Jeff Wilkinson has been based in UNHCR’s Aleppo office since October 2016. Prior to moving to Syria, he worked with UNHCR as Head of Field Office and in additional protection roles in Colombia, Ecuador, eastern Ukraine, as well as emergency missions to South Sudan and northern Greece.
The street lighting project discussed below has been made possible thanks to the work of UNHCR’s Samer Hababat (Protection), Manaf Hamam (Field) and Lian Touma (Supply) who have been engaged in every step of project and at the forefront of the work in the field as well with community members, local authorities, and contractors.
- How did you originally come up with the solar street light project idea for Aleppo? What was the need or challenge identified?
The issue of lighting really came first from members of the community, especially internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had returned to eastern Aleppo at the beginning of the year. From the end of December and into the first weeks of this year, there were already thousands of persons returning, and that number has continued to increase, now at almost 300,000 in Aleppo city alone. The scale of damage and destruction we came across is difficult to describe in words but approximately 40-50% of the buildings in eastern Aleppo and the former front line area have been damaged, and about 30% have been destroyed. And so for the people returning the conditions have been extremely challenging having lost homes, schools, businesses or workplaces, in addition to running water, public electricity…the list goes on, unfortunately.
Amidst all these pressing needs, it was interesting to find that a common message from all parts was the need and importance of street lighting. For many returnees, this was identified as something basic for safety and security in general terms as well as some sense of normalcy, for lack of a better word. But many people were also highlighting this a key factor in preventing or mitigating protection risks. Whether it was for the purposes of collecting water or attending classes since those schools which are open often run double shifts, or to travel across neighbourhoods due to limited public transportation and employment opportunities – community members repeatedly highlighted how the absence of lighting inhibited their ability to safely pursue daily or routine activities necessary for their own basic needs and life opportunities. In other words, lighting was being equated with meaningful autonomy and decision-making in addition to the other reasons more evident to most of us. Additionally, many community members also stressed the importance of lighting for the reduction of social isolation and the restoration of community ties. As long as the streets remain in darkness, people are reluctant to leave their home and this limits not only the interaction among neighbours but also the sense of mutual support and a more protective environment.
So initially we started out with some small-scale lighting through CBIs (Community-Based Initiatives), but it was apparent the magnitude of the challenge was too great. This is when the discussion began to shift to something more ambitious, and management at both the country and regional levels was very supportive from the outset and helped to secure funding, facilitate technical guidance, and support us in their interactions with the competent authorities.
- Are solar street lights new to the Aleppo context?
Generally, yes, they’re new to this context. Aside from a few street lights in targeted areas and some solar-powered traffic lights in western Aleppo, this technology is not commonly found here. And what UNHCR is going to install is more sophisticated technically and more ambitious in terms of scale than what has been carried out to date. In total, we are targeting 54 neighbourhoods (289,000 persons) with 2,000 solar street lights as well as 650 more in the key rural communities Deir Hafer and Al Khafsa (8,900 persons) recaptured from ISIS a few months back.
- Innovation is not about any single technological fix but about being adaptive and responsive to the context. How does this project do that?
That’s exactly right. Along the lines of the response to the first question, there was no plan from the start to get into solar street lighting. It was more a question of how to respond to multiple needs and protection risks since we cannot address them all, unfortunately. And in this case, it turned out that technology would have to be the vehicle for addressing some of those priority concerns — combining opportunity with outside-the-box thinking. The same applies to some other issues we have been working on such better as two-way communication with the population, new approaches to the shelter response, evolving NFI needs, etc. UNHCR Aleppo is trying to experiment with changes in the local context and in this regard, the Innovation Service has been helping bring greater structure to those processes, among which the solar street lighting is one.
- Who are the key stakeholders in the project? What are their roles and how do you work together?
The project involves multiple stakeholders. With Nama’a, one of our NGO partners in Aleppo, we have used a team of ORVs (outreach volunteers) to assist in the work with community members. This has involved neighbourhood-level assessments of protection risks and the mobilization of community members to help design where and how lighting will be prioritised. We are also working with the Governor’s Office and Municipality who have lent their support to the prioritization process coming from community members, participated in setting the technical requirements, facilitated authorizations to carry out the work on the ground at the various stages, and they will contribute up to 700 poles for the lights to be installed.
