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Innovation to the Rescue: New Ideas and Tech for Helping Refugees

By Rocco Nuri, Neha Bhat | March 21, 2013

CREDIT: Internews Europe (CC).

Neha Bhat interviews Rocco Nuri of the UNHCR Innovation team on how new ideas and technologies are improving service delivery and livelihoods for refugees. A version of this article first appeared on Global Ethics Network.

NEHA BHAT: When and how did the idea for UNHCR Innovation first develop?

ROCCO NURI: 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 [2012] under the leadership of the High Commissioner and the direct supervision of the Deputy High Commissioner. The team was tasked with a broad mandate:

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

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

  3. 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 nongovernmental organizations (NGO)—a wide sector-based audience of more than 430 participants from 86 countries.

NEHA BHAT: Can you explain to us the relationship between innovation and refugee protection and sustenance issues?

ROCCO NURI: Rethinking refugee protection through the innovation lens means reviewing the approach to refugee livelihoods and self-reliance and, accordingly, the role of donor states and the private sector. There has been a 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."

NEHA BHAT: 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?

ROCCO NURI: 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.

NEHA BHAT: How focused is the work of UNHCR Innovation team around development and use of ICT within refugee communities?

ROCCO NURI: We are currently involved in four projects with ICT components:

  1. 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;

  2. 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;

  3. The Refugee Access project in Nairobi (Kenya) has been initiated with the aim to improve refugee 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

  4. UNHCR Innovation is developing a portable bar code reading device, in cooperation with UPS, that will track non-food item distributions at the individual level and link to the ProGres refugee database.

In February 2013, 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.

NEHA BHAT: UNHCR Innovation also seeks to document innovations by refugee populations. Can you tell us the importance of this and how the knowledge may be used in the future?

ROCCO NURI: Refugees are 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. During our 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.

NEHA BHAT: 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?

ROCCO NURI: 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.

NEHA BHAT: Who are the partners that UNHCR Innovation works with—on technology, clean energy, education, shelter?

ROCCO NURI: In addition to the solid partnership with The IKEA Foundation, during the course of 2012 new relationships and partnerships were 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 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.

NEHA BHAT: Tell us more about your work with the Refugee Housing Unit.

ROCCO NURI: 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 $2 million in support of this project. UNHCR organized a display at UNHCR headquarters 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 refining and scaling it up. UNHCR Innovation is leading this process together with the UNHCR Shelter and Settlement Section.

CREDIT: UNICEF Ethiopia (CC).

NEHA BHAT: Can you tell us about the UNHCR Light Years Ahead campaign?

ROCCO NURI: 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 future replication.

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

ROCCO NURI: 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 exercises; 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 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.

NEHA BHAT: What is the future vision of UNHCR Innovation?

ROCCO NURI: 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 programs on refugee protection and self-reliance.

NEHA BHAT: Excellent. Thanks so much.

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