How IT and collaboration tools help UNHCR improve the lives of refugees

By Danny Palmer
31 Mar 2014 View Comments
unhcr-innovation-lead-olivier-delarue

The United Nation's Refugee Agency (UNHCR) works in some of the harshest areas of the world, including Syria, Central Africa and the Philippines, all of which have been torn apart by war, famine or natural disasters.

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It is, therefore, already a huge challenge for UNHCR's 8,000 staff to look after more than 45 million refugees and displaced people across 125 crisis-ridden countries, let alone help give them the opportunity to live any sort of normal existence, with access to education and communication with the outside world.

All of this, of course, needs to be done with a limited pool of finances, a tough task in any situation, let alone in some of the harshest environments on the globe.

It's for that reason that two years ago, the UNHCR established a specialist innovation unit, in order to move the 65-year-old organisation away from "business as usual" and towards "new ways of working" regarded as more sustainable than previous methods of aiding refugees.

The aim was therefore to examine simplifying the delivery of programmes, and helping to improve the lives of refugees with the tools, platforms and processes - including those offered by ICT, said Olivier Delarue, the lead at UNHCR's Innovation Unit.

"The spirit of this Innovation Unit is really about iteration, providing a space for UNHCR staff to express themselves and opening up to new ideas, with the understanding of what we're dealing with are 46 million displaced people and that they don't require high-tech stuff," he told Computing.

"So when we're talking about innovation, we're not here to reinvent the wheel. We're here to liberate what the world has already produced, but may not have already exposed to refugees," said Delarue.

One of the ways IT is helping is through the provision of online learning, with basic computers providing refugees with access to virtual education tools they'd normally be unable to use due to the often isolated, harsh conditions in which they are forced to live. 

"ICT and the power of connectivity through mobile phone is enabling the provision of distance-learning facilities for refugees. Refugees often say 'my world is this camp, but with internet my world is your world'," said Delarue, adding that connectivity is helping people, some of whom may have been in camps for their entire lives.

"When you've been in a refugee camp for 10, 20 or 30 years, growing up in these camps, this is the liberating power of the internet provided by ICT and distant learning, through ruggedized tablets where content is being provided in multiple different languages," said Delarue. 

ICT is therefore an enabler for providing "normalcy" and "digital dignity", Delarue continued, "because despite the fact that they're forced to leave their homes and countries, they still aspire to a normal life, and digital access helps provide this normality with access to Facebook, Twitter, indeed any social platform, which is totally taken for granted for the vast majority of the world, but not for the refugees".

But technology isn't just being harnessed as a tool for the refugees; it's also used by thousands of UNHCR staff spread across some of the most remote areas of the world, providing an organisational challenge.

The refugee agency therefore deployed SpigitEngage from Mindjet, a crowdsourcing tool leveraging big data analytics, to help collaboration between staff. The tool was chosen after a long selection process to determine what would work best for the unique situation of UNHCR and its goals.

"Almost two years ago we started to look around the world at the best collaboration platforms that could actually fit the bill for UNHCR. They had to enable working through cloud, enable mobile end-user application and also be able to genuinely provide this collaboration for the many staff we have across the world," said Delarue.

"SpigitEngage was selected because it's a very unique product: it captures all the great stuff that other platforms have, in one single platform," he said, adding that it's become a very effective tool for UNHCR.

"Before, it was very complicated to capture these innovative ideas, even here at HQ let alone in the field. But through the SpigitEngage platform we are able to provide a place where ideas, challenges, and collaboration can happen," said Delarue. 

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