Reflections from the Humanitarian Innovation Conference 2015 in Oxford, England

hip2015-banner-with-facilitating-innovationThis year was the first year I attended the Humanitarian Innovation Conference, a new conference hosted and created by the Humanitarian Innovation Project at Oxford University. Although the student registration fee was more than twice what I normally have to pay to attend academic conferences in my field, I was given a scholarship and decided to use part of it to attend and present my research at this 2 day conference. I can say, while extremely pricey, every second was well worth the money. Every minute of the conference was saturated with thought-provoking and challenging topics related to the work/research/needs of the humanitarian sector. While many topics discussed by plenary speakers and panelists became ‘themes’ throughout the conference, I will share a few issues that stuck out to me, and also my reflections on such challenging ethical questions related to this type of work/service. I will also share about some of the most amazing people I met who inspired me beyond measure.


Camp Mapping

One of the first presentations I attended was about “mapping” refugee camps in order to more accurately know routes to take through the camp during emergencies such as fires and evacuations. Because of both security and the fact that camps tend to grow quickly and spontaneously without planned streets/buildings, it is difficult to know where people are living and working. While most cities around the world may at least have one basic established map showing the primary streets, stores, and neighborhoods, refugee camps are so dynamic that it is extremely difficult to establish permanent patterns or understand the layout of the camp city. One researcher has begun to map a camp using a very basic helium balloon with a camera attached to it. She and her team would attach the balloon to a string and hover it above the camp as they walked around the camp area and took photos. They later used the photos to construct a type of picture where they fit all the pictures together like pieces of a puzzle. Involving the refugees living in the camp to help construct, repair, and fly the balloon created space for empowerment for those living in the camp. I loved learning about this, and I definitely see the need for more accurate and updated maps of camps. They are not typically available or accessible to residents due to security purposes, but I do wonder about the ethics of providing them to residents. It is a difficult question to answer, should we allow residents to own a map or not due to the possibility of it being accessed by dangerous parties.

Urban Agriculture: Mapping Green Space for Gardening

The second presentation in the Mapping session discussed the idea of using all available spaces in an area where refugees have been resettled in Dallas, Texas to grow food. I loved learning about this because of my own work with the Karen in Georgia who use their community garden to grow so much of their own food. In my research, it seemed that the Karen families enjoyed their ability to continue gardening and harvesting their own food in their new town in Georgia. It helped them maintain their familial values of foodways and working together.

However, this presenter asked a very important question that, to my extreme embarrassment, I haven’t necessarily considered: “Do resettled refugees want to grow food?”

If they want to ‘normalize’ their lives into the mainstream society, if this is something they tell us, we should consider the fact that growing food in a Western society is not nearly as common a practice, especially aside from hobby farming. For me, putting food on the table has never been dependent on the quality or quantity of the food in a garden. For some refugee families who, in their past, have had to depend on time-consuming gardening and hard labor in order to feed their families, gardening may not be something they want to continue upon resettlement. They may hope to move ‘up’ in their new lives by not having to spend hours in the dirt planting and harvesting food. They may want to be able to buy most of their food at the grocery store.

This idea challenged me and pushed me to consider my own research and relationships with Karen refugee families. With the growth of small hobby gardens among those of us who can afford to purchase food at the grocery store, perhaps promoting gardening has qualitatively different meanings for us. It doesn’t bring memories of pain and suffering to our minds. Most of us do not know what it truly means to be chronically hungry, desperate and dependent on food we grow. My privilege to garden for ‘extra’ food is something I have had to come to terms with, recognizing that resettled refugees may not want to do this even if it means cheaper grocery bills and time with their families in the garden.

Perhaps my ideas of gardening are only romantic, a stark contrast to what may be the truth for resettled refugees. 


This conference inspired so many ideas in my heart and soul.

1. One of the needs in the overall humanitarian sector is actually my passion, research. There is a need for developing a humanitarian methodology and theory that considers timing, fragile contexts, donors, and politics. Additional question to address with such a methodology are related to access to information: Who has access? Private donors? Non-governmental Organizations? Governments? The people themselves?

2. Database for such research. Depending on the ethics of publishing data related to refugee and Internally Displaced Person research, should there be a database that can be shared among all interested in order to make this work more efficient and less devoted to donors’ ideas and journal articles.

How can we make the most impact on people living in this world, not our own careers. 

3. NGOs, no such thing. Nongovernmental organizations are increasingly governmental – once we consider funding and policies.

4. Sara Pantuliano of the Humanitarian Policy Group in London spoke of the need for a humanitarian paradigm shift that is required because we are not making the progress we should be making. The world and how it works changes so rapidly, we have to catch up if we expect to make an impact. Humanitarian aid comes with stigma and controversy in many regions of the world due to the strings attached to the international aid, including westernized values and religiously affiliated intention. Country leaders or regional powers at play will literally REJECT aid because of this perception of imposition of western values. This is a problem that should be addressed by letting some of our pride down for what we hope our money does (i.e., religious conversion) versus the immediate needs of the population (i.e., shelter, healthcare, food, water). The humanitarian sector should learn to leverage local aid groups, potentially using technology and media to amplify the voices of those affected.

We need a humanitarian revolution, which requires introspective reflection. 


This was a major topic of discussion at the conference as well. Can we use and leverage technology to impact affected areas in need? If we can, should we? 

A representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross challenged the conference to consider progress vs. innovation. He said, “it’s about relationships, not solutionism,” meaning that we shouldn’t desegregate problems into small needs, and we can’t lose sight of the big picture as we apply small technological advances.

The search for and goal of solutionism is a problem. 

He also said, “Some problems need to be managed, not fixed.”


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