Amplify, Connect, Explore: UNHCR Innovation

This week, I bring to you an interview with Rocco Nuri, Communications Officer at UNHCR Nairobi, Kenya and a member of the recently launched UNHCR Innovation iTeam. Rocco talks to us about the importance and relevance of innovation in improving refugee livelihoods, the activities of UNHCR Innovation and more! 

1.   When and how did the idea for UNHCR Innovation first develop?

UNHCR Innovation started from the premise that good practices are either happening within UNHCR, but are not known, or are happening outside UNHCR and therefore need to be identified and brought into the UNHCR environment. Inspired by the core values of The IKEA Foundation (innovation as a constant lens for viewing opportunities for improvement, cost savings and higher impact), a small innovation-focused team was formed in April under the leadership of the High Commissioner and the direct supervision of the Deputy High Commissioner. The team was tasked with a broad mandate:

a)    Amplify innovations within UNHCR, building on existing good practices and giving recognition to those who are contributing to innovation within the organization;

b)    Connect like-minded innovators within UNHCR and give them the time, resources and expertise to design solutions for field-identified challenges (iFellows); and

c)    Explore the wealth of innovative practices outside of UNHCR, matching internal expertise with external knowledge, especially the private sector and academia.

The first time UNHCR Innovation was given public visibility was in July 2012, when the Deputy High Commissioner addressed UNHCR’s annual consultations with non-governmental organizations (NGO) – a wide sector-based audience of more than 430 participants from 86 countries.


2.   Can you tell us a little about the team and where it is based? How does the UNHCR Innovation team carry out documentation of innovation practices?

UNHCR Innovation spans Geneva, Nairobi and Bangkok. The core innovation team (iTeam) consists of five roles. The Lead External Partnership, Olivier Delarue, is the link between UNHCR Innovation and the world outside of UNHCR and also ensures an overall coordination role for UNHCR Innovation. Besides being the UNHCR Innovation evangelist and representing UNHCR Innovation with the private sector, he strategically and pro-actively engages partners and potential private sector innovation supporters. He remains on standby to seek funds, solutions, expertise and products necessary to address a particular challenge.

When UNHCR Innovation is requested to become more involved in an operation, it is primarily the role of the Operations Officer, Chris Earney, to follow a five-step solution development process to help resolve a challenge, from challenge definition to scaling of the solutions.

The ICT Innovations in Education Specialist, Jackie Strecker, works closely with the Education Unit in headquarters and the field to develop and implement strategies to incorporate information communication technologies (ICTs) within education service provision to improve quality, expand access and increase education opportunities.

Gaela Roudi-Fraser, the Livelihoods Officer, oversees our engagement in and strategies for livelihoods programmes to support refugee self-reliance.

Rocco Nuri, the Communications Officer, raises awareness of innovations among UNHCR staff and the general public, through developing public information products and engaging on social media networks. He is also responsible for tracking the progress of the projects together with the Operations Officer.

3.   How does the UNHCR Innovation team carry out documentation of innovation practices?

We follow a straightforward solution development process consisting of five steps, as follows: 1) Defining field challenges; 2) Identifying solutions; 3) Testing of solutions; 4) Refining of solutions based on learning from the field test; and 5) Scaling the solutions across relevant UNHCR operations. Although evaluative thinking is embedded throughout the process, at the end of each phase, we step back and evaluate on successes and failures to ensure that all aspects  - positive and negative - are reflected in the project documentation template we developed. This process place emphasis on the value of learning from experiences, allowing UNHCR to highlight good practices but also share invaluable lessons from the challenges we face.

4.   Can you explain to us the relationship between innovation and refugee protection & sustenance issues?

Re-thinking refugee protection through the innovation lens means, inter alia, reviewing the approach to refugee livelihoods and self-reliance and, accordingly, the role of donor states and the private sector. There has been tendency to delegate to donor states and the broad constellation of UN agencies and NGOs the responsibility to create job opportunities for refugees. While the role of donor states is critical in the early stages of an emergency for the quick delivery of relief assistance, the private sector is in a more privileged position to generate employment opportunities in a sustainable manner. In the words of Alexander Betts, Director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project, “by simultaneously benefiting citizens of a host state, private sector job creation may also gradually enable refugees to be perceived as a 'benefit' rather than a 'burden', and so change restrictive regulatory frameworks in host states. The private sector is a crucial missing link - but one that needs to be incorporated based on clear principles that ensure opportunities are protection-enhancing.”

