In the ’90s, an NGO called Potters for Peace started to work with local potters in Central America to develop ceramic water filters that are thought to remove 99.88% of water borne disease agents. They are now produced at over 50 independent factories in more than 30 countries.
A more high-tech solution for the same problem, is the LifeSaver Cube, a water filtration product born in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. It can carry up to 5L of water which is filtered and sterilized through the use of an inbuilt hand pump. LifeSaver Systems, based in the UK, is a private company; but the national Department for International Development and Oxfam were consulted during the development of the product, another example of how a for-profit organization can work together with the third sector to reach a common goal.
Other fascinating examples of collaboration between the private sector, the academia, governments and NGOs, have more to do with process innovation. The Cash Learning Partnership, for instance, formed by the British Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam GB and other partners, aims to promote appropriate, timely and quality cash and voucher programming in humanitarian response. Credit card company Visa is providing technical support.
Generally speaking, the inclusion of private organizations within the humanitarian system, could help foster a more entrepreneurial approach in a sector which has traditionally been risk averse. But, of course, it’s much easier to say this, than feed it into practice.
Oxford scholars Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom write, “innovation is already and irreversibly part of the humanitarian system.” The hope is that in the future, by creating shared definitions and principles, identifying good practices, and lifting barriers to ethical innovation, reseachers say, humanitarian actors will be more prepared to meet the challenges of our increasingly troubled world.