Q+A: Innovation in the humanitarian world

by Magda Mis | @magdalenamis1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 February 2014 16:20 GMT

South Sudanese refugees arriving from Malakal and al-Rank war zone inside South Sudan wait in camp Kilo 10, at the Sudan border in White Nile State. Picture January 26, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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U.N. agencies are keen to join private sector firms in the search for innovative ways to help the needy, forming networks that can work together for the benefit of refugees and other aid recipients

By Magda Mis

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – How do you improve refugees’ lives? Do you design a state-of-the-art cooking stove or lamp? Or maybe the very shelter where refugees live? Or all of these and more?

In an attempt to bring more light to refugee camps, the UNHCR has joined furniture retailer IKEA in a campaign ‘Brighter lives for refugees’.

For every LED light bulb sold in its shops around the world, IKEA will donate one euro to the UNHCR, which in turn will spend the money on providing refugee camps with solar street lights, portable solar lanterns and energy-efficient cooking stoves.

The campaign, part of IKEA’s Global Cause Related Marketing, of which the UNHCR is a beneficiary, will run in the retailer’s shops for the next two months and will, IKEA hopes, result in the supply of lamps to tens of  thousands of refugees.

At the campaign launch in London, Thomson Reuters Foundation talked to U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff about innovation in the humanitarian world.

Q: Why partner with the private sector? Is this the future of humanitarian aid?

A: (The private sector is) the source of money and ideas and talent. We would reach out to anybody who would help us do our job better in any of those ways.

(But) it’s unlikely that we can raise so much money from the private sector (that it will meet all our needs) and it’s the responsibility of the international community to fund the U.N.

They (the private sector) will increasingly play a larger and larger role, but I don’t think they’ll ever dominate our fundraising.

Q: Why is it so hard to innovate when it comes to helping refugees?

A: The innovation spirit has always been a part of UNHCR because we work in these incredibly difficult situations, so people have always thought of interesting new ways to do things.

(…). We can’t take out loans to develop new products, as the U.N. and the private sector did not see a way to invest in a way that works. What IKEA did with the shelters (for refugees) was front the money, produce a product that they then think can be produced and sold commercially.

What we’ve tried to do through the iFellows programmes (...) is to connect people all around the organisation to the sole practitioners of innovation, and foster that more, and provide a network of people that will then let them feel rewarded and part of a larger community that will then produce within the culture of innovation.

Q: Do you have plans or ideas for similar partnerships in the future?

A: We are always looking for other kinds (of partnerships). What we are trying to do at the U.N level is, we have now created a very loose network of U.N. organisations and the innovation units.

(...) We decided to have our innovation units talk to one another, so we’ve started this very loose collaboration that’s already met once, and we are trying to make sure that we are now all developing the same kinds of practices…

Q: What are the other partnerships of this kind that you admire?

A: UNICEF has a large innovation unit, there is something called the Global Compact which the secretary general put together.

So these exist throughout the U.N., it’s just really making sure we enrich them in a way that it’s not just simply us asking corporations for money or for goods but actually working together to achieve a common goal.


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