5 Lessons on Crafting New Voices for Innovation

Cian McAlone
UNHCR Innovation Service
12 min readNov 11, 2019


What does it actually mean to be ‘inclusive’ of refugees’ voices?

In the pursuit of the most effective way to engage humanitarians and innovators on the subject of refugee-led innovation, we turned to the idea of refugee-led communications. The authorial voice of a story frames how the reader engages with it. For example, as you begin this article, having noticed that it was created by UNHCR’s Innovation Service, it is very likely that you have, consciously or unconsciously, made a range of assumptions as to the accuracy, authority, and authenticity of the information that follows. You have already made assumptions about your own responsibility relative to the topic, its potential level of usefulness, and you have even begun to imagine what kind of information this story will contain. From the stated authorial voice, form and platform of this story, your perception of its source is already shaping the likelihood that you engage, learn and act on what it is we have to say in the future. Whilst you subconsciously grapple with all of that, let us fill you in on our assumptions as we approached our storytelling experiment.

Lauren Parater, the Innovation Service’s Community and Content Manager at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), posited that, “People’s humanity lies in their complexity.” This observation strikes at the heart of the issue of harmful stereotypes and simplistic narratives about refugees, and leads us to our first hypothesis: the most affected are the most effective. In a joint report by UNHCR’s Innovation Service and the Center for Public Interest Communications, the authors state “When those affected are not in control of their own stories, storytelling can oversimplify complex situations, misrepresent a community or perpetuate a stereotype.”

Those affected by a given situation are best positioned to understand that situation experientially, in all of its nuance and human impact. Furthermore, they are best positioned to forge the emotional connections necessary to spur a response from the audience. A story that comes straight from the mouth of the person who experienced it humanises, embeds trust, and is free from the filters of third-party biases and assumptions. Is forming refugee-led narratives the best way to discard the narrative moulds that serve to perpetuate both misinformation and damaging policy? The experiment that was undertaken tells us that it could be. It also tells us that it is not easily done. UNHCR’s Innovation Service wanted to test some of the assumptions behind the nexus of storytelling and refugee-led innovation; an attempt to answer some of these arduous questions.

A joint experiment with refugee-led narratives

The work and vision of the Community Technology Empowerment Network (CTEN), a refugee-led organisation based in northern Uganda that provides community access to information and communication technologies — has been a great source of inspiration for our team. We came across them during an Innovation Service mission to Uganda in November 2016. On a follow-up mission in February 2017, the Innovation Service visited CTEN’s Refugee Information Centre in Rhino Camp Settlement which was just finding its feet. At this time, the Innovation Service — impressed by the enthusiasm and creativity of CTEN — provided a few laptops, solar and internet ‘dongles’ to support the organization in testing their idea.

We have waxed lyrical about what CTEN can teach us about collaborating with Community-Based Organisations. Another recent source of inspiration has been our collaborative project with Ann Searight Christiano and Annie Neimand from the aforementioned Centre for Public Interest Communications on the science of storytelling and strategic communication. We want to know how our communications can be a stronger catalyst for change. Alongside Ann and Annie, we reached out to CTEN founders Peter Batali and Chris Ajoma to explore how they could tell their stories as an example of refugee-led innovation to influence the broader narrative on innovation in the humanitarian sector. Perhaps, even in this moment, we had begun to impact the story they would tell. In numerous conversations that followed, we were conscious of the possible power dynamics that video conferences with a Geneva office could create, and we were enthused by Peter and Chris’s eloquence and spirit. As a result of these conversations, it was agreed that our colleagues at the Center for Public Interest Communications would provide remote training to Peter and Chris on the science of storytelling, so that they could apply these ideas to their own story. To undertake this story — we wanted to test multiple assumptions on story arcs, language and emotion that we assumed would make the story more compelling. A question we now ask ourselves: more compelling for whom?

Peter told us that, “The technique of using the pyramid to structure a story arc, showing your highest and lowest points was really mind-opening for telling a story. We didn’t know that to come up with an effective story to move people, you had to follow steps!” After forming a draft, the Innovation Service wanted to find a neutral party that Peter and Chris could work with outside the project team. The hope was that a neutral party would remove potential biases and pre-cooked approaches, given that the project team had worked with CTEN for an extended period of time already. Peter and Chris were then paired with writing consultant Amy Lynn Smith who helped to further apply the principles and frameworks of effective storytelling and narrative construction, acting as a ‘ghostwriter’ of sorts. Amy drew on a wide range of notes, background information, videos, and regular conversations with Peter and Chris to formulate the new story. Amy said of the drive behind the collaboration that, “If we’re going to have refugees tell their own stories, it needs to be in their voice.” The result of the experimental collaboration was an article titled, Why community-led innovation is fuelled by risk, ambition, and experimentation,” which attempted to reframe innovation from a community perspective. In an attempt to capture Peter’s story of resilience and creativity that led to the creation of CTEN, the Innovation Service acknowledged a plethora of lessons learned in what “refugee-led storytelling” means, how it can create value and why we need to rethink how we are forcing our storytelling practices on others.

