UNHCR’s Energy Lab – a collaboration between UNHCR’s Energy & Environment and Innovation units recently ran a Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) funded, scenario-based training event. The training started off as a workshop, like so many others run the year previous. Why did it change?

What is the point?

It’s easy to state the goal of any training and capacity-building initiative – to build the capacity of the attendees so they can, for example, perform a specific task or set of tasks more effectively and efficiently. This will ideally spill over to the facilitators as well.

The specific objectives that fall within that overarching goal should be based on a learning needs assessment so that specific gaps in knowledge are understood before the workshop material and plan are developed. This is all too often a missing element.

Without identifying a clear and justifiable set of objectives it is often difficult to “see the point” in many capacity-building initiatives – particularly workshops.

A Common Phenomenon

Many of you may have attended a workshop (or many) where you found yourselves quietly (or not so quietly) thinking:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is the purpose of this workshop?
  • I’m glad for a break from work
  • How much is this costing?
  • This is the same as last year.
  • I’ve heard that before….
  • Is time actually moving more slowly ?
  • Has the earth stopped spinning?

You and I both know the list could go on.

A Traditional Approach

In my memory, the majority of workshops I’ve attended have traditionally had the following elements:

  • Poorly-prepared, poorly-presented presentations;
  • Power point slides dating back to the 1990’s;
  • Text-covered slides read out word for word;
  • “Group work” and plenary discussions;
  • Exotic locations and nice hotels; and
  • The same participants as last year.

A gravitational shift

Within the humanitarian sector traditional perspectives on capacity development are changing. More effective approaches to skills building are seen as not only critical to the development of humanitarian workers, but as a way to get better value from an investment that has traditionally cost a lot and not produced the proven results expected.

This has lead to a significant change to the approach taken to training and capacity-building initiatives. Well-planned, structured, and resourced training programs are taking the place of the “workshop” in increasing numbers.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, for example, have been recognized for the delivery of top-notch training programs in the field of Camp Coordination and Camp Management. These training programs are complemented by the Camp Management Toolkit, which has embraced new and online technologies to keep its users up-to-date. It has been regarded as one of the best “toolkits” within the sector.

The Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS) pushed the standard of training and capacity-building up even further when they developed the Profiling Coordination Training (PCT). The PCT immersed participants in an on-going and evolving scenario, allowing them to apply skills they were being taught in a dynamic “real” world environment. This training program has been very well received and recognized by many who have attended as the “best” training program of its type available today.

UNHCR’s award-winning Global Learning Centre (GLC) has also begun shifting the state of training and capacity-building initiatives. This has seen an increase in mix-media content and a combination of online-offline training packages. In fact, GLC is currently seeking crowd-sourced ideas on how it could leverage social media in learning

These significant shifts in the training and capacity-building landscape within the humanitarian sector are starting to creep into internal programs that are rarely run by training and capacity-building experts unlike those found in the GLC or JIPS.

Energy & Environment – Pressing Needs

The biggest challenge facing Energy & Environment programs at UNHCR globally is a lack of specific technical capacity in these two distinctly different fields. This is not to say UNHCR doesn’t have excellent staff in these fields; it does, but not enough to cover the needs of over 100 operations.

Where practitioners in the fields of energy and environment programming aren’t present the Energy & Environment unit and the Energy Lab is often relied on to provide technical support and guidance. Again the capacity available at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva is far less than that required in order to meet the increasing demand from the field.

As a result there is a push to “help field colleagues, without expertise in energy and environment programs, help technical experts at UNHCR headquarters, help them implement programs more effectively.”

The New Approach

The training was based on a real-world scenario set in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia that evolved over the three days of the training. During this time, participants worked through a series of activities that followed the initial phases of the innovation process:

  • challenge definition based on field needs;
  • ideation, rationalisation and prioritisation; and
  • prototype planning and testing.

Overlaid with this approach was an introduction to the (now developing) Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) toolkit, to highlight the importance of starting M&E activities during the pre-implementation phase of any project. This was weaved into the program through presentations, discussions, and group work on baseline and feasibility studies.

The approach also tested a new information delivery model, which compiled all training materials into a segmented (by session) training folder. This was used to help gather initial feedback on how an Energy & Environment toolkit could or should be structured to make it most useful for colleagues in the field.

The training also included hands-on, practical sessions to highlight the importance of simple physical testing using simple test equipment such as:

  • thermal cameras to highlight changes in temperature profile on cookstoves;
  • moisture content meters to measure the % moisture content of firewood and briquettes prior to combustion; and
  • LUX meters to measure the intensity of lights at the household and community level.

This equipment will be made available to them and their operations to ensure that the skills developed can be applied in the field.

Did it work?

Let’s see what participants said:

  • participants enjoyed the practical nature of the scenario-based learning;
  • participants asked that future trainings allow even more time for brainstorming and discussion;
  • all groups agreed that a tool kit for environment and energy interventions designed specifically for field use and based on the practical principles of this workshop would be useful; and
  • positive feedback was received directly from one of the SDC representatives at the training about its structure and content schedule.

The next frontier – where to from here? We would like to hear from you.

What is one thing you would like to see introduced or removed from workshops and trainings?

Have you ever been to a really great workshop or training? What made it great?

What about a bad one?



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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