There has been an “innovation turn” in the humanitarian world. A number of United Nations organizations, including UNHCR, have been pioneering the drawing upon of ideas and language more commonly used by the private sector in order to rethink humanitarian response. This work has offered an opportunity to transform old ways of working. Across the humanitarian system the dominant part of that debate has focused on improving organizational response. What has been neglected is a recognition that “affected communities,” including displaced populations themselves, engage in innovation on a daily basis, adapting to new markets, social networks, and regulatory environments as a matter of necessity.
At the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, we set up the Humanitarian Innovation Project in 2012 to inform this debate, focusing our research on innovation by affected communities, and in particular by refugees and displaced populations. We have been privileged to work in partnership with UNHCR on much of this work. Drawing upon ideas from human-centered design, indigenous innovation, and participatory methodology, we have tried to shift the lens from “top-down” towards “bottom-up” innovation, premised upon the recognition that refugees themselves have skills, talents, and aspirations, are frequently entrepreneurial, and often use and adapt technology.
We have begun with an initial focus on refugees’ livelihoods-innovation in Uganda, carrying out mixed methods, participatory research across three sites: the capital, Kampala, and two settlements, Nakivale and Kyangwali. Our decision to focus on Uganda has not been accidental: it is a country which, unlike many, allows refugees the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement. It allows exploration of the boundaries of the possible when refugees are given basic entitlements and opportunities. A team of over forty refugee researchers and enumerators, led by Ugandan research coordinators, carried out qualitative research and a survey of over 1500 refugees, based on two core questions: 1) how do refugees engage with the private sector, and 2) how do they use technology?
The results have been fascinating, and our preliminary findings will be published next month in a report called Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions. The report organizes the data around five core “myths”: 1) that refugees are economically isolated; 2) that their livelihoods activities are homogenous; 3) that refugees are a burden on host states; 4) that they are technologically illiterate; 5) that they are dependent on international assistance. In each case, our data challenges or fundamentally nuances these ideas. It shows vibrant and complex economic systems that thrive despite the constraints placed upon them. Whether in the formal or informal economies, displaced populations adapt their own self-protection and self-help strategies, which include a range of highly innovative responses.
The economic systems we have encountered in Uganda are nested in much broader structures, with connections across communities, with the national host economy, and transnationally. Far from being isolated, we discovered, for instance, that the Congolese bitenge trade connects the refugee settlements to urban centers as well as factories as far afield as China and India. Refugees make a great contribution to the host state economy through their role as consumers, producers, employers, and employees. To take the example of employment: of urban refugees that employ others, 40% employ Ugandans, while 43% of urban refugees who are employed work for nationals of the host state.
In terms of technology, mobile phone and internet use is greater than in the general population, with 96% of refugees in urban areas and 71% in rural settlements having mobile phones, and 51% and 11%, respectively, having access to the internet, often using these technologies for income-generating activities. Many refugees adapt their own appropriate technologies – from Congolese wooden bicycles to sustainable rain-water cooling systems for maize-milling, to video games parlors based entirely on reassembled second-hand equipment – leading to a vast array of livelihoods-innovations. Far from being uniquely dependent on humanitarian assistance, only 1% lack any independent income-generating source, and in urban areas 78% receive no international assistance at all. In prioritizing needs, many want educational opportunities and business support rather than just financial assistance.
Through these findings and others, we have recognized that refugees have incredible capacities for innovation. Better understanding the economic systems of displaced populations offers a great opportunity to rethink the very basis of how we do assistance. It enables us to think about market-based interventions that build on what already exists, to remove market distortions, and to improve the ability of displaced populations to more effectively engage with markets. Unlocking this potential stands to benefits the displaced, hosts, and donors. With the right kind of facilitation, it may transform humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities.