Rethinking Humanitarian Aid with Scientific Thinking – Berlin Science Week

We are familiar with humanitarian aid work primarily through appeals for donations and through political action in the media. But there is much more to it than funding (inputs) or the political framework. Less well known is the fact that logistics can take up to 80% of the budget in a humanitarian response. Today, to get the most impact out of limited resources, science is increasingly engaged in making relief work more efficient and effective.

The 3 options to deal with the gap in available resources is to either increase funding, decrease the need, or make the money go further. They focused on the last one, since decreasing the need can take a long time if it can be reduced.

With examples from ongoing research projects, we show how industry-derived methods can make an important contribution in the non-profit context, getting life-saving supplies such as medicines or food to their destination faster. By reducing operational costs, humanitarian organizations can use their donations to reach more people in need.

Lea Rusch explains how statistical analysis was used to study communication styles, and Andrew Parris discusses how Lean can improve processes. At the end of the video, they have a panel discussion.

This event was part of Berlin Science Week 2021 and organised by ETH Zürich.

Watch the video below, or go to

If you go to 25:18 in the video, you can hear the specific conversation from Andrew about using continuous improvement and Lean to make the money go further. You can also download our podcast episode with Andrew’s presentation and responses in the Q&A section.

He also mentions there are similarities between NGO work and Lean:

  • Show respect for people
  • Make it simple and visual
  • The goal is to provide value
  • Don’t tell people in need what to do
  • Don’t do for people in need what they can do for themselves
  • People in need are the experts in their situation (not an outsider)
  • Keep ownershop with, involve and use the expertise of the people you’re helping
  • Build up people in need and leave them better prepared for the next crisis
  • Don’t blame people, but identify and solve root causes of problems
  • Create a plan, implement it, monitor the outputs and results, and adjust as needed

But what is missing is the following:

  • Applying scientific thinking to humanitarian operations
  • Applying a proven corporate, private sector management system in humanitarian work
  • Applying development and humanitarian principles inside the organisation
  • Empowering and expecting employees and volunteers to improve
  • Making the money go further by cutting waste, not value