Prof Gina Neff outlines key challenges of tech innovation for the humanitarian sector in her remarks at the UN Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment

The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Humanitarian Affairs Segment (HAS) focuses on strengthening the coordination and effectiveness of United Nations’ humanitarian assistance. The segment is a key opportunity for civil society organisations to discuss current and emerging humanitarian challenges, and share experiences and lessons learned.

HAS 2024 took place from 25 to 27 June in New York on the theme of ‘Putting humanity first in the face of conflicts and climate change: strengthening humanitarian assistance and respect for international humanitarian law, and promoting effectiveness, innovation and partnerships’. The three-day event consisted of four high-level panel discussions on the themes of international humanitarian law, climate change, innovation and new technology, and women and girls.

Our Executive Director Professor Gina Neff was invited to provide remarks at the high-level panel on tech: ‘Embracing innovation and adapting new technology in humanitarian assistance.’ Prof Neff spoke about the challenges posed by technological innovation, what makes technological transformations successful, and where there are opportunities for the humanitarian sector. She outlined three key challenges for the sector to consider:

  1. New technologies present the opportunity for organisational and social transformation. Many people talk about the technology, but few focus on the organisational and social work it takes to use technology for change. How can humanitarian organisations use transforming technologies to deliver value on their missions while preserving their core values?
  2. The cultural values of organisations do not always match with what new technology can deliver. The humanitarian sector does not strive to “move fast and break things” like the tech sector. How can AI technologies be used responsibly and appropriately while meeting and matching the unique cultural values of the sector?
  3. Many AI models and new technologies make localisation harder, not easier. New technology can lock people and organisations into tools that are expensive, inflexible, and ‘brittle’ in response to change and local contexts. How can we ensure that the technological innovations we develop support teams on the ground to iteratively innovate around the emergent problems they face?

Prof Neff closed her remarks with a call to action to truly innovate: focus first on the problem, not the tech, to produce lasting success. Humanitarian organisations should scrutinise the unique organisational, social, cultural, and localised ways that they work before beginning an AI transformation journey.

Watch a recording of the panel discussion (begin at 41:07 for Prof Neff’s remarks).

Learn more about our Humanitarian Action Programme.