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9. Against the Stream
30th October 2020 • Trumanitarian • Trumanitarian
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The START network is one of the most ambitious and interesting attempts at changing the system in recent times. The Network strives to positively disrupt humanitarian action by developing a new humanitarian economy, shifting power to the edges of the system, and by convening a broad coalition of humanitarian actors from across the world

This week's guest on Trumanitarian is Sean Lowrie the founder of the network. He tells the story of how the idea was conceived, what it took to get it off the ground and to what extend he feels like START has achieved sustainable change to the system.

Transcripts

Lars Peter Nissen:

System change is often spoken about, but it's rarely achieved in the humanitarian sector. One of the most ambitious attempts at redefining the humanitarian business model and developing a new humanitarian economy is the Start Network. Start is a little more than a decade old now and it has, over the years, been an incubator for new ideas and new ways of working. The driving force behind the network has until recently been Sean Lowrie and he's this week's guest on Trumanitarian. Sean tells a story about how difficult it is to achieve sustainable change: just how many sandbags you have to drop into the river before it changes it's course. He also tells the story of how the current humanitarian system stifles innovation, and quickly forces to revert back to its old bed. Sean is a humanitarian entrepreneur and the way he speaks of that experience is an important nuance of this conversation. As a sector, we are not short of brilliant ideas of what to do, and how to achieve our goals, but we are short of people who truly can implement new innovative ideas, who have the courage to challenge the status quo, and really make a difference. Sean is one of those people. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Sean Lowrie, welcome to the podcast.

Sean Lowrie:

Thank you, Lars Peter. It's a pleasure to be here.

Lars Peter Nissen:

We have known each other for, I think, more than 10 years now and you are legendary as the founder of the Start Network, one of the most dynamic and innovative parts of the humanitarian system over the past years. And it will be great if you could... If we think of you as a, let's say a humanitarian superhero, what's your written story? Where did this thing come from? How did you get the idea? And how did you go about starting the Start?

Sean Lowrie:

Well, it wasn't my idea to begin with. You know, I'm not the founder. There are a number of British humanitarian directors from different NGOs who were meeting in pubs in London, in around 2OO9, 2OO8, after the financial crash, when DFID was... you know, the British government was reducing its overhead costs and they were writing bigger and bigger checks so they were sending more money to the aggregators. You know, the PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the UN pooled funds. And the NGOs weren't getting funds directly anymore, and the humanitarians were finding the money was slowing down and there were a lot more conditions tied to it. And it was it was... there was less of it, you know, because more of it was being scraped for overheads for these aggregating organisations. So they began to meet in pubs to lament what we would now call the system failure of the response to the financial crisis of 2OO8. And that led them to see an opportunity when the... when DFID asked for proposals to strengthen the humanitarian response system. And they saw this opportunity and seized it and created a consortium of 15 NGOs, believing, rightly, that DFID could not refuse an application from the 15 top British NGOs. So they got the funding, it was a two year pilot to explore a number of different ideas. One was an Emergency Response Fund, another was a really interesting capacity building programme that shifted power to local organisations. another was about logistics strengthening. And they couldn't find a director for this effort. And that was because there was there was tension inside the consortium. Some just wanted an administrative body that would do the wishes of the big NGOs, others wanted a... like a centre or a secretariat with more agency and more vision. And so there was... they had one attempt that failed to recruit. They went to a headhunting firm and that's how I found out about it. And I joined in September, after I'd been running for a few months. So I didn't found it. It wasn't my idea. But I guess what I was able to do with it was to create what it is now by being in that... the privilege of that position, and creating opportunities for the network.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So they pulled you in to implement an idea that was already formed, and where they already had the money. So what were you? Were you were you the compromise candidate? Or were you the solid administrator, or were you the ideas man, why did they pick you?

