Innovation in the humanitarian aid sector helps Jordan’s Syrian refugees

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Humanitarian organizations are increasingly focusing on innovation, including venture arms, innovation labs, and accelerators, as a means by which to better achieve their goals.

In the humanitarian community we all realize that the scale of problems we deal with is much greater than our capacity to solve them, given available resources,” said Eva Kaplan, the innovation specialist at UNICEF. “We know we need to do more with less. Advances in technology and data science can really transform what we do,” she continued.

Three UN-affiliated humanitarian organizations in Jordan are utilizing innovation to forge ahead with their social initiatives: the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

Product innovation

New goods and services introduced by an organization often fall under the umbrella of product innovation.

A great example is UNHCR’s biometric cash system, which has since 2012 used iris-scanning technology to distribute donations to Syrian refugee families residing in Jordan.

Biometric food assistance program. (Image via WFP)

Previously, UNHCR-registered families collected a monthly grant from ATMs using cards provided to them by the refugee agency. The new technology still relies on ATMs to dispense cash to refugees, but no card or pin code is required; over 200 ATMs are equipped with the iris-scanning mechanism.

WFP is using the same technology to better regulate its food assistance. Refugees can now purchase food at supermarkets by getting their irises scanned.

Despite their convenience, it is important to keep in mind that such innovative solutions raise an ethical question. Since refugees rarely have the option to obtain aid through alternative methods, data protection and violation of privacy remain a valid concern.

Process innovation

A new product, however beneficial in the short term, can be limited in scope and unsustainable in the long run. This is where process innovation kicks in, providing a platform and a coherent strategy for maintaining the shelf life of the product in question. This changes the way products and services are created. 

An example is WFP’s innovation accelerator, launched in 2016 to identify and nurture new responses to rising challenges.Based in Munich, the accelerator brings together internal WFP staff with experts and entrepreneurs from across the private sector and civil society. Teams collaborate for a period ranging from three to six months on taking promising ideas to the next level.

In Jordan, the accelerator has established two projects: the ‘food computer’ and ‘building blocks’. While the latter explores the possibility of incorporating blockchain technology into aid assistance, the first aims to establish an agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to grow crops contributing to economic self-reliance within refugee communities. Both projects have been launched in the Azraq Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan.

Virtual reality at an innovation lab in Jordan. (Image via UNICEF)

Similarly, UNHCR has dedicated a unit to innovative solutions, which are first prototyped and tested in the field before being refined. So far, Jordan is hosting most of the projects: eight in total, including a solar lighting project in Azraq camp and a grey water gardens project Za’atari camp.

Missing bottom-up innovation

Not every innovative solution in the humanitarian sector is meant to aid a marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged group. The aim of some resides in improving internal processes within an organization. However, even solutions that do involve the marginalized and the disadvantaged often place them at the bottom of the pyramid as passive receivers.

The merits of bottom-up innovation, which engages the targeted community and turns it into an active participant, remain under-recognized.

“A bottom-up approach pieces together elements to create a system,” explained Teeb Assaf, Innovation Program Officer at UNICEF. This differentiates it from the top-down approach, “a deductive method whereby the system is broken down into its components and then each component is analyzed.”

One way UNICEF is trying to implement a bottom-up approach is through its innovation labs, which facilitate access on the part of youth to technical and social innovation training, and enable them to use the skills they acquire to solve their communities’ most pressing challenges.

“The innovation labs are critical for vulnerable children because it provides them [with] an opportunity to productively engage with their communities while learning important transferrable competencies and skills they can use to achieve their goals,” Assaf pointed out.

The labs were launched in 2010. Today, there are nine built-in labs in Za’atari and Azraq. Outside the two refugee camps, 10 mobile labs deliver social innovation curricula and resources. Extra 50 labs are expected to be established this year

Different labs can specialize in one or more of a wide array of fields, namely robotics/mechanical engaging, programming, and creative media.

At the end of the day, while traditional top-down innovation does admittedly foster new ideas and products, reports of product misuse or poor adoption of externally implemented initiatives remain distressingly common. The bottom-up approach might well chart a way forward that ensures more relevant and sustainable solutions.

Feature image via Wikimedia.

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