This article is a part of our ‘Innovation in Angola’ series where we highlight innovative ways of working and best practices in emergencies. Stay tuned for new articles and the complementary video series that can be found here.

“Your application is authorized and the visa is attached with this e-mail.”

This was the message I received a mere four hours before my flight was supposed to leave for Angola. I had given myself only one more hour before rescheduling my first emergency mission. In reality, I had not expected this message to come through as continued delays with visas had been experienced by my colleagues that had already arrived in the operation. A wave of emotions washed over me – relief, excitement, and a nervousness I was not initially expecting. I was off on my first emergency mission to support UNHCR’s Angola operation for the next three weeks.

The violence in the Kasai region in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which erupted in August 2016, has resulted in the displacement of large numbers of Congolese. Currently, there over 31,000 Congolese refugees registered in Dundo, Angola – having sought refuge from the violence in the Kasai region of the DRC.

UNHCR’s operation in Angola had expanded rapidly in response to the conflict in the Kasai region. At the beginning of 2017, the operation had a small office in Luanda and was focused on asylum seekers that had been in the country for numerous years and primarily in an urban context.  By the time I arrived, they had expanded the response with a new Field-Office located in Dundo and over forty staff dedicated to the emergency and needs of refugees within the region.

UNHCR’s Innovation Service had been requested to support the Angola operation through a direct mission to Dundo, with a specific focus on Communicating with Communities. With the establishment of services in a new site and the first relocations of refugee occurring in August, open communication with communities and consistent messaging across a variety of new partners was identified as a critical space where Innovation could support. We had long debated as a team whether you could innovate in emergencies or not – I was hoping we could answer this question in Angola.

“I feel like a sponge”

While I had gone through the required UN training exercises and felt prepared for my first emergency response, I still didn’t know exactly what to expect. The operations I had supported previously had always had an urban or protracted situation focus. A few months prior I found myself in Tindouf, Algeria where we supported refugees who had been living in the five camps located there for over forty years. This mission was different. It wasn’t long ago that refugees from Angola were moving into DRC and surrounding countries – for the first time, now they were hosting the communities that had previously hosted them.

After my first few days in Dundo, one of the first things I learned was that in an emergency you can wear many different hats based on the needs of the operation. While I had brought my innovation focus and detailed ToRs to drive my support, there were days when the operation just needed an extra hand in supporting the registration team for relocations or someone to drive into town and buy equipment for the new Communicating with Communities task force. We often promote this idea of “continuous learning” within the Innovation Team. “It’s about looking outside and seeing what’s out there, experimenting and trying things out, working together with others and continuous learning. You need people with passion and willingness to change,” explains Emilia Saarelainen, UNHCR’s Innovation Fellowship Manager.

I felt as though at some points I was being selfish during my mission to Angola. Selfish in the sense that I was taking more than I was giving in my work. I showed up for the long days and contributed as best as I could, but what I was learning from those around me was more valuable than what I was giving in return. I was meeting refugees every day who showed more resilience and drive than most people I knew. I met colleagues who had come from UNHCR operations around the world – South Africa, Jordan, Chad, Columbia, Lebanon – who had dedicated themselves to working in this challenging environment. Whether they knew it or not, the refugees and the UNHCR team supporting them were already innovating – and they didn’t need us to tell them that.

I often described myself as a sponge during those three weeks. Constantly learning from the refugees and colleagues around me. While my role is leading communications for UNHCR’s Innovation Service, I soon found myself understanding how to map connectivity points within a settlement or assisting in distributions during the relocation process. As mentioned previously, you can end up playing many different roles when working in an emergency context.

I spoke to one of my colleagues in Dundo, Alessandro Pasta, who was also on his first emergency mission, about his experience in Angola. “As a Field Officer, it is easy to say – but you are really in the field. You have to be quick and you have to make decisions – I feel like you are even more a part of UNHCR because you can see the impact immediately. It is absolutely different to daily life in Headquarters,” he explained.


There are of course many challenging instances in an emergency. It is difficult to manage expectations and you never feel like you are doing enough, despite however many hours you may work in a day. There are frustrations that you often have no control over and even when you feel prepared, something can still go awry. But the opportunity to learn from those around me was more rewarding than I could have imagined.

More importantly, I saw this ‘continuous learning mindset’ and openness to try new things from my colleagues in the Angola operation every day. In reality, there are few choices in an emergency – you have to learn to adapt to the context and be as efficient as possible. While within the Innovation team we may use buzzwords such as iterate, refine, and prototype the Angola operation was bringing this mindset into their day-to-day work without even realizing how ‘innovative’ they were being.