Sean Lowrie:

I think that the ones who wanted something bigger than just to the administrative Secretariat won the debate. So I had been studying In the Humanitarian Futures Programme with with Randolph Kent at King's College London for a couple of years and had been thinking about the future of the humanitarian aid system and brought those ideas into the interview and with the headhunter. And that's, I think, what attracted them to invite me to lead the effort. I mean, I... you know, I'm no administrator. I don't have a lot of patience for that stuff. But they asked me to do it. And so I guess it was it was because of the ideas that they that they asked me to join: thinking about the future, how, you know, climate change and population growth and, you know, population densities and resource management issues, would be creating different types of crises and different types of vulnerability, and therefore, a different type of system to respond to that and how one would act in today... with today's system to create a system that will be effective in the future. You know, the theory being that if it takes... (theory, I don't know whether it's in theory or not), but if it... you know, if it takes time for a supertanker to turn, then you need to start working to change a system many years in advance of when that that plausible future comes true. So it was that awareness, I think, that attracted the humanitarian directors to work with me. I had some clear ideas about the... how you would go about creating a narrative for a different type of system.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And so is it fair to say that on one side, you have a bunch of humanitarian directors and leaders in the NGOs, truly worried about their immediate financial situation, trying to make sure that they get or maintain the slice of the pie that they're getting. And on the other hand, you have this long term need to clearly transform the way in which the business operates. And those two things are brought into the Start network from the beginning? Is that a... is that the fundamental tension which were there?

Sean Lowrie:

Yeah, that's fair. You know, originally, the Start Network was an aggregator to enable DFID to write one big cheque that would be dispersed amongst many organisations. And that absorptive capacity is interesting to bureaucrats, because it's... doesn't cost that much money to write a big check. It costs the same amount of money to write a big check or a small check. So the NGOs got together and created a pipeline that could take big checks. But of course, that scale creates many interesting opportunities. And, you know, I think anybody who is in that position, it's a great privilege, because you see all the only possibilities from, you know, working at scale with it with a population of organisations.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And so talk us through the journey. You... they cut you quite a big check. And you have an ambitious agenda in terms of not just being an administrator for DFID, but actually transforming things. And so what do you do? How do you manoeuvre that space? How do you use the privilege you have?

Sean Lowrie:

Well, it was a two year pilot. That was all defined. You know, in usual project ways every everything was was defined. And so I was required to be an administrator and a manager to generate the proof and the evidence that NGOs working together in this way, could could create value. And it was very successful, even from the from the very... you know, from the very first months. It was independently evaluated three times and you know, earlier, faster and cheaper than other pooled funding mechanisms. And but then, two years into the pilot, well actually a year into the pilot, we were informed they weren't going to renew our funding. And this was not an evidence based decision, it was a politically based decision, because the government of the day was trying to get the .07% GDP aid commitment enshrined in law. And there was a big battle between the different wings of the political party in power at the time. And so the Secretary of State and DFID wanted to control decisions about humanitarian aid funding in order to maximise the... kind of the immediate profile of the development budget, and this would placate the sceptics about foreign aid. And so the Start Fund, at the time, had delegated authority so we could make decisions about when the funding was spent and this wasn't useful for the minister in charge of DFID at the time. And so they decided not to renew our funding. And this created a huge crisis. And there were some who said, Well, that was fun while it lasted, but let's close this down because it's not going to work. But others, and they were the majority, said, No, this is this is important to keep going. It's... you know, it's working. We are providing better value for money to the taxpayer and we are saving more lives and getting more money to small, off-the-radar crises. So let's fund it ourselves until we can figure out what to do. And so that was the... that first crisis was, I think, the critical moment for the Start Network as it stands today, because me and and a brilliant Dutch woman called Marika Hanja, were given two years of funding to essentially find a new business model. So the argument being, you know, this works, the evidence is unambiguous, and yet at the same time, a political decision killed the funding. So the problem is not the Start Network, the problem is that we are dependent on Western government funding, that itself is dependent on, you know, crazy elections, that that put, you know, different parties in power. And when they do, they want to change everything. And so that's not a way to build a system. You can't create a safety net with a with a main funding that is so politically fragile. So the NGOs said, Fine, let's finish the pilots and then you have two years and see what see if you can figure out a way of getting us the funding without without going to DFID. And that was very fertile. So we spent two years going around the city of London talking to, you know, financiers and insurance companies. And you know, we investigated all these these, at the time, very interesting alternative business models: loans, impact bonds. It just... we generated a whole lot of really interesting possibilities for the NGOs, and came to the chief executives of the network and said, 'You know, this is this is really interesting. I think that, you know, we can create a way for you to provide humanitarian aid without being completely dependent on on Western governments.'

