What is the Emergency Lab?

Some of the greatest opportunities can also be quite daunting, can’t they? This is certainly the feeling I had when I realised that I was to be part of a new Emergency Lab that was being set up inside UNHCR.

The Innovation Unit, along with the Emergencies division in UNHCR HQ realised that it was no longer possible to shy away from innovating in emergency contexts: trying things differently, utilising new technologies, shifting paradigms to make real changes for refugees with some of the most acute needs that UNHCR are supporting day in, day out.

So the Emergency Lab was set up. In this first year of its existence, the focus of the Lab is on ‘Communicating with Communities’. There is some debate around this topic really means – as is highlighted by organisations such as the CDAC Network – and it can be approached in many different ways. Some people see it as a mechanism for accountability. Some as broadcasting information / PI. Some as a critical component of protection work, like UNHCR does.

In reality, it is all and none of these things. Communicating with communities is more like an ethos – it’s about putting the people we’re trying to help in the drivers seat. Many of the ideas around it are represented in commitments  4 and 5 of the Core Humanitarian Standard and the World Humanitarian Summit key action area of ‘Dignity’.

Dignity is impossible in isolation and without agency. Through ensuring communities have the facts and information they need to make decisions, and that their opinions, wants and needs can affect their situation, we are able to ensure their dignity. This is what Communicating with Communities is all about, and our starting point for the work of the Emergency Lab.

How does this look in reality?

Where to begin? Can innovation, and the occasional inherent failures, be justified in emergency situations? We think so and a good starting point for us was to take it to the field level as quickly as possible to see where we were able to add value without being an additional burden on operations. So we need to work out where this will be, and how we go about it…

While the Lab is global in focus we have to prioritise our activities. Needless to say, one of these priorities is the European refugee crisis, which the Emergency Lab will focus on in the immediate term. We had an immediate request from the team in fYR Macedonia to support and they were open to innovation so this became our first mission as a Lab (more on this below). There are of course many other areas of emergency which we’ll be exploring. For the time being, we have scouted out Yemen and the Burundi crisis as being emergencies to also prioritise.

In comparison to some of the Emergency Standby teams, the Lab will not be deployed per se, but go on frequent shorter missions that address various issues (that often fit with our innovation process) i.e. scoping challenge and assessing the situation, implementing and testing solutions, scaling.

One key benefit and also challenge we have had is that we essentially started with a blank canvas. This is enabling us to really listen, and start with a run of scoping missions in a variety of the  different priority countries, but we are also exploring some big-ticket items which you’ll hear about in our blog in due course.

The Emergency Lab will be publishing some documentation on its approach, and key goals for 2016, on the UNHCR Innovation website in due course but we would really like to bring you all with us on our journey of innovation and communicating with communities. We’re learning all the time and hope you do too.

The first Emergency Lab mission

As mentioned, our first mission was to the fYR of Macedonia. This took place in late November / early December of 2015 and was split between the main UNHCR office in Skopje and the field sites in Gevgelija and Tabanovce which are used by refugees as the main entry and exit points in fYR  of Macedonia. In some ways the fact there was only one main entry and exit point was actually an additional reason for heading the Macedonia. It made a scoping mission easier and we have heard from many colleagues that the geographical layout and many different route options available in Greece would’ve made our work more difficult. We hope to be able to add as much value as possible, as quickly as possible.

In order to really be a listening Lab, we need to start with scoping. As per the innovation process, challenges always come before solutions. The first days on site were spent getting an overview of what the narrative was for a refugee from the border, to the site and so on, interviewing many refugees and getting their take on what their journey had been like and what their experience of the site was. We spoke with UNHCR staff and implementing partner staff to see what their main challenges were, and also factored in our own observations.

Rather than repeat here, check out this blog post to read more about the ten main challenges we identified from this first mission.

Since the first mission to fYR of Macedonia, we have really been working on finding solutions that we can pilot to address some of these challenges. We have mainly focussed on tackling challenges 3 and 4 with solutions that spread across technology, content, and have required us to work closely with a variety of partners.

With most of the elements of the planning phase either complete or underway, we have just landed in fYR Macedonia and are ready to go and see what (if any) obstacles come before us in terms of implementation. We’ll be putting up another blog on our return to let you know how things go and what the specific solutions are. It is then when we will be able to start seeing what impact is having on refugees and their time at these sites we are operating in fYR of Macedonia, and whether any of these solutions could be scaled up across our operations in south-east Europe.



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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