A global advocate for digital development is assisting refugees from Uganda to Ukraine to learn IT skills.
In November 2020, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized an evening conversation focused on “Innovative Estonia and Global Problems – What We Can Do,” at the Juhan Kuus Documentary Photography Centre. The event – which took place against the backdrop of the OCHA exhibition “When I Grow Up Once” by photographer Vincent Tremeau, showcasing the dreams of children in the midst of humanitarian crises, marking UN’s 75th anniversary – focused on innovative ways to better assist refugees around the world.
“About 80 million people are under the mandate of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, including refugees who have been granted asylum in Estonia,” said Kari Käsper from UNHCR. The organization operates refugee camps around the world and works to ensure that anyone who has been forced to flee violence, persecution, or conflict has the right to seek asylum.
To financially support innovative projects that help refugees, UNHCR, in cooperation with the Belgian Government, has set up an innovation fund. The UN agency has also developed artificial intelligence projects such as Jetson, which forecasts the movement of displaced people. Another endeavour, applied in Bangladesh, predicted different scenarios for the spread of the coronavirus at Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.
Käsper pointed out that Estonia is the largest contributor to UNHCR among the Baltic States, providing support that goes a long way in terms of helping refugees.
“Estonian NGOs operating in third countries or refugee camps also play a very important role in this,” he said.
Other participants in the event included Aliine Lotman, who introduced the work of MTÜ Mondo; Mari Hanikat, who spoke about the activities of Garage48; and Kalle Sepp from the Tallinn Development and Training Center who gave examples related to Tallinn’s public sector services.
Digital hunger puts you in contact with the world
Aliine Lotman, who has been working with humanitarian projects for more than ten years, has recently started to put more emphasis on work related to reducing the digital divide.
“In our work, we see numerous examples of individuals who are already in a vulnerable situation be deprived of opportunities that digital learning could offer to compensate for education gaps,” she said.
Lotman pointed out that in recent years, Mondo has been leading the development of digital competences and skills for young people living in refugee camps and settlements to ensure that they have contacts with the world and to help address such disparities. Mondo is for example cooperating with Estonian higher education institutions, whose lecturers offer online training sessions to Afghan gynecologists, while other digital education is provided in Uganda and Syria.
“I felt a strong digital hunger,” said Aliine Lotman, describing her feelings while growing up in the Estonian countryside. “It is similar to what I’ve encountered when interviewing young people in refugee settlements in rural Uganda – they miss contacts with the outside world and an understanding of how to build themselves up.”
The Estonian Refugee Council, an independent centre focused on promoting the rights and well-being of refugees in Estonia, also organizes virtual ’entrepreneurship makeathons’ for refugees in Eastern Ukraine that provide successful projects with both money and technical resources to implement the best business ideas.
Refugees must be at the centre
When designing services for refugees, stressed Kari Käsper from UNHCR, it is important to keep refugees at the centre; this was done, for example, with UNHCR’s innovative cash-based interventions.
“It’s a complete success story,” Käsper said. “It empowers people to make decisions for themselves. In the past, refugees received services on the basis of vouchers or receipts, but refugees know their own needs the best.”
Refugees could also benefit from this “tiger leap”, according to Käsper, using the term often employed to describe the e-revolution in Estonia.
“The needs are great. But if people are hungry or do not have access to washing or sanitation facilities, it is clear that these cannot be solved by digital tools alone. Innovation means much more. It is about finding a better way of resolving all kinds of challenges,” he said.
The OCHA exhibition “When I Grow Up Once” can be viewed online here.