• UN calls for innovations to aid its work with refugees

    Nick Kennedy


Speed read

  • UNHCR is seeking ideas for improving refugees' access to its services

  • Staff and partners can use an Internet and mobile platform to pick an idea to pilot

  • In the next stage, refugees themselves will be asked to suggest and choose solutions

The UN's refugee agency hopes to use crowdsourced innovations to improve how it works with refugees.

On 12 August, UNHCR (the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) launched the first of several planned challenges intended to produce innovative solutions to pressing problems in the field.

This first challenge in the UNHCR Ideas initiative asked the agency's staff and partner organisations to suggest ways to improve access to UNHCR information and services for refugees living in urban areas.

The challenge generated more than 300 ideas. Now, UNHCR staff and members of partner organisations are voting for the proposals that they think would do most to protect refugees, boost their self-sufficiency and improve their dignity. The highest-rated ideas will be shortlisted and an expert panel will choose the best one, which will be piloted next year.

In future challenges, UNHCR will ask refugees, as well as UNHCR staff and partner organisations, to suggest innovative solutions and then vote for their favourite.  

"This first challenge is a test challenge. The next step is to launch this out in the field where we will be soliciting ideas from refugees themselves," says Shail Khiyara, the chief marketing officer at Spigit, a US software company that designed the Internet and mobile platform being used for the challenge.

This will help refugees address the key issues they face and help each other around the globe, he adds.

The ideas generated from this and future challenges are designed to improve the lives of the 35 million people of concern to UNHCR, including the one million refugee children forced to flee Syria.

“We will be soliciting ideas from refugees themselves.”

Shail Khiyara,

So far, some top-rated ideas from the first challenge suggest that UNHCR seeks feedback from refugees on how satisfied they are with its service.

"Among the most popular ideas is one that proposes a customer-centred approach to the way UNHCR designs solutions, enhancing access to information and services for persons of concern," says Rocco Nuri, a spokesman for UNHCR Innovation, an initiative that looks for more efficient and creative solutions to the challenges refugees face.

"This includes tools that would allow an effective feedback system, including client-satisfaction surveys and tools that analyse the data collected and link the feedback received to specific solutions," he says.

Another idea is for the agency to set up a website specifically for refugees.

"UNHCR staff members who have been active on the platform have suggested the creation of an online portal to provide essential information to refugees.

The portal would exclusively target persons of concern as opposed to existing websites [that are used] for visibility and fundraising purposes. It would be centrally maintained but country-specific," Nuri tells SciDev.Net.

A further popular suggestion is for UNHCR to make an informative comic book series for refugee children. This could lift the children's spirits and provide them with vital information about their situation, says the person who proposed the idea. And yet another suggests using university students to provide legal services for refugees.