IMPACT magazine interviews HumanSurge cofounder Loek Peeters
Is HumanSurge a social enterprise?
Yes, HumanSurge is a social enterprise. HumanSurge seeks to improve humanitarian relief operations for the benefit of disaster- affected populations. This is achieved through more efficient and effective mobilization of professional human resources—whether local, national or international—thus, enabling a faster deployment of, and response by, qualified aid workers.
Indeed, the humanitarian sector is defined by the government, non- governmental organizations (NGOs), and not-for-profit actors. It is also dependent on institutional donors, philanthropists, and generous contributions by the general public. However, a recent United Nations (UN) study revealed a 15-billion-dollar annual funding gap. Hence, we sought to launch this initiative by taking a business approach, offering valuable service—for an affordable fee—that will reduce organizational costs. As the platform grows and becomes more widely used, economies of scale can be realized.Indeed, the humanitarian sector is defined by the government, non- governmental organizations (NGOs), and not-for-profit actors. It is also dependent on institutional donors, philanthropists, and generous contributions by the general public. However, a recent United Nations (UN) study revealed a 15-billion-dollar annual funding gap. Hence, we sought to launch this initiative by taking a business approach, offering valuable service—for an affordable fee—that will reduce organizational costs. As the platform grows and becomes more widely used, economies of scale can be realized.
HumanSurge has been set up independently in order to stay neutral, and provide services to the whole humanitarian ecosystem without bias. We monitor and report on the number of professionals contacted by NGOs for possible deployments. We also report on the individual responses. We then document those who have been deployed, and aim to see how they have been able to support the operations and positively impact the relief services given to the affected population.
We also aligned ourselves with the humanitarian-to-humanitarian network, a diverse group of small, lean, and agile humanitarian entrepreneurs, who are engineering new solutions and services that enable the humanitarian sector to perform better (h2hworks.org).
What motivated you to start HumanSurge?
I have worked for over a decade in the humanitarian sector and have seen and experienced the challenge to scale up operations in emergency situations. National responders are always first in the scene. And in case of large-scale emergencies, where the response capacity overwhelms a region or country, the international community also reacts. The actors mandated to respond have built their respective global surge capacities over the last decade— with notable strengths in the ‘first wave’ response, enabling quick assessments. They have also set up initial operations, deployed pre-stocked relief items, and provided emergency funding appeals, to name a few. Yet as the full scope of a disaster becomes apparent only in the days or weeks after it hits, many of those actors struggle to mobilize the required additional professional aid workers.
The lack of manpower adds stress to aid workers, who are already exposed to challenging and volatile environments. In the emergency phase, aid workers tend to work day and night, seven days a week, thinking that they would be in this situation only for a limited period of time. Yet, it is not unusual to find extended deployment periods, due to unavailability of replacement. The lack of manpower adds stress to aid workers, who are already exposed to challenging and volatile environments. In the emergency phase, aid workers tend to work day and night, seven days a week, thinking that they would be in this situation only for a limited period of time. Yet, it is not unusual to find extended deployment periods, due to unavailability of replacement.
As a recruitment platform, what problems in humanitarian response does HumanSurge aim to address?
When looking at the ability to rapidly scale operations in response to a humanitarian emergency, otherwise known as ‘surge capacity,’ the localization and deployment of qualified human resources is a key component. The challenge to locate available aid workers is largely the result of an existing disconnect: organizations do not know which aid worker is available right now, and professionals don’t have a venue to indicate such availability to the sector at large. Nearly half a million aid workers respond to humanitarian emergencies around the world, yet many work on short-term contracts or project-based agreements.
Having an incomplete team also poses the risk of not meeting the needs of the disaster-affected population— and the requirements of the donor.
Organizations have built their surge capacity through stand-by teams and internal or external rosters. A roster is typically a list of persons who are willing to be deployed during an emergency. However, a maintaining a roster is time-consuming and costly. Moreover, these efforts are typically done in silos, repeated from organization to organization. There is also a continuous influx of young humanitarians seeking entry into the sector, while members of the ´older´ generation move into HQ positions, or settle down.