Lars Peter Nissen:

So interestingly, what started out as a way of ensuring that we maintain the slice of the pie from the traditional donor, became the beginning of growing a new humanitarian economy in a sense.

Sean Lowrie:

Yeah, that's right. And, ironically, at the same time, we were compiling evidence through all the parliamentary committees. And so we reached these two conclusions almost at the at the same time, or we had we had sort of two conclusions at the same time. One was, there are alternative business models that are available that could give NGOs true independence. Because part of this, right... NGOs... every single NGO out there has been created from some expression of agency by, you know, a founder or a group of people who see an injustice and they want to do something about that injustice. If you look at any single NGO from Save the Children, to Oxfam, to IRC to Care to... all the big ones that don't have the small ones too, they've all been created by people who have said, No, this is not right, we have to do something about it. It's an extreme expression of independence and agency. But they've all drifted into this position of dependence on on government funding, and that government funding is itself dependent on an unreliable political process. And so we reached this conclusion where we found that yes, it is possible to have different business models for humanitarian aid that would give NGOs the independence to address suffering when they saw it, but at the same time, the British government changed and they came back to us. They put a different person in charge of DFID and they came back to us and they and they... gave us three years with the funding it was... I forget how much it was, 30 million or something. It was quite a pretty big number so that... So then, we had all these possibilities of alternative ways of organising ourselves and financing ourselves and then we had a big check from from DFID that caused us to, you know, operate in the same ways.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So you spend... you get through the valley of death, in a sense, if we want to talk entrepreneurial talk, right? You get that initial learning under your belt, and you manage to attract new funding at scale. And then that funding comes from the original source, comes from the traditional backdonor. Would you would you say that that made gravity set in again?

Sean Lowrie:

Yes, because our proposal talked about shifting power to local organisations and creating national level, you know groupings of organisations. But the civil servants that bureaucracy and DFID was was unable to, to take that stuff into consideration. It just it just involves too much uncertainty, and too much... and therefore too much risk. But they wanted to find us. And so what they ended up doing was asking for a much more traditional pooled fund proposal. So, yes, there was this kind of a paradox sort of baked into the Start Network from the from that sort of second stage.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So it's really an interesting dynamic, right? You get pulled back into the traditional system, in a sense, while you're trying to open up to other new actors. And so why do you think that doesn't work? We talked so much about localization these days, and there's a lot of genuine interest in really opening up and decolonizing, some people would even say, the humanitarian sector. What... Why is it that we tend to come back to very traditional ways of working again and again?

Sean Lowrie:

I wish there was a simple answer. I wish there was one thing that I could point to but uh, it's a multifaceted thing. Systems are comprised of hundreds, thousands, millions of forces and interests and dynamics and it's... it requires, I think, a much more explicit strategy to shift the dynamics of a system then, you know, a single policy effort or as a single thing. So I'm not sure that that answers your question, but...

Lars Peter Nissen:

Maybe try to put it into a concrete context. Give us an example of a time where you were hoping for something new to happen, and then in the end, it actually turned out to be quite a traditional outcome.

Sean Lowrie:

Well, that first... that... after a period of crisis, when the Start... when DFID provided more funding for the Start Fund. Our proposal had a business plan over seven years where it would involve different sources of income, and a network structure and growing it to something like 200 million pounds in disbursements per year, worldwide. But as I said, it involves too much uncertainty and too much risk for the machinery of DFID. And here I... it's not about the individual civil servants, it's about the... you know, the risk management processes, the legal... you know, the procurement rules that... I mean, there's so many things that are involved in... that are behind a decision from a bureaucracy, yes or no to fund something. So, yes, they funded us, but no, they didn't buy into a bigger vision of a... you know, a significant, you know, global fund with power at the at the local levels. So, we had to begin with the start fund administered and controlled from London, and then incrementally over the following years, we were able to nudge and change things.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Because seen from the outside, the Start Network was quite diverse. There were a lot of people and organisations joining from throughout the global South, it wasn't just a British club anymore. But is what you're saying that real power never shifted?

