Looking back: how did we do in Uganda?

At the beginning of this year, we wanted to take a critical look at our engagement with the Uganda operation. The Uganda operation was one we invested in heavily as a team, having supported through four missions and on-going remote support from 2016 – 2018. By undertaking this critical review, we wanted to get a better understanding of what went well in and the opportunities to improve our support for innovation in field operations. We wanted to use lessons learned from a more sustained engagement and investment to guide our work moving forward. Evidence-informed iterations are central to all of our work.

We began providing support to the Uganda operation in September 2016 in the wake of the South Sudan Emergency Response in West Nile Region. This included four missions to date. Our primary focus was to facilitate the design of Communicating with Communities initiatives and the establishment of appropriate feedback mechanisms to detect and report potential fraud and other issues.

During the first three missions, ideas were developed with the UNHCR team, partners, and refugees, in order to address information sharing challenges in the various settlements in the West Nile Region. Among those ideas were Boda Boda Talk Talk (an information-sharing project), new partnerships with local organisations and non-traditional partners such as Mobile Network Operators and ways to strengthen coordination structures.

The fourth mission focussed primarily on reviewing and documenting our own actions – the way UNHCR’s Innovation Service functions and operates. We attribute high importance to the critical reflection of our own actions and the impact that we have been able to achieve – or not. We want to be held accountable for the resources we use and we are keen to improve. We assert the only way to do this is by learning from our mistakes, good and poor practices, experiences and research. Therefore, we conducted a review of our Uganda interventions and analysed how we operated as a Service. There were obvious things that went well and others that did not, when it came to impact, and we wanted to understand exactly how we could do better.

To conduct this type of post-mortem review without having the options to look at indicators (there were none due to the organic development of the support), we’ve used Relevance, Effectiveness, Efficiency, Impact, Sustainability and the degree of Innovation as our criteria and would like to share our findings with you.

In a nutshell, here’s what we found and how we aim to improve:

We need to communicate better

  • Activity-oriented, localised Communicating with Community initiatives achieved far better traction than the proposed interventions that were contingent on systemic changes.
  • We will innovate how we communicate the urgency of our recommendations with the operation and within headquarters to better gain traction, particularly with Senior Management.

We can innovate in emergencies – and should

  • Emergencies are inherently ‘messy’ as systems and processes are yet to be established and staff turnover is high. While this creates obvious challenges, we found that there was space within emergencies to innovate. New funding sources, new ideas, and the fast pace create opportunities for innovation and this was the case in Uganda; as we were able to embed new activities into programming during the early stage of the response.
  • When we recognise we can add value in response to defined challenges, we will continue to engage in emergencies; keeping in mind mission scheduling, team composition, and appropriate resourcing.

We need to continue building capacities on the ground

  • Our four missions to Uganda reinforced the importance of capacity building with staff and partners – but this cannot be concentrated at field office level, nor should it be restricted to thematics. There is value in the building the capacity of colleagues to innovate. This element could have been strengthened across all four missions in Uganda.
  • In addition to building capacities related to the projects that we implement, we will mainstream competency building on innovation methodologies and tools – this includes providing training to operations, units and partners we engage with. In order to do so, we are investing in training-the-trainer activities within the Innovation team.

We need to invest in Community-Based Organisations

  • Our Uganda engagement has reinforced the value of working with Community-Based Organisations (CBOs). CBOs know about the issues, they have direct access to the community as they are part of the community, and they speak the same language(s) as the community.
  • As an important part of every mission, we will actively scope for existing CBOs and invest in building their capacities. We develop guidance for other operations to learn from the good practices experienced in Uganda. In Uganda, we entered a partnership with a refugee-led CBO to help UNHCR to effectively communicate with its constituents through various channels. The CBO is now registered as a national NGO in Uganda and will scale Communicating with Communities activities in 2018.

We need to innovate the way we Communicate with Communities

  • Localised Communicating with Communities activities initiated by UNHCR’s Innovation Service received positive feedback from communities, partners, and UNHCR staff. These are still sustained to date and are being scaled by partners.
  • The Innovation Service has produced guidance on these ‘new to UNHCR’  initiatives to support other operations with potential replication.

How we will change

Based on the conclusions of the review of our Uganda engagement, we will make a few corrections with regards to the way we work. These are the actions we’re taking forward and how we will change how we’re supporting innovation in UNHCR operations:

Focusing on multi-disciplinary mission teams: Learning from the third and fourth mission has informed our way-of-working, leading to the disbanding of an ‘Innovation Lab’ approach. Working in project teams, with diverse backgrounds allows us to bring a range of perspectives and experiences to our work within the Innovation Service.

Using flexible processes: Use of our flexible funding for small-scale interventions in the Uganda operation helped catalyse new Communicating with Communities initiatives and increased buy-in with colleagues. We will continue to explore how we can support operations to be more flexible, agile, and give them access to our resources where we see value-added.

Innovating across the continuum of our operations: The experience of working with Mobile Network Operators in Uganda, and engaging with development partners demonstrates how it is feasible to work with a ‘solutions lens’ even in an emergency context. We will continue to leverage such partners during future missions.

Listening to operations: The learning from the third mission highlights the importance of determining the best timing for missions, and the importance of prioritising our investments. This has led to the development of prioritisation criteria for future interventions, to ensure that we only engage when we can add value to ongoing operations.

Sharing knowledge and highlighting what works: Over the four missions, the Innovation Service undertook to Uganda, the importance of documenting and highlighting promises practices and the voices of staff and partners has been increasingly realised. This knowledge sharing function will continue to be key to missions.

We won’t stop reviewing our actions to grow into better facilitators for innovation inside and outside of the organisation. Let us know what you think!



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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