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Experts to Watch: Innovating Refugee Response

Several organizations and projects are at the forefront of seeking solutions to the unparalleled levels of global migration. In the first installment of our “Experts to Watch” series, we look at five that are rethinking refugee aid.

Written by Eline Gordts and Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Australia asylum seekers
Refugees detained by Australian authorities (right) gather on one side of a fence to talk to international journalists and humanitarian workers about their journey. Communication between the two is essential for viable solutions to emerge. AP/Rick Rycroft, File

When world leaders gather in New York next month for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, the global refugee crisis will be at the top of the agenda.

More than 65 million people around the world today are forcibly displaced. Twenty million among them are officially deemed refugees. Never before have that many people been recorded to have fled their homes, often forced to give up their possessions, their education, their safety net and a sense of belonging.

The current humanitarian system – conceptualized in the aftermath of World War II, amid very different challenges and circumstances – has been unable to meet today’s unprecedented needs. Both national governments and international agencies have been unable to develop an effective and humane response. As recently as Tuesday, U.N. member states agreed on a “draft outcome” to guide the U.N. Assembly meeting. However, they failed to agree on specific commitments to protect refugees and migrants, deferring a decision on those until 2018, the New York Times reports.

Worldwide calls to rethink the basic assumptions of humanitarian aid grow more resonant every day. In the first installment of our “Experts to Watch” series, we take a look at five private organizations and individuals that are spearheading innovative, long-term solutions that approach refugees and migration as a multilinked phenomenon, rather than a “crisis.”

The Ikea Foundation

The Ikea Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Swedish furniture giant, is the largest private-sector partner of UNHCR – having committed more than $198 million to the U.N.’s refugee agency since 2010. The foundation’s approach to aid is similar to the success formula it developed as a furniture company – creating simple, sustainable, cost-saving and innovative solutions. In addition to funding UNHCR operations across continents, and helping UNHCR to reach out to Ikea’s worldwide customer base, the foundation has promoted the development of revolutionary products that dramatically improve refugees’ living conditions. Case in point is the foundation’s instrumental role in creating a revolutionary temporary housing unit to replace refugee tents. The units can be anchored in the ground, have windows, can be locked and are high enough to allow residents to stand up inside. A solar panel on the roof powers a lamp that also features a USB port to charge a mobile phone. The units have been used to shelter refugees in countries including Greece, Botswana and Iraq.

The University of Oxford’s Humanitarian Innovation Project

Alexander Betts, director of the Refugees Studies Centre at Oxford University, launched the Humanitarian Innovation Project in 2012, believing that the knowledge and creativity of refugee communities were far too often overlooked in discussions about reforming humanitarian aid. “Although ‘humanitarian innovation’ has been increasingly embraced by the humanitarian world, this kind of ‘bottom-up’ innovation by crisis-affected communities is often neglected in favor of a sector-wide focus on improving the effectiveness of organizational response to crisis,” Betts and fellow researchers Louise Bloom and Nina Weaver wrote in a July 2015 report. “This oversight disregards the capabilities and adaptive resourcefulness that people and communities affected by conflict and disaster often demonstrate.”

Since 2012, the project has gained a reputation for groundbreaking research that cuts across disciplines and reaches out to unconventional players in refugee assistance, like businesses and the military. It particularly focuses its research on refugee economies, bottom-up innovation, military-humanitarian innovations and governance innovation. It now also hosts an annual conference focusing on the topic.

Techfugees

The tech community often boasts about its problem-solving and innovative abilities. In September 2015, Techcrunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher set out to apply that mind-set to the problems facing refugees. Techfugees started as a Facebook page connecting the tech world and aid organizations, and is now a growing nonprofit organization with volunteers and chapters around the world.

The organization doesn’t build apps but aims to connect, coordinate and promote innovation through hackathons, events, meet-ups, courses and conferences. It focuses on five goals: connectivity in refugee communities, access to education, identification papers, healthcare and social, cultural and economic inclusion in host communities. Joséphine Goube, Techfugees’ COO, told The Verge that the organization hopes the exchange of knowledge at its events and through its networks will lead to the incubation of projects and engage new volunteers.

MIT D-LAB

D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is world-renowned for its Creative Capacity Building methodology – a grassroots approach to design that places the process within the community new technologies are meant to serve. Founded in 2002 by Amy Smith, an award-winning mechanical engineer and lecturer at MIT, the platform aims to give communities the skills to design equipment that can contribute to poverty alleviation and engages MIT engineering students in the design-development-dissemination process.

D-Lab recently partnered with UNHCR in an effort to bring the creative capacity building mind-set to the U.N.’s work with refugees. The international agency has faced criticism for its top-down approach to humanitarian aid, and hopes that its collaboration with D-Lab can foster a focus on empowering refugee communities in its relief work – even in emergency situations.

CatalyticAction

Not-for-profit design studio CatalyticAction specializes in creating play and education spaces for refugee children, believing that safe and stimulating learning and recreation environments are absolutely essential for the development of boys and girls trapped in turbulent circumstances. In the Jarahieh settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where more than 360,000 Syrian refugees have registered since the start of the conflict in their home country, CatalyticAction is working to transform a temporary school for refugee children set up by Jusoor, an NGO of Syrian expatriates, and Sawa for Development Aid. The three organizations are working together to replace the current tents that serve as classrooms with a more comfortable, stable and weatherproof structure. With extensive input from staff, students and parents, CatalyticAction is transforming a pavilion used by Save the Children Italy at the 2015 Milan Expo into an education facility to meets the students’ needs, in effect recycling the temporary structure into a welcoming, safe and warm learning environment.

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