Sean Lowrie:

Well... I mean, shifting power is too amorphous a term. I mean, it's rhetorically fantastic. It helps us align behind that idea, but that idea is too amorphous to enable the system to change. You need very specific things. So what we did, we broke down the decision making around the disbursement of funding the Start Network. So we developed this two stage process where allocations for crises were made globally from London first and then those allocations were made by a dispersed committee from a global perspective. So crisis happens in country A, this process decides how much money will be allocated to that country or to that crisis. And then a group of other people, who knew the context from that country, frontline workers, would decide which projects would would be selected. So that's how we were able to shift power, if you like, you know, it's... and there, it's... when I... when we talked about shifting power in that context, we're talking about who has influence over how the funding is deployed.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So did that two step process you mentioned, did that result in national NGOs from the crisis-affected countries getting more money? Or was it still the core members or the founding members of the Start Network that got the funding?

Sean Lowrie:

Well, you have to remember that a good proportion of the founding members that Start Network were partner-based agencies, who only work through local counterparts. And so the... from the beginning, the Start Fund was allocating resources to local organisations who were part of these big families, like the Caritas family, or the ACT Alliance or the Evangelical Group, you know... theres... or ActionAid's Partners. I mean, there're lots and lots of local organisations from the beginning that weren't members of the Start Network, but they were in long-term relationships with those British organisations, who provided the the administrative [inaudible].

Lars Peter Nissen:

So, what you're describing is, to me, the traditional NGO model, partner-based model and... but you would still cut the grant to the British members, and then they would send it onwards or... Because is that really shifting power? Is that really changing anything?

Sean Lowrie:

Yeah, that's right. So the funding would pass through the British organisation who would hold the risk on behalf of the local organisation. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that the projects that were selected were based on the perspective of people in the country who were able to evaluate the different possibility... the different options. So the influence over which project was selected lay with local people.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So you were using the traditional modality for managing the funds. but you feel like you truly did decentralise and [inaudible]...

Sean Lowrie:

Well it was a step... This is what I mean, it's a step in the right direction, right? So subsequent steps would be, for example, to get disaster-affected people around the table and being part of the decision making process to select projects. Now, that's shifting power to as close to the quote unquote frontline as you can get.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And so when you when you think back to that experience, which box do you put it in? Do you put it in the putting up window dressing in the echo chamber box, or truly disruptive box?

Sean Lowrie:

I mean, those are pretty... those are stark options.

Lars Peter Nissen:

They're good boxes.

Sean Lowrie:

But yeah, it's... It wasn't just window dressing. But it wasn't that the fundamental change either that shifting the power would imply. But it's a step in the right direction and enables further steps. And so the Start Network now has more and more local organisations who are full members, and who have passed the due diligence process and have the rights to take a grant directly. I mean, this is what I mean about hundreds and thousands and millions of interests and forces in a system. You know, it's not just about the desire to shift power, it's how you satisfy the risk managers and the lawyers that, you know, due diligence has been appropriately conducted and, you know, what process of due diligence would satisfy both the lawyers and risk managers and procurement departments, and the trustees of the charities who are holding the risk, and also the people who know and believe, like we do, that the system would perform better if power was with the edges.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And you stepped down from the Start Network, what, one two years ago?

Sean Lowrie:

A year ago.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And so in hindsight, do you think that it is possible to have a true transformation of the system as long as traditional bank donor money dominate as much as they do? Do you think the money... and all that comes with them in terms of of due diligence and so on. Do you think that's so stifling that basically we won't be able to change anything unless we tap into new and different kinds of money?

