Fri 21/04/2023 - 16:10

Today is World Creativity and Innovation Day. On this occasion, we are taking the opportunity to highlight the key role that Innovation plays at UNHCR in facilitating the lives of millions of families who are forcibly displaced throughout the world. UNHCR has always strived to solve real-life challenges faced by those who are the most in need with innovative solutions. To fulfil this ambition, its Innovation Service has to this day launched four funds in support of projects across a wide range of themes and contexts.  

We have interviewed Hovig Etyemezian, Head of Innovation Service at UNHCR, who shared more details about the funds, their selection process as well as exciting projects coming up.

Can you tell us a bit about the innovation funds? 

With pleasure! The Innovation Service runs four Innovation Funds and each of them focuses on a different sphere of innovation: digital, data, environment, and refugee-led. Three of these funds are very new – they were just launched in 2022 – but already we can see that they are a very effective means of supporting creative solutions to really tough challenges facing UNHCR and the communities we serve. Each of the funds is a holistic support mechanism – so, while they do provide financial resources to project teams, they also provide technical support, innovation mentoring, in-kind needs, and networking assistance. Essentially, they ensure that people working to solve complex challenges in new ways have the tools and the know-how they need to make a difference for and with forcibly displaced people. 

Hovig Etyemezian, Head of UNHCR Innovation Service ©UNHCR
Hovig Etyemezian, Head of UNHCR Innovation Service ©UNHCR
Who are the beneficiaries? 

The first three funds – which focus on innovation in data and emergent tech; digital innovation; and innovative ways to mainstream environmental considerations into our work – support UNHCR teams working to develop, test and refine nascent solutions. The fourth fund, the Refugee-led Innovation Fund, champions the creativity of forcibly displaced and stateless people. It provides direct support to refugee-led organizations that are working to address the challenges facing their communities. Of course, ultimately, all the funds support projects that are testing new ways of better delivering UNHCR’s mandate to protect, empower, and include refugees.

How many applications do you receive each year? 

Last year was the first time we had all four funds up and running and the response was really amazing. We received more than 2,000 expressions of interest across all four funds, which was a real testament to the enthusiasm, ingenuity, and drive of UNHCR teams and forcibly displaced communities around the world. Out of that treasure trove of amazing ideas, nearly 60 projects were endorsed for support, which will be implemented across 2023. We’re preparing to launch a new call for expressions of interest in May, and we’re hoping to be able to support even more incredible projects this year. 

Refugee-led organisation PASSOP encourages refugees and local community members to participate in a netball tournament. ©PASSOP
Refugee-led organisation PASSOP encourages refugees and local community members to participate in a netball tournament. ©PASSOP
Based on what criteria do you choose the projects that are funded? 

The projects go through a very rigorous selection process, and each fund has slightly different criteria, due to the nature of the different thematics. Across all the funds, though, we’re looking for ideas that are forward-thinking, that are pushing the envelope. We privilege ideas that are developed in consultation with communities, that respond to a demonstrable need, and that are also feasible. As with anything truly innovative, not all our projects will deliver the expected results – but all of them deliver new information, new ideas. It’s an iterative process, and we select projects whose benefits to communities are clear and which have the potential to change UNHCR organizational practice for good. 

The Digital Inclusion Fund supported 19 Indigenous artisans to complete training to access online marketplaces. ©UNHCR
The Digital Inclusion Fund supported 19 Indigenous artisans to complete training to access online marketplaces. ©UNHCR
What are the projects that you’re most excited about? 

There are so many! But if I had to just choose a few, I’d say that I’m very excited about a large-scale data project underway design a prototype data-driven early warning system for forced displacement. That project is being run by UNHCR’s Division of Emergency, Security and Supply. If successful and brought to scale, it will be game-changing for UNHCR’s preparedness, improving our anticipation of and response to complex emergencies. I am also looking forward to the results of a few innovation projects we are running that tackle digital skills and explore online livelihoods/job opportunities for Refugees and displaced people! Another thing I’m really thrilled about are the many projects supported through the Innovation, Environment and Resilience Fund that are employing Indigenous ideas, techniques, and worldviews to deliver rich co-benefits for displaced people and the environments they live in. Finally, the incredible response to the inaugural Refugee-led Innovation Fund is something I am so proud of. It’s really inspiring to see so many brilliant organizations led by displaced and stateless people who are already doing incredible work to bring lasting positive change to their communities. These projects are addressing relationships with host communities; they’re supporting food security and livelihoods; they’re doing things like training women in aquaponics, to bring new skills and new jobs and new food sources to camp settings – really remarkable approaches to the challenges these organizations have identified. Being able to support that work is a real privilege. In sum, we are excited! 

UNHCR’s Innovation service is committed to bringing about positive change for people forced to flee through novel ideas, and this wouldn’t be possible without the knowledge and skills of its staff as well as the hundreds of brilliant candidates presenting their projects each year. The service’s incentive on innovation through funding and technical support as well as an environment for experimentation across the organisation ultimately enables UNHCR to deliver its mandate more effectively. 

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