“Necessity breeds innovation”

Angola is a particularly difficult context to work in. I’m not sure there is another operation that I could compare it to when it comes to the innate challenges. Getting into the country was difficult. Buying a table for the office is difficult. Procurement? A nightmare for most things. The solar lights ordered at the end of June for the new settlement are still to be delivered in Luanda. There were no bulldozers available during the emergency, so site clearance had to be done by hand. There is generally a lack of capacity and resource for local non-state actors – especially in the Luanda Norte region. Everything that you would generally expect to be easy usually isn’t.

There’s an old English proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention,” that accurately represents how my weeks in Angola unfolded. While the context may not have been ‘ripe’ for innovation in the traditional sense, the daily challenges faced by UNHCR staff created an organic space to innovate.

Within my first few days in Dundo, I had identified numerous good practices the operation had already implemented. For example, there was an environment and energy intervention that had been fully integrated at the onset of the emergency. Within the humanitarian sector, energy and the environment are often not prioritized and can be considered an afterthought. Andrew Harper, the former Head of the Innovation Service, had explored the repercussions of not having a future-looking approach to how refugees are interacting with their environment in the article, A critical time for refugees and their environment (again). In this article he outlines what a ‘Green Settlement’ could look like in a refugee context, saying “The green refugee camps we envision contribute to a wider environmental strategy, rather than degrading it.” The Angola operation had brought this mindset to the site development and site planning for the new Lovua settlement – this was something new for UNHCR.

“It’s easier for an environmental or energy planner to arrive in a situation where things are getting developed and strategies are being reflected, than arriving in a situation where opportunities are reduced, of course,” explained Julie Gassien, the lead on Energy, Environment, and Livelihoods activities for the Angola operation.

While implementing an energy and environment strategy at the onset of an emergency may seem like an obvious choice, this is generally not the case. The strategy behind the environmental management of the new site was that it was to be completely owned by the refugee community. Gassien explained that the decision-making on environmental activities would be owned by the end-users. Additionally, by raising awareness on the preservation management of the site, the refugee communities could have a first intervention on their future physical environment.

If you think about the durable solution – the definition of a durable solution integrates the word environment. Why? Because you cannot live in an unhealthy environment, you cannot settle in an area prone to disaster and you cannot develop livelihood activities if you don’t have access to natural resources. It is one of the fundamental cornerstones of any human activity and in the total vision of the protection of refugees,” added Gassien.


Another example where we identified efficiency and immediate impact was within UNHCR’s registration team. The Senior Registration Officer, Alessandro Telo, from the Regional Office in South Africa had been deployed on mission to Angola at the onset of the emergency. Prior to leaving the Regional Office for Angola, he brought with him the equipment for biometric registration in addition to a rapid distribution tool that had been developed at the regional level. With more reliable and extensive registration data at the beginning of the emergency, Telo was able to implement the offline distribution tool for the first time during an emergency.

The access to this technology at the regional level enabled the team to move quickly and ultimately test the tool with biometric registration data. Refugees had previously needed to wait hours to collect food and non-food items during distributions in the two reception centers. The impact of the tool was immediately recognized as staff no longer needed to do distribution verification through paper copies – an exercise that not only required a lot of resources but time. The rapid distribution tool ultimately strengthened accountability and efficiency of the operation, while also facilitating quicker access to assistance for refugees.

“Dundo has shown it is possible to innovate in emergencies. This tool can be applied in many operations – both emergency and care and maintenance operations…we can track families who have received or not received distributions and better target assistance,” said Telo.

So, this came down to my final question: are we sure we can innovate in emergencies?

Rethinking what innovation means in emergencies

During my time in Angola, I interviewed numerous UNHCR staff members about the role that innovation had played in the operation since the emergency began. When I asked Pasta at the end of our interview whether it was possible to innovate in this context, he replied without hesitation, “For sure it is possible to innovate in emergencies. Of course, it is.”

I began asking this question to everyone I interviewed, often they answered similarly and explained that we don’t really have a choice but to innovate when an operation is constrained. These constraints manifest in different ways across operations – they may be human resources, monetary or the simple fact that you can’t get laptops through customs. As I prepared to leave Angola my idea of what innovation could look like in an emergency had evolved. Again and again, it came down to mindset and people – without both of those things, there is simply no possibility of innovation.

The new Lovua settlement in Angola where refugees are being relocated to from Dundo.


The willingness to try new things in Angola was seen in almost all aspects of the way they were working while we were on mission and at the onset of the emergency. The operation was finding ways to save resources, save time, and have a better impact for refugees. At the end – isn’t innovation about making life a bit more simple?

I forgot to mention we brought a bunch of tablets to Angola to ‘facilitate innovation’ – the technology we brought is probably the least innovative thing currently in the operation.


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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