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ThinkPlace is working to rethink the global humanitarian aid system

Rethinking the global humanitarian aid system

International humanitarian assistance is a massive enterprise, reaching a new high of US$27.3 billion in 2016, employing more than 450,000 people, and comprising over 4,000 operational aid organisations.

But despite these booming figures, the gap between available funding and what is required has never been greater.



London-based  Overseas Development Institute wanted to address this discrepancy, and much more, in an ambitious project to reimagine the global humanitarian system, using the ideas of design thinking and human-centred design.

Given our expertise in designing for complex systems, ThinkPlace was only too pleased to come on board as design lead. The result has been a hugely-ambitious, two-year project that reflects an unprecedented attempt to rethink how aid is conceived and delivered, placing the recipients at the centre of a new governing philosophy.

In recent years, the international humanitarian system has occupied a rapidly-shifting landscape: Crises now more protracted and more complex than ever before. There has been exponential growth in funding. We’ve seen the emergence of ‘non-traditional’ actors and donors.

Despite these changes, the system is struggling to meet global demand, with some suggesting ‘atrophy, inflexibility and a skills deficit’ in situations that require speed, flexibility, and creative approaches to navigating the complexity of today’s crises.

ThinkPlace is working to rethink the global humanitarian system


Unlike in the business world, the end users of the humanitarian supply chain – affected people – are not its primary consumers. Those primary consumers are instead the large international organisations who buy humanitarian services provided by the smaller or local NGOs they subcontract, and the donors, who ‘buy’ a good conscience with the money and political weight they supply to the humanitarian endeavour.

This creates a tendency to think in terms of what goods and services can be supplied, rather than what people actually need, and leaves the sector highly vulnerable to the interests of donor governments and international aid organisations.

As one project participant put it: “The international humanitarian system might be at the centre for us, but if we put ourselves in the shoes of people affected by crisis today, the system is largely invisible or ineffective for them.”



This “design experiment” – known as Constructive Deconstruction - wanted to pull apart that way of thinking. Instead, it began from the proposition that in a humanitarian crisis, every person affected has access to basic services, safety, and opportunity, with the capacity to absorb shocks, and the agency to shape their future. This represents a profound shift in how the customer – or ‘user’ – of humanitarian aid and services is perceived in the sector – from passive recipient to individual community member with agency.



Conducting research, ideation, and testing across three major hubs of humanitarian coordination and practice –London, Nairobi and New York – ThinkPlace designers and ODI led an international co-design process.

We conducted deep research with various actor groups within the humanitarian sector (people affected by crisis, responders, donors, host communities, UN representatives, government) to gather human stories about the breakdowns and ‘pain-points’ in the current system.

These ‘human pathways’ revealed fundamental faults in communication, trust, empowerment, and visibility over the functions and flows of actors in the system. Pathway maps were then used to inspire, provoke, and inform a co-design workshop in London where a diverse range of more than 50 humanitarian actors (and non-humanitarian ‘disruptors’) gathered to ideate new design concepts.


ThinkPlace is working to rethink the global humanitarian system

Through profiling the various users of the system and some of their experiences, the initiative explored what a future state vision for humanitarian action could look like. Around 400 ideas were produced, 27 were shortlisted and four eventually selected for prototyping, testing and further development.

Each of the four represents an attempt to transform underlying assumptions, incentives structures and power relations within the humanitarian system.

1) Community-led response fund

Linking real-time, community-led assessments of need with flexible funding structures for rapid response

2) Relief watch

An independent watchdog evaluating the impact of humanitarian aid using peer-to-peer and top-down approaches

3) Humanitarian social economy

Connecting procurement supply chains of humanitarian actors with displacement affected community owned cooperatives for a sustainable social economy.

4) United beyond nations

A humanitarian network and platform where people affected by crisis can connect with responders and service providers who have a matching supply for their demand.




Constructive Deconstruction was awarded a Design Value Award from Boston-based Design Management Institute in recognition of the innovative approach and far-reaching impact it has displayed. The project is already making impact in the sector, provoking system level change, including:

  • The UK government is using Design Thinking and the experience maps generated by this project to rethink their approach to cash-based assistance to refugees in Kenya and Iraq.

  •  The NEAR Network of national and local NGOs from the Global South is using the ReliefWatch idea to develop a peer-to-peer aid rating system for its members, hold aid organisation accountable for their performance and their behaviour in crisis settings.

  • The START Network of both local and international NGOs is using the United Beyond Nations prototype to decentralise and devolve its own governance structure to give more authority and decision-making power to regional and local hubs.

  • The project has also informed humanitarian funding reform initiatives by The Rockefeller Foundation and The IKEA Foundation.

It is work that will continue to have impact – an example of what can be achieved when an organisation with bold vision and strong commitment pairs with a design network that is capable of driving change at a global scale.

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Overseas Development Institute

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