Humanitarian innovation that starts with crisis-affected communities

Source: Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford
Country: Jordan, Kenya, South Africa, Syrian Arab Republic, Uganda, United States of America, World, Zimbabwe


Refugees, displaced persons, and others caught in crisis often have
skills, talents, and aspirations that they draw upon to adapt to difficult circumstances.

Executive Summary

Bottom-up innovation
• Innovation is playing an increasingly transformative role across the humanitarian system. International organisations, NGOs, governments, business, military, and community-based organisations are drawing upon the language and methods of innovation to address the challenges and opportunities of a changing world.

• Bottom-up innovation can be defined as the way in which crisis-affected communities engage in creative problem-solving, adapting products and processes to address challenges and create opportunities.

• Refugee populations offer examples of bottom-up innovation. They represent a wide spectrum of people affected by humanitarian crisis spanning the emergency phase through to protracted displacement crises. They are also an important population of focus in their own right given that the world now has more displaced people than at any time since the Second World War.

• Bottom-up innovation by crisis-affected communities remains under-recognised. Despite some pioneering efforts to engage the capacities of communities, a significant proportion of humanitarian innovation remains focused on improving organisational response.

• This report examines refugee innovation in five countries: Uganda, Jordan, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States. These illustrative cases present a range of contexts: advanced industrialised, middle-income, and developing economies. They also cover a range of phases of the refugee cycle: mass influx, protracted situations, and resettled populations.

• Examples from Uganda highlight innovation across both protracted and emergency situations and both urban and rural contexts. They show how, in a country in which refugees have the right to work, there is a strong presence of innovative entrepreneurship, including the use and adaptation of technology.
Refugee innovation notably contributes to public goods provision across the refugee and host communities.

• In Jordan, we look at Syrian refugees in Za’atari refugee camp. The camp has been the focus of many ‘top-down’ efforts to introduce innovative products and processes by the international community but we demonstrate that it is also a significant site for ‘bottom-up’ innovation. We highlight businesses on the famous ‘Shams-Élysées’ market street, but also examine a range of innovations relating to architecture and space as well as less visible economic activities by women in the camp.

• In Kenya, we showcase examples of innovation by refugees in both Nairobi and Kakuma refugee camp. Despite an increasingly challenging security environment for many refugees, especially Somalis, people are still engaging in creative income-generating activities within the informal sector in ways that benefit them and their communities.

South Africa
• In South Africa, we focus mainly on Zimbabwean refugees in Johannesburg where there is a self-settlement strategy allowing the right to work but limited government assistance. We highlight how community-led facilitation has transformed opportunities for Zimbabweans across a range of areas including education.

United States.
• In the USA we focus on Dallas, a city which has been receiving a growing number of resettled refugees. We use this example to demonstrate that refugee innovation is also present in host states in advanced industrialised countries and that, with the right enabling environment it has the potential to flourish.

Facilitating bottom-up innovation • Refugees face opportunities and constraints at each stage of the innovation process. These emerge at individual, community, and institutional levels.

• The humanitarian system so far lacks a good model of facilitating and nurturing innovation by refugees and other crisis-affected communities.

• Key elements of a positive enabling environment for bottom-up innovation include a) a permissive environment with the right to work and freedom of movement; b) access to connectivity including the internet and telecommunications; c) access to education and skills training; d) good infrastructure and transportation links; e) access to banking and credit facilities; f ) transnational networks.

• We need to rethink the humanitarian system in order to provide a better enabling environment for innovation by crisis-affected communities, including refugees.

from ReliefWeb Headlines

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