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The entrepreneurs easing suffering, one invention at a time

Paths to progress

The World Humanitarian Summit, which ended Tuesday, showcased a new generation of entrepreneurs using their know-how to help those in need. 

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    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a graffiti wall at the closing ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday.
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Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s efforts to help orphans in Ethiopia came with a startling realization: more than 1 billion people worldwide live without electric light.

So Mr. Eliasson put his talent to work.

The result was Little Sun, a solar-powered, daisy-shaped light that charges by day and provides hours of light by night to families across Africa – children doing homework, mothers with an in-home microenterprise, communities otherwise thrust into dark or forced to use unsafe oil lamps.

Volunteering in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, San Francisco civil engineer Tricia Compas-Markman was struck by the same impulse.

Seeing firsthand the ravages of using contaminated water, she came up with DayOne. The backpack-sized water purifying and transport system transforms the dirtiest water into safe – and safely transported – water from Day 1 of an emergency. 

Both Eliasson and Ms. Compas-Markman are part of a boom in innovation by individuals who want to make a difference. Marrying their creativity and smarts with a desire to help humanity, they are bringing life-saving devices, 21st-century technology, and more collaborative ways of meeting needs to people in crisis.

Little Sun and DayOne are two of the hundreds of products and new ideas for humanitarian response on display at an “Innovation Marketplace” at this week’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey.

Even those excited by the trend acknowledge there’s a limit to what such projects can do. “Ultimately it’s going to take crisis prevention and decisions at the top political levels to really address this,” says Nancy Lindborg, president of the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

But the participants at the Innovation Marketplace are evidence of a burgeoning creativity to deliver on smaller scales – a panoply of small steps to relieve human suffering and give individuals hope.

On one hand, the spread of technology means that people even in the most dire conditions have access to technology – just about every refugee has a cell phone – and can be accessed and assisted through it. At the same time, the daunting scope of the humanitarian crisis is only becoming more apparent, with 125 million people in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance.

“The innovative aspect of humanitarian response has been percolating for about a decade, but as awareness of an expanding crisis has grown, what we’re seeing is that the people with the skills, the energy, and the ideas for innovation are increasingly applying that spirit to making a difference in the humanitarian arena,” says Ms. Lindborg. “They’re drawn to this challenge, and that’s a good thing.”

But rising global interconnectedness also matters, as technology and expanded travel bind formerly disparate communities and countries more closely. One result has been a new generation of globally connected young people. 

“As Millennials have come into increasingly influential positions in companies, they're pushing for this involvement and they’re bringing with them this desire for new ways to do things,” say Michael Klosson, vice president for policy and humanitarian response at Save the Children. “A place of employment with the potential for social impact is the kind of company they want to be a part of, and more and more they expect that of their employer.”

Little Sun, big impact

At Little Sun, Marion Schruoffeneger is an example of the Millennial out to make a difference. In Istanbul, she’s staffing a stand in the Innovation Marketplace. But as the company’s Africa sales and business assistant, she works with local groups in West Africa to make the solar lamps not just a source of light but a small-business opportunity for young people. 

“Certainly I was attracted by how these solar lamps can provide a sense of security to women living in refugee camps and can make it easier for children to study at night,” she says. “But it’s also important that we are trying to promote entrepreneurship by involving local people in the sales of the lamps.”  

Marion Schruoffeneger, the Africa sales and business assistant for Little Sun, staffs a booth in the Innovation Marketplace at the World Humanitarian Summit. Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor

Another area of innovation is within the established humanitarian community itself.

The realization that $25 billion in annual humanitarian assistance – as big as that total may sound – is not enough to meet rising needs encourages efforts to find more efficiency, Mr. Klosson says.

“It’s not all about shiny new things, a lot of it is focused on finding better ways of doing things,” he says.

Confident that there were ways it could do things better, Save the Children created an “innovation council.” The idea was to bring together humanitarian workers, university researchers, and “business types with bright ideas” to collaborate with the objective of “saving kids’ lives,” Klosson says.

For example, when Save the Children realized that a high percentage of infant deaths in the first month of life were from blocked breathing passages, it took the challenge to collaborators in the research and private sectors. They came up with a simple device that doesn’t require a hospital or a skilled technician to use – and is now saving lives.

Governments, too, are pressing for new and more cost-effective ways of meeting rising needs with flat budgets. That is prompting governments to turn increasingly to the private sector and to non-traditional sources for ideas, says Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development.

“The Australian government is just one that’s pushing innovation and looking for that from the private sector,” he says.

Those efforts can not only help the world’s rising populations of displaced people, but also allow entrepreneurs to advance a new product.

When Joe O’Carroll sought to promote iris-recognition technology, he saw an opportunity to make life better for refugee families, too. On Wednesday, his company, IrisGuard, is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on a pilot iris-scanning system in two Syrian refugee camps in Jordan that allows refugees to access cash without an ATM-like card.

“These refugees already have so much disruption to cope with, but this system removes the anxiety of losing a card or having it stolen, while it preserves the dignity afforded by a cash system that allows them to manage the financial piece of their lives,” says Mr. O’Carroll, his company’s chief operating officer.

What entrepreneurs can't do 

Yet for all the small steps that engaged individuals are taking, the bigger problem is beyond their ability to fix, many experts say. Driving much of the need is violent conflict.

At a summit event, humanitarian intervention guru Antonio Danini of Tufts University blasted world leaders – and in particular the big powers of the UN Security Council – for failing to end conflicts like the Syrian war. The humanitarian crisis is not so much a problem of the humanitarian system, he said, as it is a failure of political leadership and the political system to prevent violent conflict.

In 2000, global humanitarian spending was split 80-20 percent between needs from natural disasters and conflict, respectively. Now, that has flipped, notes Lindborg.

Innovation and creativity from entrepreneurs have played an impressive role in improving crisis response – and that involvement will be essential as the world deals with climate change, she says. But suffering and needs will continue to grow unless the conflicts that disrupt people’s lives are prevented, she adds.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the humanitarian system in terms of our ability to alleviate and recover from natural disasters,” Lindborg says. “But none of this matters if it all gets tossed over by violent conflict.”

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