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Humanitarian Parkour

Written by Paul Skinner and originally published in the "The Realities Behind the Rhetoric", a case study of the Start Network.

Humanitarian Parkour

To all appearances John was a teenager slowly losing his way.

Frustrated by a life which seemed an ill-fitting container for his energy, he would wander the local streets without purpose or hope, randomly venting his frustration by climbing neighbourhood trees, swinging onto garage roofs, teetering on fence tops, and running through disused buildings.

The rules of the game were not designed for him and he had little compunction in breaking them.

Then one day he happened to turn on the television part way through a documentary about parkour – the style of free running that involves a whole new way of reading and navigating the built environment with leaps, vaults, pivots and rolls requiring almost military courage, balletic agility and finely tuned skill.

For the first time he could put a name to the activity that he’d begun alone as a spontaneous release valve, not even realising it was a “thing”. He could now view his activity in the light of a narrative that made sense to him and offered the possibility of a place to fit in. The doors were open to finding others like him and learning from them as well as ultimately showing leadership in taking their pursuit to greater heights – literally. So great was the change in his self-perception that John changed his name to Kerbie. And with and through others, Kerbie became himself. As part of a community of collective pursuit.

Is it too much of a stretch to recognise something of John in the figure of the disgruntled humanitarian? Who knows the system as it currently stands is not equipped to meet the true needs of the people it is intended to serve? And that the rules do not always make it easier to try?

My work with the Start Network this year has focussed on something that sits underneath not only communications but across the range of Start’s activities; the pursuit of organisational purpose.

We can all likely remember occasions when as individuals we’ve been immersed in a purpose so engaging that we feel we lose ourselves in what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls the “flow”. Unaware of time passing we commit ourselves entirely to a present moment that with hindsight will likely stand out among the best of our times.

That same sense of shared purpose can help us belong to something bigger; to bring all of ourselves to work; to overcome organisational convenience; and to enable evolution, adaptation, stewardship and creativity. If we are clear enough about this pursuit, we can use it to drive change way beyond the boundaries of our own organisation, using it to draw others into our vision, forming a complex adaptive system capable of collaboration on a scale that could never be achieved through bureaucratic imperative alone.

The purpose of the Start Network was previously framed as “Accelerating Crisis Response”. This year we realised that this could no longer contain the ambition we collectively felt not just to speed up support for affected communities but rather to more deeply change the nature of that support and the process that provides it.

We explored whether the real problem wasn’t just that crisis response can be too slow, but rather that it is often also provided by the wrong people in the wrong way, with many of the most relevant sources of anticipation, preparedness and response all too often overlooked by the international system. Ultimately these questions led us to re-define Start’s purpose and to re-brand its major services.

The Start Network is about moving away from a system that looks like it has a hammer and is looking for nails to use it on, and instead towards a system that begins with the needs of people affected by a crisis and from there tries to identify the right response to those needs.

It is about “connecting people affected by crisis with the best possible solutions”.

Start Network brand agenda

The Start Fund seeks to provide the right funding at the right time to enable the best solutions from across a much greater range of possible options than could ever be available to an individual agency, acting alone.

Start Engage seeks to build the right capabilities in the right places to increase and enhance the range of options we have to choose from in the first place.

Crises can hit anywhere. We therefore all need to be prepared which requires a whole of society approach. Start Engage seeks to work with the often overlooked resources that are already in place local to where a crisis hits and support them in enhancing the solutions they can provide.

And Start Labs seeks to connect the right ideas with the right people to provide better solutions for people in crisis through shared thinking, prototyping and rapid experimentation.

This year we have engaged the Network, new members, donors and other collaborators in sharing these aspirations.

In the year ahead we need to accelerate our vigilance in embodying our mission in the way every one of us conducts every aspect of our activity.

And to explore what contribution our purpose can make to engaging further sources of support through new types of partnership, including a greater global representation among the membership and donor base and new types of corporate partner.

My belief is that with a goal that is worth pursuing, we’ll continue to find the right people to share the journey with us, even when jumping the barriers looks at first to be a daunting prospect.

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