Angela Salomon

Angela Salomon is an Innovation Marketplace Project Assistant at Grand Challenges Canada and a Master of Public Health student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Abdallah Daar

Dr. Abdallah Daar is Chair of Grand Challenges Canada's Scientific Advisory Board.


In recent years, humanitarian needs have been outstripping both the aid system and our abilities to meet them. By the end of 2015, there were more than 65.3 million displaced people globally, the highest number ever and more than double the number at the end of 2012. To keep pace with evolving and growing humanitarian needs, aid agencies, governments, non-governmental organizations and other humanitarian actors will not only need to increase resources dedicated to this critical issue, but to evolve and innovate to meet the challenges ahead.

Because of these considerations, Grand Challenges Canada and a number of partners including humanitarian organizations, governments and the private sector are launching a new initiative: Humanitarian Grand Challenges. The first step in launching the new initiative will be to identify the major Grand Challenges in humanitarianism, with a view to increasing efficiency and effectiveness for the long term.

In this blog, we explain what a Grand Challenge is, provide examples of Grand Challenges, and encourage you to be a part of this important initiative by asking you to help identify Humanitarian Grand Challenges.

What is a Humanitarian Grand Challenge?

The working definition for a Humanitarian Grand Challenge is as follows:

A Humanitarian Grand Challenge is a specific critical barrier that, if removed, would help solve an important humanitarian problem with a high likelihood of global impact through widespread implementation.

Grand Challenges are not ideas for solutions, innovations, or research projects, but are statements that identify compelling problems, focus on a critical bottleneck, and set the table for innovators to innovate.

The Humanitarian Grand Challenges initiative will work with its partners to catalyze a pipeline of promising solutions that address the challenges that we face today and that can be rapidly deployed against the unanticipated humanitarian challenges of tomorrow.

What might a “Humanitarian Grand Challenge” look like?

We have adopted the following definition of humanitarian assistance:

“Humanitarian assistance is generally accepted to mean the aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of man-made crises and natural disasters, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for the occurrence of such situations.”[i]

A Humanitarian Grand Challenge will go beyond health to address the full range of challenges associated with humanitarian contexts, and will require ongoing partnership with a broad range of actors in the humanitarian sector.

A valuable Humanitarian Grand Challenge will be ambitious, but well-defined and solvable, will have the potential to involve partnerships that can mobilize public, private and not-for-profit resources, and will have a clear metric and strategy to measure results and ensure accountability. A Humanitarian Grand Challenge should engage a broad range of stakeholders and should include empowerment of local communities, especially women.

The following are examples of potential Humanitarian Grand Challenges, identified by participants at the kick-off meeting in November 2016:

  1. Pre-financing humanitarian action in high risk contexts. A social impact bond could use capital market financing properly match humanitarian risk and the need for advanced funding, so that humanitarian actors in high risk contexts can plan, invest and prepare.
  2. Creating digital safe deposit boxes, accessed via a digital identity, that enables the owner a way to safely and privately store, transport, validate authenticity, and disseminate personal documents, other assets, and information.
  3. Supporting bold ideas to strengthen women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response at the community and national levels.

Utilizing the expertise of the global community

The Grand Challenges approach values the knowledge and expertise of not only scientists, academics, government agents, investors, and other aid actors, but also the unique experiences of members of affected communities. This is why we have assembled a Steering Committee who will use a consensus-building process to identify the most compelling challenges, which includes individuals affected by humanitarian disasters, as well as local humanitarian actors.

To engage and consult as wide an audience as possible, ideas for Humanitarian Grand Challenges will also be crowd-sourced through social media. This is where you come in, and how you can contribute to the success of this initiative by suggesting a Humanitarian Grand Challenge that you believe will improve humanitarian assistance.

So, from your own knowledge and experience, we encourage you to answer this one question:

What is the one Grand Challenge that you consider most important to make humanitarian work more effective and efficient, for the long term?

To submit an answer, tweet at us @gchallenges using the hashtag #HumanitarianGC. We also welcome submissions via email. Submissions will be accepted until Friday, February 10, 2017.

We look forward to hearing from you.



[i] Adapted from: Good Humanitarian Assistance. (2013). Defining humanitarian assistance

Sections of this blog were adapted from Grand Challenges Canada’s “Humanitarian Grand Challenges Working Paper” (October 2016).

Photo credit: Bakwinya Mazhani / Grand Challenges Canada (2016).