Eastern Sudan is the largest concentration of refugees and asylum seekers. The region currently hosts 73,181 refugees and asylum seekers. After more than 40 years, eastern Sudan is also known as the oldest refugee situation in UNHCR’s history and is distinguished by high levels of dependency on external aid among the population. Conflict, political instability and chronic humanitarian crises in the sub-region have contributed to the protracted stay of these refugees in Sudan, leaving the majority in limbo—unable to repatriate voluntarily, to be resettled to third countries or to be locally integrated. Living conditions in eastern Sudan are harsh. Residents face acute poverty, persistent drought and famine, poor access to basic services and high levels of unemployment in addition to land degradation and shrinking pasture areas. For refugees, the situation is compounded by restrictive policies on movement outside refugee camps. Within the adverse socio-political and agro-ecological context, UNHCR continues to offer basic services and diversified livelihoods supports such as market oriented vocational skills, entrepreneurship skills and self-employment opportunities. In 2011, Transitional Solution Initiative (TSI), an area based development approach in partnership with UNDP, launched to enhance self-reliance and assist socio-economic integration and development of both refugees and host communities in eastern Sudan.

Considering the dimensions and complexities of the operation in eastern Sudan, innovation is the corner stone to accelerate the on-going efforts for self-reliance and empowerment of refugees within the framework of TSI. With this view in mind, UNHCR Sub-Office in Kassala organized an innovation workshop on 17 February for its staff, the implementing partners and State line ministries. The objective of the workshop was to share the importance of innovation in refugee operations, process of innovation and identify the challenges in eastern Sudan operation. The following areas were discussed in the workshop:

What is innovation?

-Why is innovation important in our work?

-UNHCR’s innovation strategy

-UNHCR’s innovation fellowship

-UNHCR’s innovation labs

-Innovation Process

-Identification of challenges in the operation

-Clustering of challenges

-Prioritization of challenges;

What is Innovation?

Since the participants were from diverse backgrounds, their views about the innovation were dissimilar to an extent. Some definitions of innovation shared by the participants in the workshop are given below:

  1. ‘Innovation is to identify viable approach to address problems in any context’
  2. ‘Innovation refers to the creation of improved interventions/technologies to  promote growth’
  3. ‘Innovation is the collective efforts to find a sustainable solution to a problem’;
  4. ‘Innovation seeks participation of the people of concern  for a durable solution to any   particular crisis’
  5. ‘Innovation is the modification of existing knowledge to meet the required demand of service for any population group’
  6. ‘Innovation is a systematic process of exploring a solution to any adverse situation’

Summarizing the above definitions, innovation can be defined as a systematic process that requires collective efforts and participation of the People of Concern in identifying a creative and sustainable solution to any particular problem.

Importance of innovation in eastern Sudan refugee operation

Needless-to-say, the significance of innovation is enormous in eastern Sudan operation. The workshop participants brainstormed and identified some potential areas for innovation that include:

·         How can we boost the economic capabilities of refugee households for their self-reliance?

·         How can we reduce the dependency attitude of refugees on external aids/food /relief?

·       What intervention/s can magnify the refugee household’s economy, thereby, enhancing their self-reliance?

·        What interventions can promote socio-economic relation between refugees and host communities?

·         How can we reduce the operational cost of water and sanitation services?

·         What intervention/s can reduce the drop out of children from primary schools?

·         What will be the method/s of monitoring self-reliance of refugees in the camps? 

·         How can we improve the financial monitoring for the implementing partners? 

·         How can refugees in the camps get access to information?

·         How can we increase women participation in the camp committees?

Aforementioned issues indicate that innovation has huge importance in the UNHCR operation in eastern Sudan. Refugee’s self-reliance; cost-effectiveness of basic services; children’s education; improved interventions for self-reliance; monitoring self-reliance; access to information; women’s empowerment; and reducing dependency attitude of refugees are key potential areas for creative solutions.

What is the process of Innovation?

This session focused on the steps of innovation. Participants also shared their views about the innovation process. Some participants shared that innovation starts with the identification of problem, and then solutions to the problem. Although the innovation process differs from field to field, however, the basics of the innovation process are almost similar in all domains.  To expand the ideas of the participants about the innovation process, a pictorial diagram developed by ‘Jeffrey Baumgartner’ was shared with the participants. The diagram focuses on the systematic process of the innovation which was easy to the participants to understand. Each step was discussed with an example so that participants could easily conceptualize the entire process of innovation and the connections between the steps.

