(UPDATES with more quotes, links, details of UNHCR campaign)
In Liberty 6, a neighbourhood in the heart of Dakar, a woman runs down the street using her shopping bag as an umbrella, children play football with an empty soft drink can, using stones for goal posts, and a man lights his cigarette on the tea vendor’s gas stove because his matches keep going out in the wind.
Everywhere you look people are being innovative – using the knowledge and resources available to them to solve their problems. Yet over the last few years, innovation is a term that many in the humanitarian world have struggled to come to terms with.
I’m at a regional office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an organisation that has come under attack on numerous occasions for its inability to think on its feet and outside the box. Both Oxfam and MSF were critical of UNHCR’s handling of the Malian refugees earlier this year.
“Our industry is traditionally risk-averse,” says Mathijs le Rutte, Deputy Regional Director of UNHCR in West Africa. “Fear is the main obstacle to innovation. I need to feel that in what I’m doing, I’m not going lose my job,” he tells me.
“If we really want to take it seriously and push people to come up with great ideas and make that the norm and not the exception, then we need to make sure that we’re fully supportive, whether it works or not,” he said.
Of course, there are good ideas and bad ideas. Le Rutte explains how one protection officer had the brilliant idea of providing clothes to survivors of rape, but all the clothes were the same. The intention was kind, but it would have led to all the women being stigmatized, and was not adopted.
“We should capture the idea and put it in a big dossier of bad ideas, next to the hopefully bigger dossier of good ideas, because we learn from them both," says le Rutte.
When chatting with Christopher Mikkelsen, CEO of Refugees United earlier this week, both le Rutte and I were struck by his approach to humanitarian affairs. Mikkelsen explained how his organisation was based on risk, and that sometimes it made big mistakes, but it learned from them and moved on. To all intents and purposes, he was running Refugees United like a dotcom.
“It’s an attitude of potential gains, but they’re a humanitarian organisation, they’re non-profit, so this struck me very much and so UNHCR should ask itself, how risk-embracing are we in terms of discarding protection dogma, discarding policy dogma,” says le Rutte.
In Niger, risks were taken to deal with people displaced during the Mali conflict. The specific challenges posed by nomadic refugees who needed space to graze their cattle meant that they could not be put in traditional refugee camps. Instead, UNHCR in Niger welcomed them into “zones” and provided them with vouchers to buy food and clothes.
“There are problems with this approach because we can’t ensure 50 people per latrine, or that children have a max of 1km to walk to school, but you need to balance out protection gains with what the community wants so they can stay honest to their cultural survival mechanisms,” said le Rutte.
Niger turned 20 years of best practice at UNHCR on its head and it remains unclear whether the initiative will be taken up by headquarters and used in other places where there are nomadic refugees. At UNHCR, an overly centralised system seems to push ideas from HQ down to the field easily enough, but makes it hard for them to move the other way.
It's a concern recognised at the highest levels within the UNHCR. In July, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Alexander Aleinikoff sent an email to all staff at HQ and in the field calling on them to participate in an internal innovation competition.
UNHCR Ideas was launched on August 12 and is a six-week-long challenge involving about 150 staff members, partners and academic institutions.
“We are piloting ‘UNHCR Ideas,’ an online idea-management platform that will allow us to take a bottom-up approach of identifying, validating and implementing refugee-centred solutions and bring together a global community of experts with common goals and experiences,” Aleinikoff wrote in the email, obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"When someone uses the word innovation, there is immediately a lot of pressure – a new car, a new design and you think I’m not that original, I’m not going to perform," says le Rutte.
So, in the spirit of the UNHCR’s new drive for innovation, here are three ideas from outside the organisation that might inspire them. Can you think of any more?
Sounds like something that Buzz Lightyear would hand out to poor, battery-powered toys, thrown out of their homes by despotic children who have turned on them for no good reason. Gravity Light harnesses the renewable kinetic energy created by sand falling to the ground under gravity. The energy generated can power a lamp, which could be used to run a small business, to cook food at home or to let children study well after the sun has clocked off for the day.
If you’ve ever tried to reach those last few drops of a carton of juice on a long, hot summer day, but the straw was just fractionally too short, you’ll begin to understand, in an extremely warped way, how thousands of people feel in drought-ridden countries. Access to safe water is a major problem in many parts of the world. Acquafilter works on the same nanotechnology principle found in the life straw, but can filter up to 300 litres of unsafe water per hour and make it drinkable. The family-sized version is light and easy to carry, providing refugees on the move with access to clean water wherever there is a source. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn dirty water into orange juice, yet.
The name alone makes me cringe. It brings back memories of late night adverts selling cheap and nasty junk to inebriated students at 3am on Sunday morning. Never Wet uses the lotus effect to repel water from any surface it is applied to and the results are spectacular. There must be a million ways to use it in the refugee context, from lining makeshift sewage pipes to waterproofing tents. Quite pricey though!