This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2016. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative approaches the organization is taking to address complex refugee challenges and discover new opportunities. You can view the full microsite here.

Treating the symptom – not the root cause

Change is hard. This was one of the first lessons that Rumbidzai Mapolisa, Senior Resettlement Assistant based in UNHCR’s Harare, Zimbabwe office, learned during her UNHCR Innovation Fellowship journey. Once selected for the Fellowship, Mapolisa knew immediately she wanted to focus on issues linked with aid dependency and disempowerment in Tongogara refugee campin Zimbabwe.

Mapolisa was confident she already had the appropriate solution that would be at the center of her Fellowship. She had an idea to create a one-stop platform (web based marketplace/ecosystem) to showcase refugee talent, skills, and stories. The digital platform she envisioned would transcend the restrictions on employment and movement as refugees would trade online right from the camp. The platform would keep the refugees current and connect them to global village.

“I observed that refugees in Tongogara camp were forced to rely on aid and this had a debilitating effect on their productivity thereby creating a dependency syndrome. For most of them going on resettlement to the USA became the only viable option. They were living in a state of limbo awaiting the “American dream” and for many life would resume once they reach the shores of America. The web based platform was meant to connect them to the rest of the world as well as let the world know about them..I believed my idea was so brilliant and that obviously once we deployed this platform, it would revolutionize the refugees’ lives.  But after going to the Innovation Fellowship workshop, one of the first things they taught us was not to be married to our ideas and to test assumptions. Following the innovation process made me re-think my approach,” she says.

The Innovation Fellowship encouraged her to start engaging the community, to ask them what they wanted, and empower refugees to be innovators themselves. It wasn’t long before Mapolisa was championing this bottom-up approach and advocating for a refugee-centered design in her operation.

“I was treating the symptom instead of the root cause of the problem. We have to recondition our minds when thinking about humanitarian aid and the challenges refugees face. Changing this mindset is extremely difficult.”

Inspired by her initial lessons learned, Mapolisa recognized the opportunity and need to bring this approach to her colleagues in the field. Change wasn’t an easy path but it was one she was steadfast in expanding outside of her Fellowship experience.

An operation ripe for innovation

This new approach soon expanded beyond just Mapolisa’s Innovation Fellowship. Her curiosity and unwavering commitment to refugee-led innovation had soon spread across UNHCR’s Zimbabwe operation. Two colleagues, Kennedy Chimsoro, an Assistant Programme Officer, and Esther Kirimi, a Protection Officer, played an integral part in catalyzing innovation at the operational level alongside Mapolisa.

The Fellowship fed into what the Zimbabwe operation is doing now – a catalyst to expand what was already happening on the ground. The operation started strategically incorporating the innovation methodology at a small scale and gradually implemented these new ways of working into their day to day jobs. “Through Rumbi’s guidance and assistance in trying to escalate the innovation approach…we have now mainstreamed this in our country operations plan,” explains Chimsoro.

In 2017, UNHCR Zimbabwe will have embedded this refugee-centered design and innovation process in their programming cycle – a first for the organization.

Strategically bringing the innovation process into the operation

The Zimbabwe operation is now using this innovation approach for multi-year planning and to address the simple fact that funding is lower due to the growing demands of humanitarian resources. “Innovation is becoming even more necessary in terms of identifying workable, practical solutions that can assist in programme implementation whether it’s at the planning stage, the needs assessment, or during monitoring. With regards to the Strategic Directions of the High Commissioner, the innovation approach is quite critical,” says Kirimi.

UNHCR Zimbabwe is not just looking at the one-year planning cycle to understand how to embed innovation within their operation; the staff in the operation are looking much farther beyond that. They wanted to ensure that innovation touched all levels of their country operation. This multifunctional approach to innovation now involved the entire Zimbabwe office, even outside of their innovation focal points that have been identified. “If you talk to people in admin, in programme, in protection, they all know about innovation. We are hoping that we can keep utilizing it in the different steps of our programme cycle.”

Including innovation in their country operations plan was not the only step to create this shift. They are also bringing the innovation model into how they view partners. The operation hopes this new approach can help diversify their partnership base, and therefore feed into their mobilization framework. Internally and externally, they included innovation within all their stakeholder engagement meetings to confirm that innovation was included within their objectives to feed into the result based framework.

“We try to simplify innovation so it’s not just this big concept that we have to implement, but we break it down into small components that feed into the results-based framework and then into the activities, outputs, and overall objectives.” says Chimsoro. “If you are looking at this programme cycle, one of the key things we have started to do is incorporate innovation into our resource mobilization.”