Lesson 1: Good storytelling is hard

Finding a story-bearer does not necessarily mean that you have found a storyteller. Of course, everyone can tell a story, but to tell a story strategically with applied frameworks will usually lend itself to a collaboration with someone with that particular skill set. Annie compared the acquirement of the skill of the deliberate use of emotion and narrative structure to engage and influence a specific audience to that of learning to play a musical instrument. It takes practice to be able to weave and present a complex information set. For example, the opening paragraph of Peter’s story vividly describes the chaotic movement of people and the construction of shelters, whilst delaying telling the reader that the author is talking about displacement and a refugee camp.

“It was absolute chaos. Some 9,000 people travelled over rough terrain strewn with massive, muddy potholes — riding in trucks, sharing cars, and taxis. Some were even walking, carrying everything they could with them. After their long, tiring trip, they safely arrived in Uganda and were settled in what would become their new home. Everyone had to construct their own shelter on the piece of land they were allocated. Most of it was covered with shrubs, so they had to clear it before they could begin constructing on it using poles, ropes, and plastic sheeting to protect them from the heat and rain.”

This narrative device is called deceptive cadence. In this instance, it allows the reader to connect with the author’s scene and to imagine themselves in their sensory environment before they associate the image with preconceived biases about displacement and refugee camps. It also deliberately builds on evidence-based strategies from neuroscience research that argue that using concrete visual language is more memorable than using abstract language, and that decisions are made in the visual part of the brain.

This structural device also emphasises the experience and agency of people affected by forced displacement, through a focus on descriptive movement, rather than, for example, immediately framing actions in terms of political motivations for moving. ‘What would become their new home’ is a phrasing that suspensefully roots our understanding of the change in circumstances in the experiential reality of the author in that moment, rather than in labels representing a refugee’s place in an international protection regime. Amy expressed that, “It is vitally important to recognise the contributions that refugees make in building counter-narratives. I was inspired by Peter’s love of music and the subtle bits of information that reveal feelings and everyday considerations.” A commitment to conveying the voices of the most affected merits navigating such complexity with strategy and tact.

In parallel, the project team also recognised that good storytelling has nuances and, depending on culture and influences, can mean many things for different people. While the strategic framework the Innovation Service is applying may suit our needs and objectives, we must also be aware of the preconceived biases built into our frameworks. What may constitute a piece of storytelling that is strategic and intentional for our team may differ significantly from those we are working and collaborating with in the process. Additionally, translating said public interest communications frameworks into action requires an immense amount of time, precision and thought — something many people don’t have in their day-to-day work. While good storytelling is undeniably hard, we’ve also learned to question what good storytelling looks like in practice.

Lesson 2: Ensure faithful collaboration

How difficult is it to help someone else tell their own story? How can you ensure it is truthful, accurate and reflects the tone in which they initially spoke it to you? Amy expressed that she was quite nervous when she sent her first draft to Peter, “What if I accidentally put words in his mouth?” The process of ghostwriting is an intimate one in which the writer has the responsibility of conveying someone else’s story authentically in a particular form and in a way that they’re comfortable with. The story-bearer has the difficult challenge of painting a picture of their life for others to see. In approaching such collaborations, we acknowledged that everyone’s life stories are sensitive and complicated, so it’s important to have a review process. Amy suggests, “Say it at the start that you want them to feel free not to answer a question, and emphasise the opportunities to review, change and control how the story is conveyed.”

Clearly structuring the collaboration, making room for feedback and discussion, is essential for building and maintaining trust. Trust and transparency can help to address a potential power imbalance. Katie Drew, an Innovation Officer within the Innovation Service who worked directly with CTEN in Uganda and supported the storytelling experiment, suggests making use of more informal communication tools such as WhatsApp to help remove formal barriers to open communication. The way that you collaborate has direct repercussions on the authenticity and ethics of the final product. Peter commented that, “We didn’t anticipate being able to communicate our story in this way with someone.” Before you begin a collaboration, be certain that it is on a sure footing by being aware of expectations and considering the most inclusive approach.