Sean Lowrie:

That's a great question. I mean, I think probably both are necessary. You know, incremental change in the direction of a locally-led system is one strategy among several. I mean... so system change is not easy and it's not simple. There's not one silver bullet to change a system. You need to employ... You know, one metaphor is in sandbagging. Take, for example, you've got a river, and you want to change the course of a river. So you make a big pile of sandbags, and it causes the river to divert. So each one of those sandbags would be an example of an initiative that you would take to try and change the direction of a system. And so I think that, you know, the Start Fund will continue to innovate incrementally and continue to shift power to the local level. But other things are necessary too. And one of those other things would be to look for different business models that don't require the Western government funding.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So in the beginning of the interview, you sort of refused to be made out to be a superhero, who was the founder of this thing and so on, but it seemed from the outside, you looked and walked and talked like the founder of the Start Network. You were a very dominant character in the development, and a lot of credit goes to you and your way of going about it, in terms of enabling a team to deliver the results you delivered. Now, leaving, stepping back from, such a... I'll call it a founder role, Sean, because that is... you may not feel that, but that's what it looked like, to me anyways. And so when you stepped down, what did that feel like?

Sean Lowrie:

Well, it was hard. I mean, you know, this was my whole life for for nine years. You know it's... this sort of effort is completely overwhelming, you know, it's... you think about it all the time, day and night, weekends, holidays, you know, when you're trying to work enough within the system to get the approval of the status quo, while at the same time, nudge the system in a different way that delivers, you know, a different type of behaviour that you know is necessary. It's... you know, it's paradoxical. And it's punishing for the individual, you know. You... the individual gets... the innovator gets blamed for, you know, not being a good administrator because, you know, or not being not being good manager because, you know, you don't follow what everybody else does. You don't... you know, you don't pay attention to the rules or, you know... It's a... you have to be resilient. I don't know if this is what you've heard... otherwise, makes any sense or not but...

Lars Peter Nissen:

It rings true in many ways to what I have experienced during the time I've been with ACAPS. And it leads me to my next question, which is, what about founders syndrome? Is that Is that something you've thought about? Is that something you felt like, Yeah, I have to be careful now? Did that ever form part of your thinking?

Sean Lowrie:

Yes. And so I was with Start for almost nine years, and maybe six or seven years in, one of one of my friends and colleagues took me aside and said, Be careful of founder syndrome. Because I think you're starting to display symptoms of it. And it's hard. It's really hard. Because the status quo is a powerful thing. All of the donor interactions, all of the contracts, all of the, you know, meetings, they all promote and reinforce the way things are done now. And you have to be sort of bloody minded about it. You have to have a different, you know, vision in your mind about how things should work. And it's not just presenting that vision at a conference and you know, making a speech and going home, it's like every single thing every single phone call every single email every single... it has to has to promote that narrative. But you eventually have to know when to concede. You know, you don't win every fight. In fact, you lose more fights than you win and so there's... you know, it's the art of compromise. And the art of compromise is a is a phrase... but what am I trying to say? It's like, you have to know when to compromise, when to... and when to capitulate, and when to when to fight. And for a founder, for a leader of this sort of innovative thing, it's really hard to to know where you are and what you can win and what you can't win, right? So people will look at you from the outside and think that, you know, That's a founder who's got to go. And other people will say... or you will say yourself, Well, no, I... All I'm trying to do is to make something happen that people want.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And if I leave all the sandbags are gone.

Sean Lowrie:

Yeah. Yeah, so that's a very good question. It's, yeah, will the sandbags go if you leave? That you do... you do have to hold the vision. It's true that, as the leader of one of these initiatives, you're the source of the narrative. And you're the, you know... if you create the right environment, the ideas come from the environment: you create the team, you hired the right people, you have the right conversations, you... innovations flourish. But ultimately, the leader has to be the... you know, the source that frames and directs things. And when, you know... that gets tiring. That's... you know. Eventually you have to think about, Is this about you or is this about the initiative? And so, for me, I felt that we had we achieved a certain, you know, small victory and I thought this is a... it was a good moment to leave, and the Network was big enough, and there was enough people involved with it, and enough people owned vision, that it didn't require me to keep pushing.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So let me ask you, did you get it right in terms of timing, was that the right time to leave? Should you have done it earlier? Do you wish you were still there?