Another area the team has utilized this approach is through rethinking needs assessments with the refugee community. Refugees are being engaged outside of the traditional focus group discussions, usually reserved for insights into how to build their programming. They are exploring new ways to include refugees directly in monitoring and programme implementation, and giving them a role over and above what UNHCR normally does in terms of financial verification and issues of performance. This focus of empowerment, two-way feedback, and self-reliance is at the core of UNHCR Zimbabwe’s innovation methodology: always start with the community member themselves.

“I believe the more refugees become self-reliant, they are able to innovate, the better the protection environment will become. The more you truly engage refugees and more importantly, listen to them, I believe, we will undoubtedly have better protection in the camps,” says Kirimi.

The team argues that the benefits of this engagement approach are two-fold. Through prototyping solutions led by refugees themselves, UNHCR will, in turn, save costs by not providing solutions that refugees themselves aren’t interested in. “In the end, using this innovative approach is good for the refugees, it is also good for the organization, and in terms of how we are effective in carrying out our daily activities whether it’s in programming or admin,” explains Mapolisa.

Despite the end of her Fellowship year, Mapolisa is still focusing on the issue of dependency in the camps but looking at it with an innovation lens. And now with her entire operation on board to tackle the challenges.

“UNHCR in Zimbabwe is very committed to promoting innovation in our operation. The team is exploring innovative solutions for service delivery and employing the innovation process to engage persons of concern towards self-reliance. It is our pride and joy and we hope to see more innovative solutions from our persons of concern. I credit our Innovation Fellow, Rumbidzai Mapolisa for her concerted efforts in starting this process for us, and facilitating innovation in our operation,” adds Mr. Robert Tibagwa, UNHCR’s Representative in Zimbabwe.

Moving from dependence to dignity

It’s hard to ignore the cultural shift in how UNHCR Zimbabwe is working with refugees on the ground. They are trying to move away from what Chimsoro describes as the “dependence syndrome.” A key aspect of this shift is activating the “creative confidence” of refugees and creating the space for them to identify their challenges, their own solutions, and be empowered enough to implement these solutions.

“I think the innovative approach we’re going towards achieving is a real change of mindset with refugees and other people of concern to ensure they become more proactive and not only depend on UNHCR for assistance,” explain Chimsoro.

Despite the strict structures of UNHCR’s programming cycles – that can often leave little room to innovate – UNHCR Zimbabwe was committed to finding a way that the process could be mainstreamed at the operational level. “We would want to inspire innovation by refugees and for refugees. What we are doing at this level now is including this within our programming cycles, and creating a structure for this type of activity to continue strategically,” says Mapolisa.

Many of these changes came down to one word for the team: dignity. The refugee-centered approach, they believe, will not only have higher success for UNHCR but much better impact for refugees in the end. “We’re actually listening to the refugees. So inherently our desire is more empathetic, it is more relevant, it’s more useful to them, it’s more life transforming.”

Mapolisa, Kirimi, and Chimsoro are optimistic that one day this approach could become the norm for not only UNHCR but for all organizations working in humanitarian aid.

Change is not without pain points

As other operations look to replicate the good practices surrounding innovation in Zimbabwe, the team believes there are some crucial lessons learned. One of the first major challenges was buy-in with the operation. This lack of buy-in was partially because innovation itself was a bit of a mysterious term – did it mean technology or bringing in new apps for refugees? There was a lot of confusion surrounding the elusive idea of “innovation” that they had to address.

“People sometimes don’t quite understand what innovation is,” explains Mapolisa. “How is it different from how we’re doing things anyway? How is it going to benefit persons of concern? If people haven’t seen what it is, it’s a bit difficult to relate to it. And some were concerned that in many ways we would be reinventing the wheel.”

Mapolisa highlights that the big takeaway from this process is that one must keep trying to innovate, even if you think you may fail. This can often require you to “innovate around how to innovate” within your local context. “You have to be flexible and keep re-thinking strategies to achieve your desired outcome. You have to find a way to win, to keep working at it, and explore how you can tie creativity to existing solutions.”

The need for buy-in and acceptance of the process was required at all levels – including the refugee themselves. The UNHCR Zimbabwe operation ensured that refugees understood not only what the concept meant but how it could be used to empower the communities where they live.

“I think sometimes the word innovation just sounds so big and complex that it scares a lot of people away,” explains Kirimi. But when UNHCR staff explained the opportunities for innovation with the refugee communities, they become extremely excited at the prospects. “Once they understood that we’re trying to tap into their ideas, their talents, their skills, they were very interested in the approach. Some of them even started telling us about the innovative things that they were doing before they became refugees,” she says.

Through giving refugees this space to experiment with innovation and more importantly, feel like their ideas were being listened to, the team began witnessing a mindset shift in the camp.

