Malaysia. Skyping with family members separated by boat crisis. Photo Credit: © UNHCR/Keane Shum

Following on from last week’s post, today we’re going to unpack some of the lessons learned from the first pilots delivered through the Connectivity for Refugees initiative, the overall approach to implementing the strategy, and the strategy itself. These conclusions were drawn following an internal interim assessment that utilised the following criteria: effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, sustainability, and innovation.

The initiative was not able to fundraise to the extent initially hoped for, and as such, a team was established but smaller in number than originally envisioned. As mentioned previously, countries were selected and operational activities were implemented over the course of just over two years.

1. Plan for meeting fundraising goals, prepare as if you won’t: UNHCR set itself an ambitious fundraising goal of USD 6 million in the first year, announced in the launch report. We thought as many of our partners did; that the nature of the topic would lead to a high level of interest from fundraisers. Sadly, the world had other ideas and humanitarian aid and development funding has faced challenges across the board: the goal wasn’t reached, understandably. The parameters of the pre-determined fundraising effort hampered the Connectivity for Refugees initiative’s ability to pivot as necessary to face these new realities, and using money that was internally made available in more creative ways.

2. Building new profiles and structures is resource intensive: A lot of effort went into trying to support the establishment of the Connectivity Coordinators throughout operations, firstly by encouraging field operations to invest, and also through dialogue with the UNHCR’s regional bureaux. This internal advocacy was resource intensive and could have been more systematic, with greater coordination with UNHCR’s Human Resources division. While a number of staff in ICT posts were engaged, the initiative could have leaned further on the broad range of skills within existing protection and field delivery teams as well, with less of a focus on the technical / infrastructure side, but more background in engaging with local communities to assess need, and coordination with diverse stakeholder groups.

3. Centralised programming and administration slows progress: With a core team established in HQ, and few coordinators in place, the team started to become quite heavily involved in certain projects that were to take place at field level, without having the necessary accountabilities or authorities on delivering such projects. Additionally, taking on aspects of programme design for field operations from HQ has resulted in more complex and resource intensive programming.

4. Creating a dedicated thematic can result in the issue becoming siloed: Having dedicated Connectivity coordinators sometimes resulted in the issue of connectivity becoming siloed away from areas that would benefit from it i.e. in one operation digital education was the responsibility of the Connectivity coordinator, rather than being driven from within UNHCR’s local education team. In another operation, aspects of communicating with communities were to be delivered by the connectivity coordination function, rather than integrated into community based protection programming.

5. Evidence and Data: There were significant resources invested in research at the outset of the initiative through the partnership with Accenture. However, when speaking publicly about the project, or the state of connectivity in a particular country, or even whether legal access was available to networks for refugees, there was limited documentation of pilot initiatives to date. This has hampered UNHCR’s ability to broker partnerships or undertake data-driven decision-making.

6. Creating field-level buy-in is difficult without supporting resources: It was easiest to generate buy-in for the project where resources from headquarters were allocated to a field operation. When an operation’s own resources were required – whether financial or human, the issue was deprioritized in light of broader budget contractions in other areas that critically required resources. The case that connectivity is a cross-cutting supporting infrastructure to many areas of delivery from cash-transfer programming through to education. We’ve seen connectivity bring about an array of opportunities in these areas and the initiative could have made a better case for investment in connectivity that would result in exponential gains across the operation.

7. Top-down solutions are less effective: Applying solutions we have developed (either in HQ by the initiative or its partners) top-down to challenges we look for has resulted in numerous project inefficiencies. For instance, in one operation community mobile phone charging stations were simply too large and bulky – something that could’ve been avoided with more community involvement in the design stage of the project. Across the board, many of these issues could have been addressed with adequate and appropriately driven community consultation and feedback. Where communities had ownership, and buy-in, connectivity projects were generally more effective, for example the Refugee Information Centre in Uganda was established by a community based organisation with resources pooled from the local community – including their own laptops and smartphones. This demonstrates the importance the community places on connectivity, and their willingness to sustain the centre and maintain access.

8. Legal barriers can make or break Connectivity for Refugees: There were and are numerous locations where legal and regulatory restrictions prevented any form of a project or interventions from taking place. In many cases this was having a lack of clarity about whether refugees were able to access SIM cards or not. Further efforts need to be taken to understand the legal and regulatory barriers to connectivity which means understanding the legal and regulatory frameworks and advocating for technical changes to incorporate refugees into these, or potentially policy shifts where they are found to be exclusionary.

9. While the business case in many areas is strong, sometimes it is not commercially viable and alternative solutions need to be explored: A lot of focus is being placed on sustainability of connectivity initiatives, in that services remain when UNHCR’s ability to fund things on an ongoing basis decreases due to prioritisation of new emergency refugee situations. Where connectivity through mobile network infrastructure is commercially viable the spending power of communities is sufficient to connect populations on an ongoing basis; there is a good business case for Mobile Network Operators. Sustainability is often difficult even when there is a business case, as profit margins may or may not result in commercial viability, but there are many areas where a viable solution may be tricky to establish at all and alternative approaches need to be explored, acknowledging – realistically – that UNHCR’s resources that may need to be invested on an ongoing basis to keep the population connected.

10. Impact is difficult and resource intensive to measure. The project team gave priority to kick-starting a number of pilots and initiatives over the first two years, with more time invested in getting new things off the ground as opposed to reflecting on how the pilots were being undertaken, and what impact they were having. Though some key performance indicators had been outlined within the initial strategy document, substantive application of and measurement of the pilots against these is still ongoing, with many more insights still to be gleaned from these endeavours.

Next week, we’ll post up our take on how we’re going to move forward from these lessons. Comments and thoughts are welcome via the contact form.