A Bucket and a Canoe: The Importance of Social Innovation

It is amazing to me how often we overlook ideas that are understood to be common sense. A week ago in Episode 23, Mitch and Mel sat down and interviewed Melanie Gallant, Head of Media Relations at Oxfam Canada, about the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Among the many things that were discussed in this episode one thing really stuck with me. The need for a contextual understanding of the situation on the ground.

For many of those who follow trends in international development and humanitarian assistance, the idea that Melanie brought up about centering local voices and developing solutions with the people in mind is not new and is definitely not complicated. However, it is something that seems to be so often missed when we are thinking about how to respond to global emergencies such as what we are seeing in South Sudan. It is because of this fact that I wanted to write this post. I would like to drive home this common point by using two examples that Melanie mentioned in her interview, and they are the stories of the bucket and the canoe.

In fact, access to potable water is more fundamental to human life than access to food.

The Bucket

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/ Oxfam

For many commentators, the focus of the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is on the famine (and how the situation is constantly evolving). This has meant that much of the international focus has revolved around the issue of access to food (something that should be of great concern). However, as Melanie pointed out, access to food is only part of the problem associated with famine. Equally important is access to clean and safe water. In fact, access to potable water is more fundamental to human life than access to food. Additionally, inadequate access to safe sanitation has led to outbreaks of cholera and other diseases in displaced communities in South Sudan. So while many of us think about famine being associated with hunger alone, it is also about thirst and hygiene, something obvious to these local communities.

By contextualizing the problem and focusing on local ideas and voices, Oxfam was able to recognize the need for a pragmatic solution to provide clean water to affected communities. The Oxfam bucket was born.

This bucket (pictured) provides a simple solution to this problem. Its simple, client-driven, people-focused design has a lid, tap and handle, all designed to allow water to be carried easily while ensuring that it remains contaminate free. The bucket effectively illustrates how simple answers can be found to problems so long as you focus on the people being affected and how best to work with them.

As in many humanitarian situations seen around the world, one of the major problems in South Sudan is access to vulnerable communities.

The Canoe

Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

Similar to the bucket, the story of the canoe is one about focusing solutions on the local community by relying on and learning from local knowledge, in other words, centering their voices. As in many humanitarian situations seen around the world, one of the major problems in South Sudan is access to vulnerable communities. In the case of South Sudan however, this is in some ways by design. In an attempt to avoid the violent civil war many South Sudanese are moving into swamps where they will be harder to find and where it is harder for government or rebel forces to move through. This seclusion makes it hard for NGOs and humanitarian groups to reach these communities. However, by focusing on the needs and voices of these communities Oxfam has again come up with an ingenious answer: canoes.

In order to access these vulnerable communities and ensure their safety, Oxfam has set up a canoe operation system where they hire local people to pilot canoes to move people and supplies around the marshes and swamps they use to protect themselves. Additionally, they focus on ensuring the safety and comfort of these people by giving all operators an identification card so that they can verify themselves to these displaced people as someone who can be trusted and who is working with them. Again, this is not the obvious solution of providing such as forcing people to move into refugee camps or designated ‘safe zones’ and instead focuses on providing an answer that considers the inputs of the affected communities.


While both canoes and buckets are not complex innovations they are both incredibly effective. The use of a people-focused design illustrates how some NGOs prioritize the voices of those vulnerable communities which they are trying to help. Again, for those of us who regularly follow trends in international development this certainly not be a new concept but it is a concept that we must remind ourselves of constantly. We need to continue to empower people and listen to those who we are trying to ‘help’ in order to create the social innovations that we need to tackle some of the world’s most complicated problems.


Kenneth Boddy is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, ON. He is a researcher for Policy Talks Podcast. 

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