Angelina Jolie in a refugee camp. Or, what is humanitarian innovation?

posted in: Social innovation | 0

For months now we have been watching news about people fleeing their homes due to ongoing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia. And just when writing this post my newsfeed tells me that 100 people died after their boat capsized off the Libyan coast when trying to embark on their journey to Europe[1].

World map.
Corinna Frey, PhD student, CJBS
Corinna Frey, PhD student at Cambridge Judge Business School

Last year, around 59.5 million people fled their countries, which makes one in every 122 humans a refugee, internally displaced or an asylum-seeker, now finding themselves in overcrowded refugee camps across the world[2]. Indeed, humanitarian organisations struggle to cope with what is described as the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War[3].

“There’s no question that the scale of the emergency now is larger than it has ever been after World War II.”

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group

Innovation for refugee crises

Being appalled, or tired, of so much human suffering, the public and a handful of prominent figures are pressing for more innovative solutions to address this massive global challenge. In fact Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, says we need more ‘out of the box thinking’ and President Obama himself prompts Silicon Valley to find better technologies to help solve the refugee crises[4].

And indeed, during my research I came across several novel and exciting ways to raise money, promote change in refugee camps or give campaigns an extra boost. One such example is Google’s Refugee Relief Site that facilitates fundraising efforts for refugee causes while at the same time matching the first $5.5 million in donations[5]. Or Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg who plans to support internet access in refugee camps[6]. Bringing celebrities in is the next big thing. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is visiting refugee camps to raise awareness of the devastating conditions of people living in these places, currently hoping to turn the spotlight onto Syria’s refugee crisis[7]. Interestingly enough, she was also recently appointed as Visiting Professor on humanitarian conflict at the London School of Economics and Political Science[8]. While some universities teach about crises, others open up branches within refugee camps themselves. In Rwanda I met a young refugee student who was just recently admitted to Kepler University which, in collaboration with the Southern New Hampshire University, gives refugees the opportunity to earn a US degree through online learning paired with in-person seminars[9] without ever leaving the camp.

Out of the box?

While such efforts have drastically improved some tight funding situations, eased access to higher education or placed refugees’ struggle back on the international agenda, it still feels like a drop in the bucket. While trying to be creative, we still come up with ideas that seem interesting, but appear more like a quick fix than a groundbreaking idea ‘out of the box’[10]. Rather than focusing purely on the import of new technologies, celebrities and US degrees, we potentially need to rethink how truly innovative ideas may be created at first.

Innovation for ideas

One novel way is currently explored by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, with their ‘Ideas Challenge’. While corporate ideas challenges prompt individuals to hand in new ideas offering cash and prizes, UNHCR promotes a different version with the first prize being an idea piloted and implemented by UNHCR to tackle our global humanitarian challenges. The way they go about this is to use an online crowd-sourcing platform to generate ideas from refugee communities, UNHCR staff, partners and academia in collaboration with each other. As a first step, UNHCR teams can suggest challenges they experienced or were told about in the field, such as energy provision in camps or language barriers of refugees. One challenge at a time is then uploaded onto the platform and refugees, UNHCR staff members and partner organisations are invited to submit ideas, share their practical experience and first-hand knowledge in order to crowd-source relevant and innovative solutions to the specific challenge. Next, these ideas are voted on and vetted by the online community as well as a specific panel of academic and practice experts, with the final idea being prototyped and tested in the field[11].

Bridging communities and fostering inter-disciplinary thinking, the winning idea of the very first challenge on #OvercomingLanguageBarriers, suggested blended learning modules combining traditional forms of learning and tablets pre-loaded with language-learning apps. It has been tested and implemented in Greece[12].

Promoting Silicon Valley or Angelina Jolie in support of our refugee camps is surely one way to go, but we urgently need more novel ways of creating ideas for truly innovative humanitarian action ‘out of the box’ to happen.

Corinna Frey is a PhD researcher working on international emergencies and refugee crises in contexts such as Lebanon, South Africa, and most recently Rwanda.


[1]Refugee crisis: Children among more than 100 bodies recovered after migrant boat capsizes off the coast of Libya“, Independent, 3 June 2016

[2]Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase“, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 18 June 2015

[3]Refugee Crisis Is The Largest Since WWII, World Bank President Says“, National Public Radio, 23 May 2016

[4]President Obama Calls On Tech Companies To Aid In The Syrian Refugee Crisis“, TechCrunch, 6 October 2015

[5]Google To Match Donations For Refugee Crisis“, The Huffington Post, 15 September 2015

[6]Zuckerberg To Bring Internet To Refugee Camps“, Sky News, 27 September 2015

[7]Angelina Jolie turns spotlight on Syria“, CNN, 21 June 2013

[8]Angelina Jolie to teach masters course at London School of Economics“, BBC, 23 May 2016


[10]The tech sector’s best innovations for solving the Syrian refugee crisis“, The Washington Post, 13 October 2015



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