Step 1: Begin with a problem

The innovation process starts with a problem or possibly a goal. For an example: Improve the economic ability of refugee households in Eastern Sudan for their sustainable self-reliance 

Step 2: Convert the problem into a challenge

Once the problem has been identified, it needs to be converted into a challenge. A challenge is a short, concise question that seeks creative solution; for an example ‘In what ways may we improve the refugee households’ economic capability that enhances their self-reliance’?

Step 3: Challenge colleagues to suggest creative solutions:

Once we fix the innovation challenge, we need to communicate it to our colleagues or the implementing partners, refugees and the relevant professionals inside or outside of UNHCR so that they can actively participate in idea generation process.  

Step 4: Collaborative idea generation:

Idea generation might be in the form of a brainstorming activity. A team may be assigned to devise and develop ideas. One could even generate ideas oneself, but as a general rule, diverse teams generate more creative (both in terms of quantity and quality) than individuals — at least in the right circumstances. Whatever method of idea generation we use, it should ideally be in a collaborative environment in which people can work together to develop ideas. Ideally, there should be no criticism, censorship or destruction of ideas during this phase. We need to encourage people to think creatively and be unafraid to suggest ideas. Early criticism of any kind will only make people reluctant to share ideas, especially their most extremely creative ideas (in other words, the best ideas), for fear of also being criticised.

Step 5: Combine and evaluate idea

We may have lots of ideas in the pot; the next step is to combine similar ideas into idea clusters or big ideas. Each idea cluster can be processed as a single idea, thus making the next steps of the process more efficient. The next step is to evaluate ideas with an evaluation matrix in which promising ideas are compared to relevant criteria such as feasibility, disruptiveness, cost-effectiveness, creativity, refugee centered, and sustainability. The better the idea meets each criterion, the higher its score. In the end, those ideas with the highest evaluation scores are taken to the next step.

Step 6. Develop ideas and test them before implementation

How we develop ideas depends on the innovation challenge and the kind of ideas generated. New product ideas might be developed into prototypes. Process efficiency ideas, new interventions and other concepts can often be prototyped through role play, building structural models and making diagrams. The purpose of developing ideas is to test them in the refugee environment and, if no insoluble problems are discovered, prepare them for implementation. In the case of highly creative ideas, it is usually best to create a prototype if possible. A prototype makes it easier to sell a radical idea to managers, implementing partners, refugee committees and other stakeholders who might challenge later the effectiveness of ideas in the particular context.

Step 7. Implement most promising ideas and review

Now we are ready to implement the idea, restructure the processes or do whatever is necessary to turn the evaluated and developed ideas into implementations that generate positive changes in the lives of refugees. It is at this step that creative ideas grow up and become innovations. Reviewing the implementation of new ideas indicates new needs which can be transformed into challenges which, in turn, start a new innovation cycle.

Identification of Challenges in the Operation

Participants through a brain storming session identified 27 problems/challenges in the operation. Identified challenges were presented in the display board so that all participants can review and discuss the challenges together. While reviewing the challenges, participants identified a significant number of challenges that were similar and required to be clustered/merged into one problem. Accordingly, some challenges were fused and rephrased to make them more meaningful. Based on the clusters, participants identified 7 challenges out of 27 challenges and prioritized them according to their choice.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Diverse background of the participants in the workshop were more useful to stimulate discussion and new ideas
  2. Similar challenges identified by the participants invited further discussion for clustering and merging into one challenge. This also helped the participants to work together to identify and prioritize the challenges.
  3. Participants active engagement in the discussions is imperative to promote their ownership of the outcome from the workshop
  4. English was the medium of communications that hampered the participation of some of the participants from the implementing partners and State ministries. If possible, it is better to use an interpreter to ensure that everyone in the workshop actively participates and contributes to the discussions.
  5. Pictorial presentation and diagrams were found to be useful to generate interest among the participants about the topics.
  6. Participation of the implementing partners generates scope of thinking beyond the box, validating the problems and cross-fertilizing the ideas for creative solutions.
  7. Innovation workshop should begin with the PoC to get the problems from the ground and identify creative ideas for solutions



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