UNHCR Annual Consultations with NGOs 2019 Innovation Award

The UNHCR NGO Innovation Award celebrates efforts and achievements that advance the innovative delivery of services to refugees and people forced to flee.

UNHCR’s 2019 NGO Innovation Award

Reflections on inclusion, innovation  and the future

In 2019, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  launched the second Non Governmental Organization (NGO) Innovation Award to continue encouraging innovation among NGOs working with refugees and displaced persons. Organizations taking an innovative approach to partnerships and connectivity were invited to submit their proposals and solutions. These two categories were chosen with an understanding that nontraditional partnerships that are people-centered and community-based can overcome challenges in creative ways. It also acknowledges, in the current global landscape, the importance of addressing connectivity challenges in inclusive ways, a strategic priority for the Innovation Service. The award received 266 submissions from 59 countries and after a thorough selection process, a Jury panel selected the three winners of this year’s edition. 

  • Xavier Project provides community-led learning that enables refugees to lead fulfilled lives. In Uganda they partner with grassroots organizations and strengthen their skills and capacities to ensure that they can keep delivering quality services in their local communities. Their project, which leverages and amplifying the impact of refugee-led organizations was awarded the partnership category prize. 
  • Video Games Without Borders develops and distributes high-quality video games to make literacy accessible to all. The organization believes that accessible and engaging digital games can be a powerful tool to promote literacy and the psychosocial wellbeing of children around the world. Their free mobile game Antura and the Letters won in the connectivity category and, after being tested in Jordan, the idea is expanding to Afghanistan. 
  • Laboratorio 53 ONLUS strives to promote inclusion and facilitate refugees’ journey towards autonomy, through diverse activities promoting socialization, empowerment and creative self expression. They won the Jury’s choice prize, with their project “Invisible Guides” which uses storytelling and refugees’ experiences of displacement to create soundwalks through the city of Rome and bring together refugees and local communities.

UNHCR reached out to all three winners to hear their thoughts on innovation, inclusion and their hopes for the future after winning this award.

Inclusion first

Inclusion is at the center of UNHCR’s work with refugees. As the Global Compact on Refugees notes, “responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist. All partners and stakeholders should continue to develop and support consultative processes that enable refugees and host community members to assist in designing appropriate, accessible and inclusive responses”. In this endeavour, the importance of civil society and especially the organizations led by refugees are paramount. The NGO Innovation Award is one of many tools UNHCR is using to identify and promote inclusion and refugee-led initiatives. 

From making video games accessible to children in forced displacement situations to strengthening the skills of refugee-led organizations, inclusion played a strong role in this year’s NGO Innovation Award. All organizations emphasized the importance of working with local communities. For example, Xavier Project team remarked,“Inclusion means supporting members of the communities we serve to gain enfranchisement and a voice in the international development process. The people our projects benefit aren’t “beneficiaries”, nor “customers” – they’re partners.” Laboratorio 53 echoed this statement by saying that, “Inclusion means working together, refugees and local communities, to create a better society. In our idea, NGOs and local organizations can’t consider refugees only as beneficiaries of their work.”

A crucial reason to work with local communities is that they have a greater understanding of their own needs and can find the most appropriate solutions: “Not only do community projects cost less to implement than those run by INGOs, but they’re far more sensitive and adaptive to the challenges present in their communities,” says Xavier Project

According to the team at Video Games Without Borders, collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagement are crucial, particularly when it comes to scaling and  adapting ideas and projects to new places: “We always try to establish a win-win partnership with local organizations that know the context and its specific challenges. Engagement with and inclusion of communities shouldn’t be limited to single projects or initiatives, it should be at the core of each organization work:It’s time that both locals and refugees have equal decision-making power and can contribute to the short and long term objectives of organizations,” says Laboratorio 53.

Innovation in context 

These winning projects are a reminder that innovation is multifaceted and always defined by context: it cannot be captured, reduced, and simplified into a common essence or quality. Every organization participating in the award took a unique approach to solving the complex challenges they were faced with.

As Laboratorio 53 explains, an innovative approach to integration can create a bridge between the personal and the public spaces. Their project “Invisible Guides” connects refugees and hosting countries, bringing personal stories and experiences of displacement to both locals and tourists visiting Rome. 

For others, innovation involves connecting areas that aren’t traditionally associated with each other. As the team at Video Games Without Borders says, “we innovate by applying the best entertainment techniques to social impact.”

The winners’ insights suggest that rather than the big, sudden and disruptive lightbulb “ah-ha!” moment, more often than not, innovation happens as the result of recombining distinct elements, of smaller and almost unnoticeable shifts in the complex machinery of a system, organization or process. How can organizations work with what is already there, make it more efficient and effective, maximize the impact each of us can have individually? 

The Xavier Project tries to answer this question, proposing a model that increases the capacities of smaller organizations and helps build new coalitions, making the most out of the existing resources and learning from each other’s experiences.

The future

“We see the NGO Innovation Award as an important platform for new ideas, for giving organizations the space to try out new approaches.”  – Xavier Project 

The NGO Innovation Award was established to encourage and inspire UNHCR partners to use creative ideas and solutions to overcome the different challenges caused by forced displacement. Looking towards the future, this award has given all three winning organizations a foundation and support system to dream big and expand their projects. 

“We strongly believe in digital games as part of the innovations we need to change the world for the better. There is a growing interest in using digital entertainment for social change and the award will allow us to speed up the development of our project and accelerate our impact,” says Video Games Without Borders.

Through the NGO Innovation Award, UNHCR leverages NGOs’ creative capacity to deliver better services and solutions for refugees and displaced persons and make innovation more accessible. Given the success of the NGO Innovation Award amongst NGOs over the first and second editions, our hope is to continue and expand this initiative in 2020, exploring different themes and intersections of humanitarian innovation and inclusion in the context of forced displacement. 

Do you have ideas or suggestions on how to make the 2020 NGO Innovation Award even better? We are all ears. Please get in touch with us, email us here


UNHCR NGO Innovation Award 2018 Winners Story

Xavier Project: By professionally developing the skills and capacities of refugee and host community organizations, Xavier Project contributes to strengthening the capacity of community based organizations and refugee led organizations to  deliver quality services in refugee hosting areas and allowing best practices to be thoroughly outlined and added to the global conversation.

Video Games Without Borders: By producing an engaging, accessible and free mobile game, Video Games Without Borders improves literacy among refugee children regardless of geographic location or access to internet connectivity!

Laboratorio 53 ONLUS: Through their project “Invisible Guides – Soundwalks with the new citizens”, Laboratorio 53 ONLUS  gives asylum seekers and refugees the skills and the platform to creatively share their stories and experiences of a place they now call home.