UN’s Olivier Delarue on addressing the global refugee crisis

There were 59.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014 – up from 51.2 million the year before. Every day last year, tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere. Think about those figures for a moment. More than just numbers, they tell a story of lives uprooted, conflict unchecked and persecution unleashed.

Few issues possess such global resonance. From Australia to Italy, Germany to the US, the issue is a prominent feature of political discourse, frequently as a result of extensive media coverage and citizen concern. But it’s not just individual governments that are involved. Since its establishment in 1950, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has sought to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.

A key component of its approach is to harness innovation and technology to identify new solutions and ways to address these challenges. To this end, in 2013 it created a new unit – UNHCR Innovation – to lead the drive for innovative ideas and solutions. Based in Geneva and also, more recently, in Nairobi, the unit works in partnership with private sector organisations to support new processes and help the millions of displaced people living around the world. Its lead, Olivier Delarue, is keen to stress that such partnerships are key to its approach.

“This unit was formed to capture, foster and reward creativity and innovation within UNHCR,” he explains, “by including refugees, staff, but also partners. For this you need to have systems and procedures to channel creativity. It cannot be left alone. This is why we also need to focus on innovation management, and not just innovation but the process as well. We talk about innovation management in the humanitarian world because it takes resources, staff, and skills to manage this process of creativity, preservation, innovation and, eventually, scaling.”

UNHCR lab lessons

UNHCR Innovation is structured as five pillars: fellowship, engagement, fund, partnerships and four individually-themed labs – emergency, learn, link, and energy – which are ‘safe spaces’ to incubate new approaches. “This is where challenges are defined and possible solutions are identified,” he continues. “Through the labs we work collaboratively with other divisions within UNHCR to refine these solutions, capturing feedback from refugees – the end user.”

The four labs, which are run together with other UNHCR divisions, have clearly defined roles. Emergency  enhances UNHCR’s overall emergency response, focusing on ‘communicating with communities’. Learn seeks to expand educational opportunities for refugees. Link connects refugees and displaced communities with UNHCR through the use of ICT. Energy identifies the most suitable technology to meet their energy needs. “The whole process is collaborative. The way we identify a challenge is either through working collaboratively with other divisions or through direct requests from operations in the field. We are also testing the viability of UNHCR Ideas – an idea management platform – for identifying challenges. Through the platform, UNHCR colleagues, partners, and refugees have the opportunity to submit or vote on ideas to particular challenges.”

Set for scale

Of course, collecting new ideas is one thing, but moving ahead with these proposals to roll-out is quite another. “Five winning ideas have been selected over the past year and are now in the process of prototyping,” says Delarue. “The resources have to be secured in advance because if you don’t achieve people’s expectations then you are, in fact, frustrating the process and they may never come back. Then, obviously, you need to have the organisation receptive to the idea of challenging the status quo, which is also not a given.”

Indeed, one of the barriers to scaling up prototypes is the inflexibility of budgets. “Public officials will often have a budget set a year or two in advance, but will not tolerate flexibility,” he says. “The only flexibility that you will have is if you have additional money coming in from somewhere else. For UNHCR it is very complicated because we are always searching for money, because we are almost 40% underfunded. When you say, ‘Hey, could you please give us more money to do a new activity,’ the answer is, ‘that’s great, but we are not even funded for our core budget. How could you ask?’ So, it’s very complicated to discuss.”

Another challenge is the ability and willingness to replace tried and trusted techniques with new practices. “It is complicated and people need to see the advantages for them, for their operation,” says Delarue. “They need to really see the impact this new practice will have. This is because human beings tend to be very comfortable with the status quo. They’re very comfortable with inertia. Human beings are not exactly happy to evolve unless forced.” That doesn’t mean that it never happens, however. For example, UNHCR has worked with a private sector company in Sweden to produce a new temporary shelter for refugees that has proved to be a huge success and almost 5,000 have recently been ordered.

“A lot of countries have been producing camps for the last 60 years,” he says. “They know how to erect them. They know how to distribute the tents and they know how to monitor them. They know that the tent will last six months and they have to replenish it. But the new units can last up to three years and the steel frames for ten. It costs $1,150 compared to $500 previously, but it still works out cheaper.

Scaling, then, does not come naturally in the development and humanitarian sectors. “If you do not have all the elements to enable scale, scale doesn’t happen,” he says. “It is very complicated to achieve. The biggest obstacle is scaling across operations – logistics, manufacturing, operations – because it is so complicated. And it also goes for procurement, which incorporates the element of vested interests. By introducing a new technique or new product, you are infringing on years and years of contracting.”

Such examples show the progress that can be made – despite the variety of hurdles and barriers that innovators face. Increased funding, however, is critical to delivering an even stronger public impact – a point that Delarue readily admits. “In theory, we should be fully funded, but in reality we’re not. It’s very unlikely that we will be fully funded, but we definitely should be. There is no reason why not.”

 

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