Launched in 2018, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) NGO Innovation Award honours advancements in innovation to organizations that have benefitted refugees and other communities of concern to UNHCR. A diverse panel of community members and professionals working in the humanitarian innovation space evaluated all submissions for the award from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who have made achievements in their work with refugees. By including refugees in the process, UNHCR linked the Award recipients with the challenges that the end-users have experienced. Clara Van Praag, Innovation Officer (Scale), UNHCR Regional Bureau for East and the Horn of Africa, and Hans Park, Strategic Design and Research Manager, UNHCR Headquarters, chat more about innovation’s role in this project, specifically for keeping the end-user in mind. A case study about their experience is featured in the new UN Innovation Toolkit

What is the UNHCR Innovation Service and why is people-centred innovation important to your work?

Clara: We’ve gone through many iterations of the Innovation Service. Every year we think about evolving our strategy to better meet the demands of not only our colleagues in our operations but to ensure that we don’t forget that we’re innovating for and with refugees and displaced people. Refugees and displaced persons should be at the forefront of all of our programming. There’s a lot of innovation at the field level, particularly amongst our NGO implementing partners who are working daily to improve the services being provided. One of the pillars we work on is innovation capacity building and we wanted to equip our colleagues with tools such as the use of personas and user journeys in order to build solutions with the perspective of the end-user in mind: Making people understand that there’s a whole process that goes into project planning for innovations before you get to the proposal writing stage for pilots.  

Why did you decide to use an innovation methodology to develop UNHCR’s NGO Innovation Award?

Hans: In every programme or project that we do with colleagues, we try to use the tools that we think are relevant to the context and the nature of the challenge we are trying to solve. So, we try to bring innovation methodologies and thinking into all of our work. The NGO Innovation Award is run by UNHCR’s partnerships team, so this is a collaborative effort between the Innovation Service, and the part of the Organization we were supporting through an innovation process -- in this case, the Partnerships team. One of the great things about innovation methodology is that it has lessons learned components strongly ingrained. We normally take lessons learned as a side project, but in this case, our colleagues wanted to learn as we went along and to improve the process and the outcomes year-on-year. 

Thinking about the outcome, how was using innovation different from a more traditional approach?

Hans: For the awards, the theme was innovation but the process itself was also creative. What is a traditional way of going about it? It is not having a robust learning component in the process. It doesn’t experiment with things. However, we wanted to make sure learning and experimentation were at the heart of our approach. Those are the two big things we were able to test out as we went along, whether it was the application form or looking at different ways of positioning ourselves to see what theme is relevant. In our case, the end-user is the global community of NGOs and the Partnerships team would spend a lot of time consulting with them and also speaking with our partners who represent a larger segment of NGOs. In addition to consulting end-users during the process, we were also soliciting feedback on what was going well and what wasn’t so we were able to change and adapt along the way. 

What would you like to say to other teams across the UN system about the power of innovation and its impact?

Clara: Don’t be afraid of innovation, and particularly don’t be afraid of failure, because these methodologies contain a lot of tools that can be useful for your work. Innovation allows us to embrace failure in order to improve our work and adapt it to the needs of refugee communities. Often in the UN, we want to be perfect in everything that we do and we like to hide when things aren’t so perfect. If we embrace the idea of transparency and taking time to reflect on why something has not worked, then we can better serve our populations of concern.

Hans: For people who are not accustomed to innovation in the UN, humanitarian or development systems, there are a lot of myths like equating innovation with technology. There’s an image problem. We think creativity is only for the few. Innovation is often seen as a US West Coast domain. It comes with a set of values that maybe we don’t—in the UN system—recognize. And I would like to convince people that this isn’t the case. Innovation can be a force for good precisely because of the values that the UN and our colleagues have: that it is about inclusion and diversity of thought. It’s about equity. It’s about making ethical choices. And innovation needs to be structured for it to succeed.

How do you think the new Innovation Toolkit will change the way the UN tackles its challenges?

Clara: What’s useful about it is that it is designed specifically for the UN. A lot of times, people are afraid to tap into existing tools and resources because they don’t recognize it as something their organization subscribes to. So, what is useful about the toolkit is that you can adapt it to your organization’s particular area of expertise.  It is broad enough that you can read it and say: “I recognize some key things that might help me in whatever challenge it is that I’m solving.” It does not have a specific thematic focus such as refugees, the environment or shelter, but you can read it, and recognise how to adapt it to your specific area of work.



Photo credit: UNHCR Innovation Service