Over the course of 2016, the Emergency Lab has been involved in numerous emergency responses, which we’ve documented through this blog: fYR of Macedonia, Malawi, Niger…When we set out on this journey we had one question that we weren’t really sure of the answer of: is it even possible to innovate in emergencies?

Can innovation, and the occasional inherent failures, be justified in emergency situations? We think so and a good starting point for us was to take it to the field level as quickly as possible to see where we were able to add value without being an additional burden on operations.

The South Sudan situation in Uganda is arguably the biggest emergency the Emergency Lab have been in this year. It is also the one we ‘caught’ the earliest. Rather than being in the second round of support that was provided by HQ, the Emergency was but some weeks old and the Emergency Lab was deployed alongside the Emergency Response Team.

Upon arriving in Bidi Bidi Settlement, we realised immediately that we had to immediately revisit this above question. But even more so. Almost 100,000 refugees from South Sudan had been settled in Bidi Bidi over the space of a month. The UNHCR team was stretched to capacity and while lots was and is being done every day to improve the situation – it takes time to turn what was vast remote bushland into a refugee settlement. With so little basic infrastructure, and greater numbers of refugees arriving every day, can this be a conducive environment for innovation?

Working closely with Refugees

On the site we’re building new pieces of infrastructure every day, bringing more items to people for shelter, cooking and more. But this takes time, and stockpiles were very low until a recent airlift of supplies. It is when resources are stretched and delivery is difficult that communicating with communities is most vital. We’re trying as best we can to deliver the support people need but when this falls short, the very least people expect is information about why delivery isn’t meeting expectations. The trade-off between developing this messaging, and focussing on delivery is not easy. What is even more difficult is how to innovate in this arena.

In these circumstances, innovation comes in the form of finding ways to meet core needs quickly and being very selective about where and how to intervene. In terms of speed, my Emergency Lab colleague Katie outlines how we got the ‘Boda Boda Talk Talk’ information initiative underway in the space of a day, which supported ongoing information sharing efforts. It is critical in this emergency stage to build on existing capacities and initiatives. Augmenting things that are already there helps take the operation a leap forward, without needing to take time away from delivery. We took the time to work with partners on the activities that were ongoing and advise and support how they could run these things more efficiently, eliminate duplication, enhance coordination and collaboration – using only the tools they had at their fingertips. It’s simply thinking differently, rather than a full-adrenaline shot of capacity-building or resource allocation.

Finding space

Even if we wanted to provide that adrenaline shot, it is very difficult to find space for this sort of innovation amongst lots of competing critical demands, all while delivering day-to-day.

At one point I became ill during the mission, which – while absolutely annoying – was actually a blessing in disguise. Katie was out in the field every day, which constituted helping the most vulnerable individuals, dealing with packed vehicle transfer schedules for getting into and out of the settlement, and working with our partners in the field locations to deliver services in the best way possible. In the meantime, I lay in bed and did plain old office work. It’s easy in an Emergency to get caught up in the flurry of activity in terms of operational incremental improvements and while this is critical for our delivery, sometimes it’s hard to find the time to lay some of the foundations for future work, and create the structures that make our work more strategic. They often get side-lined. Being bed-bound allowed me to crunch through some of this office work and bureaucracy, that while tedious, is vital for how we stay operate and deliver. This included everything from creating budget space and putting the actual budgets together, and putting all the plans we’d discussed with communities and partners in the field into the forms we needed to get it programmed. Finally, it helped facilitate procurement which everybody knows is not as simple as rocking up to a local shop and buying something – there are certain procedures around accountabilities that need to be adhered to, and these procedures simply take time.

It is of course possible to do this while not incapacitated but the nudge towards focussing on this enabled us to have some timely interventions, even during that first mission. Notably the capacity to scale our Boda Boda Talk Talk initiative beyond its initial testing phase. But primarily, our adrenaline shot was lined up for the future. We’d found the ‘space’ to build and scale some of the initiatives when it might be even more needed.

Our lesson learned here? Innovation is portrayed on websites of humanitarian agencies engaging in this area (including our own!) as a flashy and polished thing to do at the heart of the action. What this doesn’t capture is the day-to-day tedium involved in delivering even the best ideas, which can often include a lot of back office work.

Laying the right foundations

The Emergency Lab is returning to Bidi Bidi in the coming days, to look at how things have been progressing and to see whether there are ways to build new solutions of the foundations that were laid through these early stages. While there no doubt will be a lot of interesting work to do, I think we’re a little more prepared now for some of that ‘behind-the-scenes’ activity that will help us turn our cogs faster and ultimately, deliver more for the people of Bidi Bidi who urgently need as much support as UNHCR and all the others working in the settlement, can provide.



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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