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.

There were a lot of questions to be answered by UNHCR’s new Innovation Fund. What could people in field operations come up with if they had a blank slate and the cash to carry it out? Would their ideas add up to actual gains for refugee protection and assistance?

Launched in June 2016, UNHCR’s Innovation Fund is a resource that field operations can use to prototype or scale up good practices and test out creative ideas. The fund, created with an initial USD 3 million from the IKEA Foundation, has created a safe budgetary space that enables field operations to experiment and take risks without having to deprioritize other areas of work. The offer of support the Fund presented was an immediately popular one. The Innovation Fund received more than 100 applications in two weeks. Some were just fledgling ideas, while others were very well defined, and ready to prototype.

Chris Earney and Dina Zyadeh, who were leading the selection and disbursement of the Innovation Fund, say five years ago, the Innovation Service would not have seen such a high level of enthusiasm with regards to innovation.

“We recognize that UNHCR has always been innovating, but the added value of the Innovation Service is that we facilitate the provision of additional resources…whether it’s funding or expertise from external partners that people need to succeed,” says Zyadeh, the Innovation Office Manager. “The call for proposals illustrated how great the appetite for innovation is within our organization”,

What is innovative?

Something Earney noticed when he began reviewing applications for the fund was that everyone has a different idea about what kinds of projects are innovative. For some, introducing a new crop to farmers was innovative. To others, innovation meant launching a new food festival to help promote integration and acceptance of refugees in Europe. With field officers operating in so many disparate contexts, Earney says that varied understanding is a good thing, and encourages people to think about what innovation means to them.

“Innovation is very personal,” he says. “It is something that should be applicable to different operations in different ways, and it is about that creativity and ability to think differently about a challenge.”

The Innovation Fund ended up allocating USD 1.2 million to applicants across twenty-eight countries. “Just to have the range of proposals that we received was mind blowing,” Earney says. “Honestly, I was not expecting to have so many, and the range of projects and the creativity that was involved with all of them, if you take the local context into account…(was extremely) impressive.”

Jean-Laurent Martin, an Information Management Officer in Zaatari, Jordan, had already prototyped his idea when he applied to the Fund. He had spent a while reflecting on some of the problems in Zaatari camp; refugees there lacked opportunities for both education and cash for work, and wanted to participate more in the camp decision-making processes.  And with 80,000 people in the camp, UNHCR, other agencies, and refugees themselves found it hard to get up-to-date and complete information about activities and services.

He believed he could simultaneously address these problems and more by training pre-selected refugees on geo-information management and letting them help design products used to make decisions in the camp.  Having the funding was key. With $48,000 from the Innovation Fund, Jean-Laurent Martin was able to create a computer/GIS lab with specific hardware, mapping software and generator, pay a teacher to provide training on GIS mapping to qualified refugees, and provide cash for work for those engaged on the project.

The Innovation Service provided technical advice, secure support, and plenty of feedback when it came to monitoring and evaluation—helping him draft smarter, more measurable performance indicators, for example. But it also gave him space to innovate. “We’re in a specific context, we’re in a camp, we have a lot of specific problems to solve and they know that and let you do the work,” Jean-Laurent Martin says.

Refugees are now being compensated for the work they do collecting, analyzing and creating maps with information such as facilities, youth services, and other products that are reflecting Community needs or issues.  Jean-Laurent Martin is confident that the refugees participating in the RefugeGIS project will be able to find better jobs in the future. Those refugees seem to think so too. Jean-Laurent says when they first showed up to apply for the training and jobs they seemed downcast and despondent.

“I remember when I interviewed refugees for selection for training in information management,” Martin says. “It’s tough to be in the situation in the camp for years. They seemed sad. Now they seem much more hopeful and happy, excited about the future.”

As for Jean-Laurent Martin, he’s optimistic about the future of the project even after the Innovation Fund is no longer involved.  After all, the project actually saves UNHCR serious money they would have paid to partners to collect, analyze and map camp information. The team of refugees can do it at a lower cost with more accurate information and reap the rewards of community empowerment as they do.

An experiment for UNHCR

If there were any doubts about the innovative approach of using a fund for projects in UNHCR operations, consider this: Neither the IKEA Foundation nor UNHCR had any confirmation that the approach would work. Beyond the fact that each project could succeed to some degree or fail, it bears recognizing that the whole process is a trial.

“This in itself is an experiment, and…people who participate in the Innovation Fund or even submitted proposals are part of a larger experiment, in order to see whether we are servicing the needs of UNHCR and our partners in improving assistance,” Earney says.

In essence, UNHCR agreed to prototype the IKEA Foundation funded UNHCR Innovation Fund on itself. The approach itself was an experiment to understand the true impact of seed funding and creating a budgetary space for UNHCR staff to innovate.

“We will give feedback and analysis back to the IKEA Foundation and decide if this is something useful for refugee protection and assistance or whether it’s not, and we’re completely agnostic with this,” Earney says. “You have to practice what you preach, right? We’ll be the ones happy to be the guinea pigs.”

With this honest emphasis on figuring out what works, measurement is a huge piece of the puzzle. Each project must develop its own performance indicators, and the Innovation Service will collect overall data on the effectiveness of the fund. Then, something that intimidates some: complete honesty.

The Innovation Service plans to communicate total openness with the IKEA Foundation about the impact of its funding, the way it was managed, and how that can be translated into improvements.

