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 andÂ discover new opportunities. You can view the full microsite here.
The state of our world is filled with uncertainty and with questions revolving around what the future may look like. Where will the next refugee crisis occur? What will their needs be? What will be demanded of UNHCR, and how will we deliver on our mandate amidst ever more complex conditions?
As UNHCR’s Innovation Service enters its fifth year, we are increasingly looking forward, too. We are looking towards the promise of evolving technologies, the possibilities of new partnerships, and the prospect of fundamental cultural change in our organization that values proactive, ground-up problem-solving.
In 2016, the Innovation Service began a transition. For the past several years, we made a real, tangible impact across several branches of UNHCR and in the lives of refugees. We explored ways to expand access to digital education and launched a Humanitarian Education Accelerator to support and evaluate educational innovations starting to scale. In emergencies, we improved communication and feedback, developed new translation technologies, and even tested the use of drones for mapping, analysis, and deliveries. We piloted non-traditional energy options and service models. Through our crowdsourcing platform UNHCR Ideas, we collected 1,300 concepts for innovations that would benefit persons of concern. Our initiatives responded to the need for changes in the way UNHCR approaches housing, education, protection, and livelihoods.
Now, the Innovation Service will also become an engine that will be proactive, not simply reactive, and change not just the way our organization approaches problems, but how it thinks about them.
We are shifting our focus further ahead—to the future of displacement issues and how UNHCR can be as agile, dynamic, and effective as possible in order to address them. Our focus extends to envisioning systems that ensure refugees have better control over their lives, more dignity, and a greater hope for finding solutions.
Positioning UNHCR for the future
Displacement is on the rise and the resources to resolve it are increasingly constrained as countries and their budgets turn inward. UNHCR needs to position itself to be more effective and transparent with current resources and to be prepared to do more with less.
To do this, we cannot act alone and we will strive to be as inclusive as possible. The Innovation Service is talking to refugees, host communities, and our colleagues in the field to craft ground-up approaches for local and systemic change. When we truly understand what our field operations need in order to serve the displaced, we can help them identify solutions and find partners who can go hand in hand. Second, we’re investing in the Innovation Fellowship, and in so doing creating a safe space for exploration within UNHCR. Finally, to get big advances, we must be better at harnessing technology. Technology in itself is not innovation, but it is a tool that we can utilize to support our process. Rather than being apprehensive about what the future holds, we can use technology as a tool to prepare for it.
As displacement changes and UNHCR changes with it, our partners must evolve with us too. Legacy practices, procedures, and partners that were relevant 10 or 15 years ago may not be so today, and certainly not tomorrow. We cannot let ourselves be held back by what we did or did not do in the past. This kind of untethering can feel threatening, taking us out of our comfort zones, and challenging us with new ways of working. But disrupting our own status quo is the only way forward to ensure the humanitarian system can effectively address the needs of the displaced.
For example, mobile network operators, software suppliers, academia, and others present previously unavailable opportunities for UNHCR to magnify its impact on the ground. What many of these key partners bring are new ways to facilitate communication with refugees: automated language exchange, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, biometric authentication and digital identification and other emerging tools will help us connect with those we serve and have ongoing exchanges of information and ideas. The future of innovation within UNHCR will strive for more accountability and transparency for refugees, stateless, and displaced populations.
Becoming the facilitator of 24/7 services
The Innovation Service is committed to making UNHCR a more agile, efficient, and effective institution. We are also dedicated to empowering refugees so they have more control over their lives. We often disseminate information to refugees—at best. There is often little or no two-way communication and when there is, we rarely act upon it.
If we can identify these new paths towards a more dignified life, we know refugees would be better prepared to overcome boundaries, find their own solutions, and navigate the global humanitarian system for themselves.
The Innovation Service is starting to work towards this kind of empowerment. In 2016, we welcomed Connectivity for Refugees into our unit, and our staff are actively working to make the internet available, affordable, and usable for people of concern. They are also establishing new business models with private sector partners and starting to collect the data that will make the case for future collaborations between businesses and refugee communities.
Connectivity, which has already shaped the way we all live and work, is also changing the way refugees expect to interact with UNHCR. We need to figure out how to deliver services better and connectivity can help facilitate this. For example, UNHCR can explore digital registration and new avenues to help refugees access services like digital learning outside their physical environment. It’s not just that UNHCR needs to be more agile; UNHCR needs to be the catalyst for a more agile response to refugees and other affected populations in crisis. It can be difficult to get traction for disruptive changes within the humanitarian system. But if we focus on a few core initiatives and demonstrate that they can work, we believe the buy-in and momentum will follow.
Adapting alongside refugees
For the Innovation Service, our priorities are always to the field. Today, we are providing operational support to challenges within emergencies, education, and energy. We’re catalyzing the innovation environment within UNHCR, and connecting people, initiatives, and programs both within the organization and outside of it. We are nurturing and learning from innovations emerging from affected communities.
The next step is to anticipate the needs of the future – we must be proactive instead of reactive. To this end, we plan on providing deployable innovation support for operations looking at current, local challenges that can be addressed through a combination of problem-solving methods. We are taking concrete first steps towards setting up digital services for affected communities and exploring the possibilities of digital identities for all refugees.
We hope to work with thought leaders in crypto-currencies, biometrics, and use analytics to help us predict what the world will look like in the future. We’ll work on standardizing data across humanitarian agencies — promoting interoperable systems which are human-centric and encourage sharing technology collaboratively instead of bespoke solutions for different populations. These opportunities are quite exciting, and we really have no choice but to grab them. We must be ready to adapt and change with an already evolving twenty-first century.
Refugees are already adapting. They’re using the opportunities provided by Facebook, Whatsapp, Viber and many other platforms to communicate, as well as investigate new avenues for education, most of which are non-traditional. How do we facilitate life-long learning even when formal education opportunities are limited? We need to be asking refugees directly what their needs are, and what the systems that they trust are, rather than operating in a universe where we decide this for them. And looking broadly, we need to change the relationship from one where refugees are dependent upon us and instead improve their overall wellbeing. Refugees are not satisfied, and nor they should be, with their needs restricted to food, water, and shelter. They need dignity, a sense of hope for the future and the tools in which they can become self-reliant. They deserve that. And as they find ways to capitalize on a promising future, shouldn’t we, too?