HumanSurge is in essence a global emergency roster for active humanitarian responders, updated online by the aid worker, and shared across the humanitarian ecosystem. Specific features enable recruiters to quickly search sector-specific profile characteristics, narrowing in on potential candidates within seconds, while tapping into a pool of human resources much larger than their organizational roster.
How is HumanSurge innovating humanitarian response?
HumanSurge has taken modern information technologies and techniques, and adapted and tailored them to fit the humanitarian sector. In connecting humanitarians and organizations to an online platform, HumanSurge addresses an existing gap in surge resource mobilization. On one hand, a shared global roster is more efficient and effective than replicating such efforts across multiple actors. On the other hand, aid workers can signal their availability with ease, as opposed to contacting former employers.
HumanSurge has also placed the perspective of the aid worker center- stage, rather than that of the recruiter or hiring organization. Aid workers typically work on short-term assignments, and therefore, often lack job security. By registering their profile, they can get contacted for vacancies they did not see announced. Moreover, aid workers have preferences in regard to any deployment. The platform provides them with a tool to indicate preferences, such as contractual arrangements, no- go countries, or the maximum period they are available to be deployed.
Importantly, HumanSurge is competency-based. The search engine Importantly, HumanSurge is competency-based. The search engine filters sector-specific characteristics, and notably lacks a profile photo.
Finally, HumanSurge is actively working toward automated profile validation. Currently, this is primarily shaped through collaborations with RedR-UK, the NOHA network on Humanitarian Action, and the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), among others. Several other collaborations are expected to be formalized starting in 2017, while complementary ways to automate profile validation are being explored.Finally, HumanSurge is actively working toward automated profile validation. Currently, this is primarily shaped through collaborations with RedR-UK, the NOHA network on Humanitarian Action, and the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), among others. Several other collaborations are expected to be formalized starting in 2017, while complementary ways to automate profile validation are being explored.
What impact have you seen so far? How many people have been deployed through HumanSurge?
HumanSurge is still in early-stages of development. Launched in March 2016, the sector has been quick to respond and is responding positively to the concept. In the first year, more than 5,000 professionals started the registration process, and over 3,500 aid workers completed a basic profile and confirmed their email (a requisite to have ones profile appear in the search results). Also many major INGOs subscribed to HumanSurge, and started to search for qualified and available candidates, who match their requirements. More than 25 INGOs started using HumanSurge.
To date, 225 humanitarians have been contacted for a particular deployment, with a 90% response rate.
Final recruitment, contract signing, and deployment takes place between the organization and the candidate, without involvement of HumanSurge. This facilitates the quick recruitment, as each organization can use their own tools and follow internal processes. The downside for us is that we do not have full visibility on all successful deployments, which would be better
from a business perspective. This approach was chosen as we value social impact most—more deployments mean faster results. Nonetheless, we follow up on individual cases, and we have documented several success cases of humanitarian professionals contacted through HumanSurge. (Check out blog.humansurge.org)
Separately, we also presented HumanSurge to several startup competitions and received multiple recognitions. Notably, HumanSurge was awarded the Startup Europe Award 2016 Spain, in the category ´Social,’ which will take us to the European finals. We received a grant to attend a 3-week accelerator program in Silicon Valley. We were also invited onstage at Y-Combinator startup school in Palo Alto, and are currently enrolled in a 6-month accelerator program for startups, supported by the European Union. Most recently, HumanSurge was selected by Telefónica to enter their Open Future_ CrowdWorking space in Madrid, which has become our office. We aim to learn from these programs, and to translate these learnings to the humanitarian sector and social entrepreneurship.
Any other message for the development sector?
The humanitarian and development sector is bound to make significant efficiency and effectiveness gains through sharing and collaboration. HumanSurge made this part of its vision: “There are solutions to the world´s challenges, when people respond together.” While many will agree that no single actor can address the diverse and complex challenges before us, there are also inherent disincentives to collaboration, obstructing such efforts. Current lean startup and innovation models have already brought disruptive solutions to many sectors, and there is a lot to be learned from these methodologies. The current wave of technological innovation and sharing economy can bring similar change to the humanitarian and development sector.
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