5.   What are the benefits of self-reliance and self-dependency within the refugee context and how do these attributes flow from development and use of innovation practices?

In the refugee context, innovation may be seen a mind-set to analyze challenges and develop solutions building on refugees’ skills and practices first and foremost. Refugee empowerment and self-reliance are long-term results of a process whereas refugees are part of the solution-finding methodology and their talents the foundation for solution development.

As Alexander Betts put it “self-reliance relates to people’s ability to meet their needs in a sustainable and dignified way rather than remain in a situation of long-term dependency. Innovation is a methodology for specifying problems, identifying possible untapped solutions, adapting them to context, and where appropriate, scaling them. Around the world refugees engage in an array of economic activities, often under the radar. Yet, there may be untapped practices among refugees, with UNHCR, or beyond, that could inform new approaches that build upon refugees’ existing livelihood assets and strategies. New approaches to microcredit, social enterprise development, vocational training, agricultural techniques, business incubation, and data outsourcing may have potential to enhance autonomy, when adapted appropriately to context.”

In the past couple of years there has been a significant expansion in the use of ICT. How has that influenced the work of UNHCR within refugee communities that it works with?

Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are playing a crucial role in many aspects of UNHCR’s engagement with refugee communities. UNHCR and its partners have been exploring ways to leverage SMS systems to inform and alert refugees on issues like health, hygiene, and sexual and gender-based violence services. ICTs are also being used to expand educational opportunities; whereby a range of digital tools (from mobile phones to tablets) are being tested for their ability to enrich educational and livelihood programs, increase opportunities for distance and higher learning, and foster informal peer-learning forums. UNHCR has also been increasingly adopting new ICT technologies to enhance core activities such as registration of asylum seekers and refugees through the use of biometrics, profiling of persons of concern through tablet-run surveys, and tracking the distribution of non-food items through bar code reading devices.

7.   How focused is the work of UNHCR Innovation team around development and use of ICT in activities such as outreach and participation, education etc. within refugee communities?

Although ICT is increasingly becoming a cross-cutting issue when designing our programmes, UNHCR Innovation’s efforts are not focused on the use and development of ICT. We support UNHCR colleagues in the field and headquarters to address challenges of different descriptions, by following the five-step solution development process set out above. It may happen that ICT solutions be enlisted among an array of possibilities to resolve a challenge, depending on the nature of the challenge itself.

We are currently involved in four projects with ICT components. The Community Technology Access in Dadaab (Kenya), supported by Microsoft and HP, aims to improve the quality of education by enabling youth and teachers to access greater educational resources through the use of computer labs and a multi-institutional learning system; Skype-in-the-Class will be piloted in Kakuma (Kenya) with assistance from FilmAid International in the second quarter of 2013, providing mobile labs from which primary and secondary students can connect with experts, teachers, and peers from around the world; the Refugee Access project in Nairobi (Kenya) has been initiated with the aim to improve refugees’ access to information and services at the UNHCR Branch Office through an integrated system of SMS, interactive voice response application and a calendar-based scheduling system for interview; and in cooperation with UPS, UNHCR Innovation is developing a portable bar code reading device that will track non-food item distributions at the individual level and link to the ProGres refugee database.  

In February this year, we supported Digital Democracy to help Haitian organization Kofaviv expand its hotline services for SGBV survivors from local to national level, through the development of a map-based platform enabling call center operators to easily locate SGBV services in the caller’s area.

8.   One aim of UNHCR Innovation is to ‘explore’ existing innovation research outside UNHCR. How does UNHCR Innovation plan to use/ adapt such available, documented examples of Innovation in its work?

Explore is one of the three pillars of UNHCR Innovation’s strategy, along with Amplify and Connect. It is our job at UNHCR Innovation to connect to private companies, academic institutions and other organizations and tap into their wealth of knowledge to make sure that we continue to look at every challenge in a new light and approach every obstacle from an unusual perspective. Exploring external expertise practically means, inter alia, sourcing the best solutions from the outside, seeking expert advice to adapt an external solution to a internal challenge, and seeking external resources for solution development.

