Refugee innovation: Humanitarian innovation that starts with communities

Alexander Betts; Louise Bloom; and Nina Weaver


How can people’s own creativity and ideas be supported rather than undermined by expensive ‘top-down’ innovations brought in from the developed world? This paper highlights how people engage in creative problem-solving in the most challenging environments and calls for a more people-centred approach to humanitarian innovation. Case studies illustrate how people’s creativity and ideas are part of a iterative, cyclical process of addressing challenges and creating opportunities in their particular context. This bottom-up innovation is understood as one aspect of a broader phenomenon of humanitarian innovation that is overlooked in favour of improving organisational responses to humanitarian crises.

Facilitating and nurturing innovation at a community-level requires:

  • A permissive environment with the right to work and freedom of movement
  • Access to connectivity (technology), education and skills training, and banking and credit facilities
  • Infrastructure and transport links
  • Transnational networks.

Further work is needed to better understand how international agencies influence the innovation capacities of affected communities, and how they can complement, rather than undermine, local initiatives.


  • Recognition of the capacity of crisis-affected communities to engage in innovation to increase support for and to inform humanitarian funding and programming.
  • Adaptation of humanitarian organisations’ research and learning capacity to understand context-specific opportunities and constraints to bottom-up innovation.
  • Support from national and international actors to create an enabling environment for innovation by crisis-affected communities.
  • Bottom-up innovation does not mean complete non-interference. Interventions should support community-based preferences and be based on participatory methods
  • Creation of a humanitarian funding mechanism responsive to community-led initiatives (rather than through local partners who may not always be representative of the community).


Betts, A.; Bloom, L.; and Weaver, N. (2015). Refugee Innovation: Humanitarian innovation that starts with communities. Oxford: Humanitarian Innovation Project.