- Can you tell me a bit about the mapping aspect of the project – how did you select the neighbourhoods?
Much of the infrastructure damage had already been mapped out through a coordinated assessment process across the WASH (Water and Sanitation for Health), Early Recovery and Shelter sectors (the latter led by UNHCR) and population tracking is regularly updated by the UN. That information combined with our regular field work gave us a pretty good idea of the areas more likely to be prioritised. At the ground level though, community members were instrumental in helping to identify where to prioritise each light and the reasons to do. In each neighbourhood or area, they helped us identify and prioritise locations which would maximise the positive impact of street lighting and also helped to assess the current condition of each proposed instalment location to know which will need new foundations or poles, for example, in addition to the lighting itself.
- Why is it important to include the community in the project and perform user testing?
Working with community members on this project has been essential. Given its technical nature and the fact that infrastructure is usually associated more with the authorities, it was not clear at the outset how far we could hope to take the community component. But we knew that we had to try at all stages one way or another. Not only did we believe that it’s good practice, we also felt this was important for the standard we strive to set with the authorities, humanitarian partners and the community members themselves: that “beneficiaries” can and should be more involved in the humanitarian response that even in a project like this one it’s still possible to do so. And since the intended impact is for their benefit above all else, we want to ensure they are engaged in the testing process to see what is working and what requires adjustments or improvements to move closer and closer to the desired impact. We are also engaging the authorities and the contractor to prioritise using community members as a potential resource in terms of labour (for example, installation and maintenance). We are also working with key segments of the community to raise awareness about the purpose of this project and to increase the number of persons mobilised to help out. In addition to seeing community members benefit from this project, we aim to see they understand its purpose and take a measure of ownership for it.
- What are the main challenges – technical or otherwise – in this project?
There have been plenty of challenges thus far, and I’m sure we will encounter more as installation progresses. From a technical standpoint, deciding upon the most appropriate technical specifications was a learning experience for all involved. We had to find a balance between what is needed and what is possible, from both a technical and financial standpoint. A lot of time and effort was required to get the provincial and municipal authorities on the same page. Some neighbourhoods, for example, have UNESCO heritage status and so carrying out any work in those areas carries with it additional considerations. Finding a supplier with the capacity with the technical and operational capacity to implement this project was a challenge as well. This isn’t a project that lends itself to quick implementation, but we also knew that we had to move as quickly as possible since more and more people have been returning.
- Why did UNHCR decide to focus on infrastructure in Aleppo?
It’s not so much that there was a conscious decision to tackle anything specific to infrastructure. UNHCR continues to prioritise life-saving assistance, responding to protection needs on multiple fronts, and improving self-reliance and access to basic services. But in the context of spontaneous or self-organised returns, whether IDPs or refugees, the aim is to adapt to the realities on the ground and find ways to reduce risks and/or dependence on humanitarian assistance. In this case of Aleppo, with the scale and multitude of the needs, UNHCR felt this was an opportunity to respond to several of those needs, reaching a large number of people, and covering a major gap not being addressed by other actors.
- Do you think it’s possible to innovate in the Aleppo urban context? Why is innovation needed?
Yes, from what our team is learning so far this year, it’s apparent that innovation can be applied to many circumstances and contexts. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or even necessary, in every instance, but for sure it’s possible. I think the main reason our office and operation felt it was needed in the context of Aleppo you don’t often come across a situation like this. Within a matter of weeks the operational context completely changed, multiplying the size of the area and the number of persons that required a prioritised response, and on a scale of destruction, loss and hardship that goes beyond all “regular” humanitarian programming. So at the very least, these challenges forced us to reflect more purposively on what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and if there are ways we can do our work differently or more effectively.
- What is the future of this project? What do you hope to accomplish in 2018?
If the project is successful, we hope to see that it might be expanded or replicated elsewhere, if needed and appropriate. And we definitely hope that with the authorities and the community we can consolidate a system of monitoring, maintenance and collective ownership of the project. That would certainly be what we hope to see in 2018. For our Aleppo team, it is our hope that the lessons learned from the process itself can inform how we approach future situations which may require the application of innovation principles and practices.
This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2017. 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 Year in Review microsite and download the publication here.
Photo Credit: © UNHCR/Vivian Tou’meh