9.   UNHCR Innovation also seeks to document innovation by refugee and population of concerns under UNHCR purview. Can you tell us the importance of documenting such innovation and how it may be used in the future?

Refugees are the ultimate recipients of UNHCR Innovation’s activities and key actors in defining field challenges and designing solutions. They are the ‘original innovators’, as they have been forced to adapt to new environments and rapidly changing circumstances. They are a key source of innovative approaches, ideas, assets and skills to learn from and build on when developing solutions to field challenges. During are recent visit to Dollo Ado we came across very inspiring stories of refugee entrepreneurship and self-employment like Somali Wess, who opened a little blacksmith workshop in Bokolmanyo, or Somali Mariam who formed a women’s cooperative of twenty to produce and sell straw handicrafts.

We are working with the Humanitarian Innovation Project to document bottom-up approaches that build directly on the skills, initiative and entrepreneurship of refugee populations. The Oxford initiative’s initial focus is on refugee livelihoods, analyzing ways in which refugees’ own skills and aspirations offer a basis to develop market-based solutions to refugee protection and assistance.

10.          Besides documentation of existing Innovation research and practice, what other activities is the UNHCR Innovation team is engaged in—can you give us an overview?

In addition to the above-mentioned projects, UNHCR Innovation has been supporting UNHCR in Dollo Ado (Ethiopia) to re-think refugee assistance vis-a-vis renewable energy, shelter and livelihoods. We facilitated community discussions with refugees to identify cost effective, local solutions to shelter and site planning. As a result, a transitional shelter model was developed with locally sourced materials (bamboo and mud plaster) and through workshops where refugees are employed. Nearly 7,200 transitional shelters have been constructed to date across five camps in Dollo Ado, quickly replacing emergency tents and improving the quality of housing for the refugee community. We also provided support and recommendations on how to respond to field challenges related to energy and domestic fuel. A strategy for solar lighting and alternative energy sources is under development as a result.

11.          UNHCR Innovation recently visited the Dollo Ado Refugee camp, Can you tell us briefly about this visit and the purpose of this visit?

We are currently in Dollo Ado to support the team on the ground to address challenges in the field of shelter, renewable energy and livelihoods as well as sanitation and hygiene through a solution development process. In particular, we are looking at creating self-reliance opportunities for refugees through investments in farming and agriculture, and exploring alternative sources of energy for cooking and lighting in order to reduce dependence on fuel wood.

12.          Which are the non-UNHCR partners that UNHCR Innovation is working with and in what areas (technology, clean energy, education, shelter etc.)?

In addition to the solid partnership with The IKEA Foundation, during the course of 2012 new relationships and partnerships have been initiated with a variety of organizations and institutions. UNHCR Innovation has been strongly involved in supporting Stanford University students to design solutions for refugee community outreach activities and other refugee-inspired challenges. The partnership with the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre is based, inter alia, on documentation of bottom-up good practices, in particular in the area of refugee livelihoods. A new partnership with Return on Innovation (ROI) supported by Hunter and Stephanie Hunt was also established to support the development of a digital platform for idea management – SPIGIT. The previously established partnership with Refugee Housing Unit led to the development of a shelter prototype in ultra-light steel and polypropylene. UNHCR Innovation supported Digital Democracy to design a solution on SGBV-support services for Haitian organization Kofaviv. We had inspiring and dynamic interactions with leading companies in the field of Data Visualization like Hyperakt and Seed.

13.          UNHCR has also worked closely with IKEA and the Refugee Housing Unit- a non-profit arm of IKEA. Can you tell us about the work that has been undertaken by the RHU in collaboration with the UNHCR and how that is going to be developed by UNHCR in the future?

Over the last three years, UNHCR has been working on the development of a shelter prototype with the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), a subsidiary of the Swedish non-profit foundation SVID, fifteen companies and three universities across five countries. To date, the IKEA Foundation has contributed more than US $2 million in support of this project. UNHCR organized a display at UNHCR HQs in Geneva early this year to showcase the model developed by RHU and convene a discussion on new shelter solutions for persons of concern to UNHCR. The prototype was tested in Sweden last September. Fifty-two units will be shipped to Ethiopia in April 2013 for field-testing in Dollo Ado. The field test will help clarify if and how to go about the next phases of solution refining and scale-up. UNHCR Innovation is leading this process together with the UNHCR Shelter and Settlement Section at HQs.

