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Humanitarian procurement: challenges and opportunities in the adoption of WASH product innovations

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The past decade has seen the emergence, growth and establishment of innovation as a prominent asset within the humanitarian sector.

Numerous innovation funds and programmes have been launched, supporting many new products, processes and services. However, scaling innovations continues to prove difficult for the sector.

This challenge was clearly identified in the middle of the 2010s (McClure and Gray 2015, Elrha 2018) and has since been the focus of a number of innovation scaling programmes. These include Elrha’s Journey to Scale, Creating Hope in Conflict: a Humanitarian Grand Challenge Transition to Scale, and the Education Cannot Wait-funded Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA), led by UNHCR. These programmes have provided invaluable support to innovation teams, but they have almost exclusively focused on supporting the ‘supply’ of innovations into the sector.
The adoption of innovations is an under-researched area, and it’s not well understood. That is particularly so in respect of the mechanisms, such as procurement processes, that support or inhibit this adoption. This report focuses on procurement of innovative products, and the flaws that need to be addressed. We examine existing structures that can inhibit the procurement of innovative products, so despite innovations being supplied in the sector, current structures might not allow implementation of new ideas (Storsjo, 2017).

We also discuss how procurement is potentially vulnerable to irregular and illegal activities, such as fraud and corruption, leading to donors and procuring agencies being cautious of enabling flexibility (which we highlight as being key for innovations to be adopted) in the approach to procurement. In addition, we look at how involving suppliers in research for innovation and subsequent procurement can be seen as risky (Storsjo, 2017), as it potentially compromises the independence of the procurement process. This often leads to an inherent bias towards tried and tested products that are competitively priced. It can also mean suppliers are kept at arm’s length by the procuring agency in order to meet strict requirements designed to combat fraud and corruption.

This approach to procurement has become dominant in the humanitarian sector. However, it is one that would appear to create issues for suppliers of innovative products and services. That is particularly so for those that are still being developed and iterated, where there needs to be a collaborative relationship between the supplier and the procuring agency. In the context of WASH innovations, numerous products having been developed over the past two decades and become widely used in the humanitarian sector. These include the Oxfam bucket, the latrine slab, and the use of EcoSan (urine diversion toilets). However, there are still significant barriers to the uptake of WASH innovation in the humanitarian sector. This is despite progress in finding solutions to the WASH challenges identified in the 2013 Gap Analysis in Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion (Bastable and Russell, 2013), as well as significant investment from funders such as Elrha and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.