“After coming into the camp and relying on UNHCR for so long, they almost forgot how to be innovative. But once we bring the discussion to the table, we see the excitement…people start telling us ‘oh we can do this, we could do this, we used to this, I have a skill for this,’” says Kirimi. She highlights that it’s important to explain how innovation benefits communities not only in the short term but also emphasizing the longer-term effects of such programming. But the question to follow is always: “I may have an idea. But what’s next?”

Unfortunately, like almost all other UNHCR operations, UNHCR Zimbabwe is facing more funding cuts as needs grow across the world.  The team acknowledged the importance of managing expectations, as they do not have the capacity to take every new idea forward. But they are hoping innovation can provide an answer to this challenge as well.

One way the office is addressing this problem is adapting their partnership approach at the local level for UNHCR. This includes reaching out to private sponsors and non-traditional partners to come and work with the teams in the camp. “What we are trying to do is identify some of the skills and ideas that young people have, and link these young people to private companies, innovators, or institutions that would be interested in their ideas as opposed to UNHCR taking on that responsibility,” Kirimi explains. “So now we are walking hand in glove with the different partners to make this happen,” adds Chimsoro.

For other UNHCR staff and operations interested in recreating this model, Chimsoro says that it’s also important to recognize that innovation is a continuous process. “We are still in the present. I think that’s the good part about innovation. It’s not a magic pill that you take and simply have all the right solutions. The dynamics will change each time.”

The operation is now taking these principles of innovation and continuously applying them to new and old challenges so that it becomes more of a mindset for staff. “The moment people start to change the way they do things, then they start to adapt to new approaches, ” says Chimsoro. This recognition of innovation as a theory of change, instead of just a set of activities, will ultimately be the main driver for behavior change for staff in the field. UNHCR’s Zimbabwe operation is convinced that this mindset shift will also be the catalyst for larger changes in how we view humanitarian aid and refugee themselves.

The traditional approach is no longer enough

The key to scaling this innovative mindset to other operations will start with questioning the status-quo of how aid is delivered. There are more needs, more people, and less funding available.

“The multi-year, multi-partner approach is something that you simply cannot do without incorporating innovation. Even just looking a the traditional way of approaching donors is now different. They are requesting different types of modalities which include innovative methods that are sustainable. It is obvious that the traditional approach is no longer enough,” argues Chimsoro.

In today’s world, people are displaced for an average of eighteen years – a number expected to rise over the next decade should displacement trends continue. “We see refugees being born in refugee camps, having children in refugee camps, and dying in camps,” says Kirimi. She argues that the three durable solutions for refugees, voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement are no longer enough.

“We know those three solutions are not the only solutions that we should look at. Now more and more we’re talking about finding solutions, permanent solutions, away from the traditional three solutions that we’ve always, as UNHCR, talked about. Now we’re challenged because we have more people becoming refugees and fewer people finding solutions. Few are getting out of this cycle.”

UNHCR Zimbabwe recognized that focusing on empowering refugees to become self-reliant may be another solution to explore. Through this process, UNHCR can then reduce assistance as refugees become self-sustaining and to move simply to targeted assistance of the most vulnerable.

“In most operations, we are satisfied as humanitarian workers knowing that you know we’ll give food, water, clothing, health and that’s it. But can we rethink solutions? Innovation gives us an opportunity to change our perspective as the UN, as aid workers and humanitarian workers, to actually begin to see refugees on an equal footing as real agents of change. They can actually take their destiny into their own hands and stand on their own two feet and come up with ideas and ways of solving their problems even better than we can” says Kirimi.

Creating this change across other the entire organization will take time, but if UNHCR Zimbabwe can measure the impact of this approach – it may be the spark to catalyze a new wave of transformation within UNHCR.

“For me I think that embracing innovation within UNHCR, especially adopting this bottom-up approach where we allow refugees to be innovators, I think it’s going to have a great impact in how we deliver. It will have a great impact on how effective we are in actually delivering our services to persons of concern,” argues Chimsoro.

UNHCR Zimbabwe and the team behind the operation are leaders in this area, with a willingness to not only try new ideas but to rethink how we are operating in the field and the humanitarian system. They believe that we cannot leave innovation out of emergencies and that we must shift the very core of how we interact with refugees as our beneficiaries.

But Mapolisa, Kirimi, and Chimsoro are quick to highlight that it won’t be humanitarians who will be the leaders solving the great problems of tomorrow. Mapolisa is eager to expand on this idea, “I’m hoping that in Zimbabwe, the refugee innovators will come up with groundbreaking solutions that will change whole of the humanitarian sector. The potential is there, we just need to give them the opportunity,”

“They are the real innovators,” she says.