“I want to see impact with the projects we’ve invested in,” Earney says. “I want to be able to measure the impact it’s had on refugee and host communities. I want to be able to provide our management with some pretty agnostic guidance on the utility of this sort of fund. And…if the data tells us there is impact – I want to see us do a better fund next year.”

That kind of relationship with the IKEA Foundation means it is truly a partner and not just a donor. And this kind of open, honest, and deeply connected partnership is itself a cultural shift for UNHCR—one the organization is becoming more open to.

“They want bigger impact on refugees’ lives with every Euro they invest,” says Earney. “They want to be involved in the projects, they want to be involved in the fund, and they want to have more of a role than just the money.”

Supporting refugee-led innovation and “a crazy idea”

Juliette Murekeyisoni received a WhatsApp message from a Sahrawi refugee living in Awserd camp, with a photo of a house made out of recycled materials. A refugee youth in one of the five camps in Tindouf, Algeria, where Murekeyisoni works as a Senior Field Coordinator, had constructed it out of plastic bottles filled with sand, egg cartons, and all sorts of other recyclables for his grandmother—as a way to ease the grinding summer heat and ward off the sandstorms, winds, and winter cold.

His construction looked solid, and as he had a background in energy efficiency, Murekeyisoni thought the young man might actually be on to something. “I need to visit this house,” she thought. Two days later, the call for innovation proposals came out from the Innovation Fund. Murekeyisoni got moving. She called her colleagues (the Shelter Officer and a Field Associate), asked them to come with her to visit the house, and spent the whole day asking questions and sweating in the 50-degree Celsius heat. Together they went straight back to her house to draft the application into the late hours.

Murekeyisoni thought the young man’s idea was genius. It could mean building houses that would not succumb to the flooding that decimated mud adobe homes the year before. It could provide jobs for Sahrawi youth who are highly educated but strikingly underemployed. And it could work to clean the environment as refugees would collect recyclables for use in constructing these innovative new structures.

Murekeyisoni crossed her fingers and submitted her proposal to the Innovation Fund, the only option she saw for getting started on a project like this one. “If I ask for money for building a plastic bottle house, the office would have looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “I don’t think I could have convinced my Head of Sub the Office at the time to allocate money for this project.” The Innovation Fund saw things differently.

“They’re looking for innovations,” Murekeyisoni says. “They are looking for new things – it doesn’t mean you have to do them properly 100 percent. It may work, it may not work. If it doesn’t work, ok fine. We tried.”

“With innovation, you have to start somewhere,” she says. “People will criticize, they will call you a crazy lady. But for me it didn’t matter…what is important to me is the outcome of the project and the confidence that this young refugee developed through the whole process. I am results-oriented and you never know until you try.”

The result of Murekeyisoni’s Innovation Fund-supported project was the construction of 25 homes. The team, which included 125 paid refugee youth, built them for refugees living with mental, physical, and/or other disabilities. The designs are now in high demand within and even outside the camp.

Murekeyisoni knows of two young men, who started a shop with the proceeds they earned from building these houses. They now have a sustainable source of income and are hoping to build a store out of plastic bottles.

Whether the overall project continues to be successful or not, Murekeyisoni is completely on board with the expectation that she’ll report back honestly. “I told Dina and Chris, we have nothing to hide. All the success and failures, I will tell you,” she says. “And this is innovation. It’s something you do: it may work and it may not work, but alhamdulillah, as they say here, this one was successful.”

Beyond her own initiative, Murekeyisoni is encouraged that UNHCR seems increasingly committed to a mandate that goes farther than just protection.

“Our normal way of working has been always to ensure that refugee are safe, have shelter, education, water, food and medication. For the last couple of years we’ve also been engaging refugees in planning of the activities and in decision making towards their lives,” she says. “We don’t tell our people of concern  what to do. We listen to them and develop projects together, keeping their ideas and needs in mind.”

“The self-importance and dignity that refugees get, and feel, is just as important as giving them food and water to drink.”

Investing in projects, investing in people

Starting to administer the fund late in the programme year posed a challenge, especially for such a small team. And given the bureaucracy of the organization, nearly every project struggled at some point with procurement or budgeting. Then there was the rigorous evaluation demanded of recipients, who had to develop their own set of key performance indicators.

But no matter the project outcomes, the Fund has already achieved something important in the way it has allowed staff to grow and develop, building their confidence and innovative problem-solving skills. Sometimes just connecting them to someone with good ideas and experience outside UNHCR has made a difference in the way they approach their work.

Murekeyisoni, for example, used the innovation approach she learned while working with the Innovation Service on an agricultural project in another community, and applied that to the recyclable housing project described above.

“It’s amazing to see how this has contributed to their development as staff,” Zyadeh says. “It comes down to people. You’re not only investing in the projects, you’re investing in the people who are implementing them.”

The architecture of the Innovation Fund was designed to build capacity, not replace it. The funding itself, however, poses more of a question.

“There’s a bit of a dichotomy here,” says Earney. “We want field operations to invest their own money in innovations; we don’t want it to be something that we run solely from Headquarters. But sometimes you just need to kick-start things.”

Earney hopes the Innovation Fund will catalyze an appetite for experimentation so that operations begin investing their own resources when it comes time to scale projects. If the innovation projects generate measurable value, they’ll have a strong case for continued resourcing in the future.

The same goes for the Innovation Fund.