Robotics technology brings unique refugee voice to UN roundtable on innovation in New York

Yasser, a young Syrian refugee and WFP Iraq EMPACT programme graduate, center, with roundtable participants.

We often hear about how technology has transformed the way humanitarian agencies work, allowing them to reach those furthest behind with life-saving assistance in a more efficient, timely and secure way. Another empowering aspect of technology, however, is its ability to connect people from different parts of the world and bring them to one room. Today, as the world grapples with global problems, there has never been a greater need for dialogue that includes everyone, from people living in remote refugee camps to key decision-makers sitting at the United Nations. And now, with the advent of new communication technologies, there is simply no excuse to leave anyone out of such conversations.

In a roundtable discussion co-hosted by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the German Permanent mission to the UN (focusing on innovation in humanitarian response), attendees got the chance to listen to the story of Yasser, a young Syrian refugee who fled Syria in 2011 due to the ongoing conflict, and is currently living in Iraq.

Just a few short months ago, Yasser found himself selling balloons on the side of the road in Iraq in order to earn a money to support his family. Little did he know that an advertisement offering digital skills training would change his life. After applying and being accepted to WFP Iraq’s EMPACT programme, which provides digital skills training and connects trainees to remote job opportunities, Yasser graduated first in his class. He now has a job as a digital marketing and social media specialist with clients in and outside of Iraq.

Yasser was able to virtually join the event in New York from Sulaymaniyah, to share his personal experience directly with the diplomatic and political community at the UN.

Participants listen to Yasser, who was able to join the roundtable remotely via robotic telepresence.

Thanks to the use of an Ava Telepresence Robot, Yasser was able to rove around the room and interact directly with attendees. He then joined a panel of speakers from governments, UN agencies, and NGO partners, sharing his first-hand perspective on how innovative programming in humanitarian assistance can have a life-changing impact on the people it aims to support.

The event was opened by Thomas Zahneisen, Director of Humanitarian Assistance at the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO), who remarked on how impressed he was upon visiting the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich, where he has participated in both a bootcamp and pitch night. Zahneisen reiterated Germany’s continued commitment to supporting WFP in scaling up innovative solutions in the field — particularly those that help bridge the gap between needs and resources. Speaking to other donors in the room, he stressed the need for risk tolerance and “strategic patience” when investing in innovation, as it can take time for new ideas to come to fruition.

A keynote presentation by Shauna Cary, Managing Director of IDEO.org, summarized how technologies like customization, localization and data analytics are making everyday transactions more efficient and effective, and posed the question of how similar innovations could be adapted to humanitarian or development contexts. She highlighted a few main principles which makes for impactful humanitarian innovation: 1) that it solves for a clearly defined, persistent and critical problem; 2) that is rooted in the needs and experiences of real people; and 3) that space is maintained for experimentation and iteration.

WFP Director of Innovation Dominik Heinrich, right, with Yasser actively listening from his “seat” at the table.

Other speakers included Dominik Heinrich, WFP’s Director of Innovation, Katherine Al-Halique, Representative of the Mission of Jordan to the UN, and Grant Gordon, Director of Innovation Strategy at International Rescue Committee (IRC). Each shared approaches and examples of scaling innovation in the field, as well as challenges which need to be overcome in order to move beyond the status quo. The conversation was moderated by Ursula Wynhoven from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), who framed the discussion by emphasizing the importance of connectivity as a baseline need.

The breakfast event was the first of a series of “Dining Dialogue” events which WFP’s New York office will host throughout 2020, in an effort to bring speakers and participants from government, NGOs, private sector and affected communities around a table, to share a meal and have an informal dialogue.

Watch a short video of Yasser and the Ava Robot in action, below:

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