14.          Can you tell us about the UNHCR Light Years Ahead campaign, which was launched in 2011 and what is the current status of the campaign?

Light Years Ahead campaign is a five-year thematic fund-raising campaign that UNHCR launched in January 2011 to provide solar lighting and fuel-efficient stoves for more than 450,000 refugees in seven African countries. Through this campaign, UNHCR was able to install and distribute approximately 200 solar-powered street lights, 15,000 lanterns and more than 8,000 fuel-efficient stoves in refugee camps in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda.

UNHCR is currently reviewing the successes of this initiative for potential replications in the future.

 15.          Can you give us some examples of innovation work or ICT application that are particularly impressive and have had a strong positive impact on humanitarian assistance worldwide?

Mobile technology has dramatically changed the landscape of the world we live in and profoundly transformed the way we do business in the humanitarian sector. Internet and mobile phones became a tool for sharing life-saving information; tablets software and mobile applications are rapidly replacing paper to generate, collect and share data or conduct surveys and profiling exercise; mobile devices are used to carry out population registrations and distribution of non-food items or make payments and transfer money through a simple SMS. Mobile technology has drastically shortened the distance between the so-called beneficiary populations and assistance providers, allowing for a more effective two-way communication. Nowadays, mobile technology is used for conflict prevention and reporting of human rights violations, and to provide access to education for the most disadvantaged populations. The examples of mobile technology applications in the humanitarian sectors are countless.

16.          What is the future vision of UNHCR Innovation?

 The visionary dream of UNHCR Innovation is to bring about a cultural change within UNHCR in that innovation, as a solution-development model as well as best products, services and systems for refugees, is systematically and effectively mainstreamed in its policies, practices and programmes on refugee protection and self-reliance.

Photo credits: 

All photos provided by guest. 

Q1. UNHCR Innovation Facebook page cover photo 

Q3. © UNHCR Innovation/R. Nuri. Somali refugee Abdi works in a local micro-farm cooperative a few kilometers from Hilaweyn refugee camp, next to Ethiopia’s river Genale. When the harvest is sold, the farm owner shares 50 percent of the profit with Abdi and all the other refugees working in his farm.

Q5. © UNHCR Innovation/R. Nuri. Somali refugee built his own mud oven and opened the first bakery in Bokolmanyo refugee camp, in the south of Ethiopia. His largest profits come from baking and selling wedding biscuits to the villages around the camp.

Q6. © Digital Democracy. UNHCR Innovation supported Digital Democracy to help Haitian organization Kofaviv expand its hotline services for SGBV survivors from local to national level, through the development of a map-based platform to enable call center operators to easily locate SGBV services in the caller’s area.

Q7. © UNHCR/E. Hayba. In February 2013, forty-three vocational youth centers, primary, and secondary schools in Dadaab refugee camp (Kenya) received computers and training support through a donation by Microsoft. This is part of the Community Technology Access project to improve access to and the quality of education.

Q10. © UNHCR Innovation/R. Nuri. Since early 2012, UNHCR and partners NRC, DRC, AHA and IOM constructed nearly 7,200 transitional bamboo shelters across five refugee camps in the Dollo Ado area, some 1,000 km south of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

Q11. © UNHCR Innovation/R. Nuri. In early 2010, Somali refugee Mariam (on the right) formed a women’s cooperative of twenty to produce and sell straw handicrafts in Bokolmanyo refugee camp, Ethiopia.

Q13. © UNHCR Innovation/R. Nuri. RHU shelter prototype as displayed at UNHCR HQs in Geneva in January 2013. Fifty-two units will be shipped to Ethiopia in April 2013 for field testing in Dollo Ado, at the Ethiopia-Somalia border.

Q16. Refugee-Redesign-Sketch-note-2012, ©, Stanford University. Stanford University students designed solutions for refugee community outreach activities and other refugee-inspired challenges with the support of UNHCR Innovation.

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Tags: Innovation, Refugees, UNHCR, livelihoods


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