Lesson 3: Dedicate time and resources

The team that executed this experiment comprised of no less than seven people. The storytelling project sought to input expertise and value from a number of sources, and, as a result, it took a significant amount of time and resources. We learnt that innovating the process of storytelling, with all of the possible subjects and formations, means rejecting communication as a siloed reporter of activities, and embracing communication as a broad collaboration that seeks to engender a common vision. The design of a storytelling process that imbeds a strategic connection between ideas and their audience is going to require investment in key competencies, and even a broader questioning of how we work together and how we want to engage others in our mission. Annie described expanding on the role of strategic storytelling as a process of ‘creating a discipline’. Put simply, if we want to enable refugees to tell their stories, we have to create the capacity to uncover the process of doing so, and we need the space to further experiment and learn. The space for such a capacity is best built on an understanding of its true value. As Peter pointed out, “Misconceptions are serious. They are why it takes a long time to meet refugees’ needs.”

Lesson 4: What it means to listen

Peter expressed the importance of meaningful listening when we talked about the time that he first arrived in Uganda as a refugee. “People assumed that we needed medicine and tents. We had been bitten by rain before. I thought, ‘Who told you we needed that?’ You have to allow refugees to tell their stories before you intervene to know their needs. Take a chair, under the tree or in the shed, wherever, and speak to people. Ask the women and children what their stories are.”

Meaningful listening can take many forms and is part and parcel of UNHCR’s daily work. It is an active feedback loop, or a diverse participatory assessment. It has been well documented that refugees’ communication preferences have significantly diversified — with traditional channels including radio, face-to-face being used still to the increasing uptake of digital platforms and social media. UNHCR’s approach to establishing and maintaining trusted communications channels is inherently flexible, founded on its Community Based Protection approach. This bottom-up, community-first process allows for existing communications capacities to be identified and strengthened, across the diversity of channels being preferred and used.

Collaborating with refugees to tell their stories in their voice is just one way that we can listen more meaningfully in our communications, in a manner that amplifies nuanced and strategic depictions of those whose interests we hope to serve. We have learnt from working with Peter, for example, that the case for community-based innovation can be made more powerfully, not by extracting the information we see as most pertinent and reporting it, but by creating a space and investing in the tools that ground ideas for better practice in the perspectives of affected communities.

Lesson 5: We still have a lot of lessons to learn

It would be a mistake to approach replacing narratives about refugees that we deem flawed or counterproductive with an effort to find the ‘correct’ narrative or the ‘real refugee’ story. This experiment reflected our interpretation of Peter’s story through an innovation lens — but it is by no means the only story and must be viewed as a contributing voice in a greater narrative on refugees. Lauren reflected on the nature of the experiment, “We shouldn’t be trying to tell one story, there is never one perspective. We could tell hundreds of stories in a hundred different ways, and that’s why we should be innovating our communications. We must keep bringing to light new and old stories and reflecting on their nuances to contribute to a larger kaleidoscope of human narratives.”

The science of storytelling does not aim to tell the perfect story, it aims to optimise storytelling as a tool, as a process. If innovation is about people, then our stories should be about people. In too many stories about refugees, the setting is the protagonist — not the human. Further experimentation could attempt to learn about the potential of different storytelling forms. Audio interviews, video recordings, animations, events — we learnt that in our mission for refugees to tell their stories, we should consider the wide variety of possible forms and their enabling potential for inclusivity. The next phase of our experiment will benefit from broadening the horizons of collaboration, seeking insights from both the diverse institutional knowledge in UNHCR, and from other institutions and sectors who already tell stories for change. We see in Peter’s story how strongly the case for community-based innovation can be made with people and relationships at the centre; not the conflict, labels or tropes.

What are we really trying to achieve?

“Our story, we know it much deeper. It is important that we tell our own stories, otherwise it’s hard to get to the bottom of it,” remarked Peter, pithily capturing what innovation should try to do. We have to look deeper, we have to get to the bottom of it.

Our experiment combined an urge to communicate challenges in the most effective way, with the belief that what is most effective is the voice that speaks closest to the truth. There is a reason that we haven’t communicated much in this way before. It asks uncomfortable questions. It’s complicated. It’s likely to fail as we try to find meaningful ways to communicate complexity. Our goal as a service is to drive innovation in the organisation’s response to the protection needs of refugees, and by fundamentally questioning our modes of communication and engagement, there is an opportunity to blur the lines between reporter and reported. The creation of processes that allow refugees to share their humanity, their insights and experiences, will mean that we assume less, and listen more. We want to tell less stories that extract information to inform our own voices, and more stories that are told with tools that lift voices across barriers of language, culture, and power. Don’t cast a fishing rod to find your story, but listen to the person who has swum in the sea.