Sean Lowrie:

Yeah, sometimes I wish I was still there. Because it... because it's like... you know, it's almost like my family. I... you know, I... You put so much effort into it. It's like your family, all these all these hundreds of relationships and that they, you know... Of course, some... you still stay in contact with people, but it's different. It changes when you leave. You need to recreate another family somewhere else, another professional family. So that's hard. It's loss. You know, you experienced loss and that's painful. So I miss it. I miss the feeling of building something and the feeling of meaning and, you know, people working together to try and do the right thing. But also, I realised that, you know, Start had... After nine years, Start had achieved a certain milestone. We were able to spin off an independent charity from the host organisation Save the Children and it was on stable footing, but I realised the next stage would take another 10 year and I didn't want to do another 10 years. And I thought that it was a good moment. It was a good milestone and it was the right time for somebody else to come in with new ideas, new energy, and take it to scale. And maybe it may be that, you know, this is stuff that you can borrow... one can borrow from the commercial startups. There are different skill sets for starting up something and scaling something. Right now, Start is at the scaling stage. So maybe it... maybe that requires a different skill set. It's hard for founders to do both.

Lars Peter Nissen:

You have now really moved on in the sense that you you have become involved in a new startup called The Key. And what is it you do in The Key?

Sean Lowrie:

I'm the Chief Strategy Officer of The Key. It's a commercial firm that's providing real time data to decision makers about COVID-19 and those decision makers are in companies or in positions of government authority,

Lars Peter Nissen:

And I think that in the name of full disclosure, we should say that I, in my day job with ACAPS actually work with The Key. You're helping us collect data on COVID-19 and build up a global network of key informants.

Sean Lowrie:

That's right. ACAPS is our is our first customer.

Lars Peter Nissen:

And so now you are really truly fully outside the traditional aid system, You operate on commercial terms. I know you have an ambition to become a B Corporation where you sort of subsidise your humanitarian work by working for commercial clients. What's the difference in terms of, does it feel more free? Does it feel more real as a startup? What what is it like?

Sean Lowrie:

So a lot of... it's interesting. I was pleasantly surprised that many of my experiences and skills that I acquired at the Start Network were transferable into the commercial world. Many more then, you know, someone who, like me, who's been in the humanitarian sector for 30 years, would initially believe. There's a lot of transferable skills there. So if... some of the feels the same. And it's not necessarily more efficient (these aren't my words or somebody else's words)... it's not necessarily more efficient, it's more ruthless. You know, we... we're all working for free right now trying to start a new company. And we'll continue to... you know, we'll continue to work for free either until we run out of money or deplete our savings, or we'll get enough customers to pay the bills. So it's more ruthless that way. I think the idea is good behind The Key, I think that it merits success, but it's...

Lars Peter Nissen:

Do you think that that ruthlessness that you talking about, do you think that will enable you to be more successful? That that pressure will mean you cut the nonsense and just simply go to scale as quickly as you can?

Sean Lowrie:

You know what, I do. Because I... you know, in a humanitarian, you know, conferences and meetings and... I would meet people from the private sector and they would... you know, they would look at us, you know, slightly in their perplexed way, how we could spend so much time on process. And I also, I've... particularly in the last in the last month, I've found myself almost constantly, you know, What do I do right now in order to generate value that will bring in money through the door and enable this this company to survive. So it does create a focus that you don't nec-... you don't need to have in the humanitarian aid sector. I mean, that may not be fair... I mean, when I was a frontline aid worker, many years ago, I had a focus. It was much easier to get stuff done in the field. But, you know, leading a global network, it's less focused. And I think that working in a commercial startup is is fascinating because it just... it makes you really think about using your time efficiently. That's where the ruthlessness comes in. You know, we have... there's five of us that are working on this full time, plus a couple of partner companies and a couple of part timers, and, you know, we've only got a few months to really pull this off before we all run out of money.

Lars Peter Nissen:

It is an interesting question, right? Because it... The fundamental question is, what is holding us back? If you look at the amount of effort that goes into wanting to transform the humanitarian sector, back from humanitarian reform, The Transformative Agenda, the Grand Bargain, The World Humanitarian Summit, you name it. High level, this high level that... It's not like we're not trying. So the question is, whether it is that ruthlessness that you speak to that we're missing--whether we are simply too cushioned to cut to the core of what makes a real change? Do you think that's fair?

