Innovation Under Fire

Ruthless leaders like Bashar al-Assad rely on the truism of Joseph Stalin: "one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." Atrocities pass unchecked because, in reality, numbers like 200,000 killed, or 11 million refugees in Syria are beyond our comprehension. Distance has a way of abstracting disaster, and the farther we are away, the harder it is to understand the Syrian crisis or take action to end it. The recent United Nations suspension of humanitarian operations in the country will only exacerbate that problem. Increasing violence has forced many international actors to extricate themselves from the field, hamstringing relief efforts, including essential aid deliveries to Syrian civilians. Before this drawdown of United Nations personnel, Gayatri V travelled into the conflict zone under U.N. auspices not once, but five times to help address the problem of aid distribution. Her experiences under fire have fueled her belief that building upon the innovations of Syrians themselves is the best way to stem the humanitarian tragedy—a tragedy turning real people into bloody statistics.

Many of us, including the leadership of the UN World Food Program (WFP), were alarmed to discover pictures circulating on social media of WFP resources being captured and distributed by the Islamic State (IS). Unfortunately, this speaks to a larger problem that very few relief organizations can guarantee their supplies are actually getting to Syrian civilians. With both the al-Assad government and militia groups restricting or stealing aid flows, little help is afforded to the truly needy. Indeed, a Reuters study found that “a survey of 10 global non-government organizations (NGOs), United Nations agencies and local charities employed to deliver aid in Syria—all of whom requested anonymity—said they could not confirm aid is reaching the right people in many areas.”

Gayatri V, now one of the mentors for the IDEX Fellowship, spoke to me this week about her intrapreneurial efforts from within the U.N. to address this problem. When travelling into the midst of the civil war for the first time, she realized two things: aid was not reaching vulnerable populations, and Syrians were innovating new ways to survive the crisis. 

In the field, she witnessed incredible “ingenuity in Syria itself as far as different platforms to communicate with each other,” with people constructing means to tap into internet connections, creating SMS emergency helplines, and even forming human chains to relay news from bomb blasts. She began to think that in order for the U.N. to be successful, they had to find a way to utilize Syrians’ on-the-ground knowledge and creativity as a tool for enhanced aid services. Thus emerged her idea to transform the way international aid is coordinated. 


Gayatri set out plans to create a “mobile and community radio based platform that enables refugees to access information on aid agencies and aid deliverance, voice their needs, connect to other communities, and control exchange of information.” By gathering and mapping the needs and solutions presented by Syrian civilians and refugees, communities will better be able to share life-saving information with one another and inform the best practices of aid organizations. Said plainly, she “hopes to create a platform that is essentially driven by the affected community to communicate and negotiate with the aid world.” As many Syrians are already using technology to coordinate their self-rescuing tactics, this proposed tool could expedite the process and increase success rates of institutional interventions. Of perhaps equal import, the platform returns some semblance of control to Syrians themselves. In Gayatri’s opinion, this is an essential function of the online tool: 

“Often when dealing with conflict we negate people’s agency. They become refugees and victims but not actors. But people and communities invariably form alliances and strategies to survive conflict. They also have a far greater understanding of the situation on the ground and are valuable sources of information. More importantly any work we do in conflict areas are with regard to their lives and thus they have a right to consultation and control over interventions in conflict.”

The growing brutality in Syria has created barriers for implementation (especially considering the recent halt of U.N. operations), but intrapreneurs like Gayatri are not giving up hope. Despite watching colleagues lose their lives, encountering young children carrying guns, and sustaining her own personal injuries during air raids, Gayatri is still pursuing the development of her technological aid innovation. Amidst all the horrors, she also witnessed an immense will to keep on living—willing her to keep moving as well. She commented on one particularly remarkable instance of a couple overcoming all odds to host their wedding celebration. Impassioned by unfathomable Syrian resilience, Gayatri feels she has no choice but to press forward. In her mind “[the people] must have a voice. I think this is what I seek in the work I do. I can reduce human suffering and provide people with the opportunities that improve their lives.”

Even while death tolls mount, as innovators, we cannot let the overwhelming nature of the conflict justify apathy. Syrians are still struggling for life, and those of us with the resources and experience to do something should not let the voices of real people be muffled by the sounds of statistics.