned from this research, below are some recommendations for the sector on how we can shift our thinking and build a more globally inclusive approach to innovation:

  1. Interrogate underlying norms and values: This includes recognising and interrogating our own position of economic privilege, power, and geopolitical interest, and doing more to honour and enable local and Indigenous knowledges.
  2. Facilitate community ownership of the design, development, and evaluation criteria of projects: This includes developing locally relevant indications of a programmes impact that encompass more than economic impact, but that reflect alternative ideas of what counts as impact, and that support local knowledges and participation.
  3. Reimagine power dynamics through reciprocal collaboration and partnership: This includes not holding on to power and decision making as a funder or collaborator and intentionally shifting it to local innovators and communities.
  4. Rethink the value of scale: This includes recognising that scaling up can occur across time as well as continents, and so we should consider the environment and future generations. For many Indigenous communities, sustainability means the world must still be as rich for future generations as well as our own.

The report will be published on Elrha’s website in early 2022.This blog is based on research conducted by Athena Madan CCC PhD CPH, Assistant Professor, School of Humanitarian Studies, Olaolu Adeleye, MA, Associate Faculty, School of Communication and Culture, Ash Prasad PhD, Canada Research Chair, Critical Management Studies, Professor, School of Business, Walter Alvarez-Bardalez, DSocSci student, Kenny Panza, Human Security & Peacebuilding Alumni, Chafika Eddine, DBA student