The social and political impacts of unprecedented numbers of people seeking refuge across borders have been felt across the globe—in the countries that host refugees and in those that they pass through. At the end of 2015, there were more than 65 million people displaced worldwide, driven from their homes by famine, conflict, and natural disasters.
These numbers, and the stories behind them, have been called a “crisis,” a term generally associated with a temporary and extraordinary state. However, the average 17-year duration of refugee displacement points to a protracted situation, which demands responses that encompass both immediate “fire-fighting” and longer-term adaptable and sustainable solutions to help refugees along their entire “pathway.” This includes help at origin, transit, arrival, support in camps/non-camp areas and, sometimes, resettlement or return. Such approaches to refugee assistance can also help local host communities thrive.
Innovation, which describes both new solutions and new applications of existing products, technologies, services, and organisational models, can play a role in responding to the challenges at play, as well as to unmet or emerging needs. Policymakers are beginning to embrace innovation, but much more can be done to help to plug the gaps in the global refugee response. There is a need for scalable, inclusive, and novel approaches that foster resilience and meet the needs of everyone affected. To succeed, new ways to collaborate and coordinate humanitarian actions are required so that refugees, host communities, and other actors involved are empowered to create and spread innovative solutions along the refugee pathway and across sectors.
RAND Europe's ongoing work has revealed many examples of innovation in products, technologies, services, and systems aiming to address the needs of refugees in transit and on arrival, in both camp and urban settings. These span numerous sectors (such as water, sanitation and hygiene, education, protection, communication, shelter, health, and livelihoods) and include simple, low-tech solutions, as well as digital platforms.
On the digital side, numerous apps have been developed to help refugees. InfoAid was developed by volunteers to assist refugees in transit along the Balkan route, offering updates and advice on weather and border conditions. In Germany, a “Bureaucrazy App” was developed by Syrian refugees to help new arrivals better negotiate the German bureaucracy. In Jordan, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has partnered with Cairo Amman Bank to pilot iris scanning technology that would enable Syrian refugees in Jordan to access cash assistance more easily and safely via ATMs.
Many of these efforts are driven by international cross-sectoral partnerships, while others are led by grassroots groups and refugees. These include the refugee-led development of a more child-friendly and participatory refugee protection process for children in Uganda; simple, adaptable refugee shelter designs from UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation; and inflatable baby incubators developed by a British undergraduate for pre-term babies born in camps.
Innovation flourishes in supportive environments with incentives for participation in innovation development and uptake. There also needs to be clear accountabilities for the use of funds invested in developing and deploying innovations, and clear objectives in terms of the innovation's impact. There also needs to be an openness to accepting and managing risk.
The humanitarian sector is increasingly recognising these factors. Both UNHCR and UNICEF now have their own innovation programmes, which seek to identify and develop innovative technologies and practices. For example, to address the issue of a lack of sustainable cooking fuel, refugees in camps in Ethiopia have worked with UNHCR's Energy Lab to devise a prototype of a stove made from oil cans from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Other initiatives such as the charity ELRHA's Humanitarian Innovation Fund and the Global Humanitarian Lab (an incubator of innovative solutions to humanitarian challenges) are also supporting and coordinating innovative ideas from development to roll-out.
Refugees and host communities have a considerable stake in funding, developing, and implementing innovative solutions.
These existing efforts show that refugees and host communities—as well as the public, private, and third sectors—have a considerable stake in funding, developing, and implementing innovative solutions. Approaches that promote partnerships across a range of diverse stakeholders at a global, national, and regional level are needed. For example, research from the Humanitarian Innovation Project highlights the economic dynamism and technological literacy of refugees and their role as co-creators of solutions as well as end users. Increased recognition and support for this role from other innovation actors could help to produce more effective, appropriate solutions for communities.
In addition, international commitments need to move beyond individual funders to effectively leverage the knowledge and expertise of communities, companies, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations and to develop solutions that offer benefits to all. A global cross-sectoral policy platform is needed, capable of providing the coordination and incentive structure to foster collaborative, coherent, and responsive innovation efforts.
Such innovation efforts need to consider the entire refugee pathway, not only emergency and arrival assistance. RAND Europe's ongoing work points to an emphasis among innovation initiatives in meeting the immediate needs of refugees in transit or arrival, or during emergencies. While these efforts are essential, innovation needs to be extended to the entire refugee pathway to help ensure the resilience of all affected populations. This requires an understanding of the inevitably shifting priorities and needs experienced by refugees along their own pathways. Similarly, it requires consideration of the diversity in the roles that host countries can represent to both refugees and local communities, ranging from places of transit to resettlement (or at least long-term) destinations.
A gap is particularly visible in innovations that respond to long-term displacement, especially with regard to integration in host countries and the role of host communities. Valuable exceptions demonstrate how innovative ideas at the global and local levels can help local populations and economies to thrive together. The “EUsavelives, You Save Lives” initiative from the all-volunteer charity Oxfam and ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian office, aims to convey the experience of displaced persons to EU citizens, thereby creating awareness and understanding. Another example is UNHCR's policy on Alternatives to Camps, which seeks to make better use of refugee skills and assets by allowing them to live outside camps. The Startblok Riekerhaven in Amsterdam (a housing project for refugees) simultaneously addresses the needs of refugees and local residents by offering affordable lodging to both and actively building communities at the same time.
The sustainability of humanitarian innovation is often stifled by a lack of long-term resources and commitment. Particularly in host countries, a politically driven tendency to treat refugee situations as temporary can render sustained and system-level investment and policymaker commitment to innovation unfeasible in many cases. Of course, long-term stakeholder commitment is only one driver of innovation sustainability. Raising awareness of the need for specific innovations, sharing evidence of impact, and embedding the skills and capabilities needed to use innovation should influence future efforts.
The scope for scaling innovations also requires attention. Some, but not all innovations aimed at refugee contexts are likely to be applicable across settings. For example, electricity-generating urinals for use in camps (developed by Oxfam and the University of the West of England) are likely to have broader use, while some child-protection initiatives (such as platforms for reporting sexual abuse and violence) are likely to be more context- and culture-specific.
Understanding the potential for the scalability and sustainability of innovations requires embedded knowledge-sharing, evaluation, monitoring, and learning from past and ongoing efforts. At the moment, many evaluations of innovation in the humanitarian space are fragmented, focusing on discrete projects and programmes. Yet understanding both sustainability and scalability requires evaluation of impacts (on refugee and host communities) from innovation efforts across sectors and across different initiatives, as well as understanding their interactions, dependencies, and complementarities.
Many diverse innovations are being driven forward worldwide to address the needs of refugees at various points of their pathways. To support progress with these initiatives at pace and scale, further analysis is needed on how to combine expertise from the many different stakeholders and sectors to provide more effective, longer-term solutions. In addition, an interdisciplinary approach to further research is likely to be the only way to effectively address the complexity of the issues at play and do justice to the scale of the social challenge being faced.
Jennie Corbett is a policy analyst who focuses on health services and migration policy at RAND Europe. Corinna Frey is a Ph.D. candidate who focuses on innovation in extreme contexts and global crises at the Cambridge Judge Business School. Sonja Marjanovic is a research leader who specialises in innovation policy and its impact on society at RAND Europe.
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