Sean Lowrie:

Yes, I do. I mean, this... The word ruthlessness is not mine, it's Paul Currion's (my friend, Paul Currion who worked with me on the Start Network and who is also doing his own startup in blockchain). And so we were talking about this the other day and he observed that, he felt that, commercial firms are not necessarily more efficient, just more ruthless. And I can see where that ruthless is not a... It's not that we're competing with each other, it's that your time is limited, and you either will survive and succeed or you won't. And I think that humanitarian aid change initiatives... Yeah, the... I don't know whether it's so simple, Lars Peter. I mean, we could be more focused, but we're trying to change the system and this system is comprised of so many dynamics that... I mean, maybe what we're doing, or maybe what we... our conversations about system change are trying to find a small number of things or a magic bullet or a silver bullet that will change the system, when in fact, there's not one single thing that will change the system, it's a number of sandbags that will re-divert the river. And we need to give ourselves permission to make sandbags and just, you know, try a whole number of things. And together, they will nudge the system in a new direction.

Lars Peter Nissen:

I sometimes think that the mistake we make is that we think it's about getting a good idea--it's about finding that silver bullet use you spoke about. But really what we should be thinking about is how to get rid of the bad ideas. Now, let's say that The Key is a bad idea (God forbid, right), but let's say it is. You will be gone in a couple of months.

Sean Lowrie:

It's true. If it's a bad idea, no one will pay us and so we won't we won't survive. That's true.

Lars Peter Nissen:

So if you had to advise the humanitarian sector based on on your long experience inside the sector, and now stepping out and trying to, if you want, amplify the humanitarian ecosystem with a private sector partners somehow contributing, what's your key advice for the sector?

Sean Lowrie:

Lots of experiments. That's one thing it boils down to. It's pretty obvious, but, you know, we spend so much time, we burn so much resources, trying to come up with the silver bullet idea, as you say, and then argue about who has the mandate to try it, and then to find the money, and then, you know, three years later, and finally, you know, you have your first pilot, and then you have another two years where you figure out what, you know, what did the pilot produce? And, I mean, the world moves much, much faster than that. And I think that one thing that the sector could do more of is just commission so many more experiments. We should be running thousands of experiments simultaneously. Our donors would need to release control to allow for these experiments to to run, or our donors would at least need to think about funding in ways that would allow more experimentation. And enlightened ones do. But I... you know, my experience is that when you... you know, the big traditional humanitarian aid donors won't fund small projects. That... it's not worth their time to fund small projects. And the big projects just kick in so much risk management that it is impossible to really experiment. So there's a missing cadre of funders that would allow for these experiments that can try stuff and, you know, put sandbags in the... in the way of the river?

Lars Peter Nissen:

Yeah, because I don't think it'll come from a purely commercial source either, right?

Sean Lowrie:

No, so this is this is something that we haven't talked about yet but that, you know know, back at the Start Network, when we spent those two years going around the city of London to look at different business models, and then the traditional money kicked in. What we had discovered was, ideas for, you know, commercial business models for humanitarian aid... Now, ultimately, this is... you know, ultimately, humanitarian aid is about a one way transfer of resources from people who have money to people who need money in a crisis. So it's not the... it's not straightforward to create a return. But there are ways of creating a return on humanitarian aid by, you know, reducing risks that would then reduce the scale of a crisis, or by making things happen faster, and then, you know, creating savings that can be recouped. So you can use loans for example, to make... intervene in a slow-onset crisis and prevent that crisis from getting serious and then presenting an invoice to the duty-holders, either governments or donors, that you've reduced the severity of a crisis, and they would pay back the loan plus a plus interest or whatever. And so that... there are ways of financing humanitarian aid that I think can shift the behaviour of the system. So this is what we call the new humanitarian economy.

Lars Peter Nissen:

Sean, thank you so much for all of your energy over the years, for all the sandbags that you put in the river. Some of them are still there, you did change the course of the river and the flow somehow and I look forward to seeing what comes out of The Key and I know the passion and the energy you bring to every single project you work on. So good luck moving forward.

Sean Lowrie:

Thank you. Thank you, Lars. Peter. Thank you for asking. It's an honour to be part of your podcast and I really appreciate the interest is an esoteric subject. But I think it's a really important one.