A Report Card on Supporting Innovation in UNHCR Nigeria

UNHCR Innovation Service
Jun 28 · 15 min read

From UNHCR Nigeria’s perspective, what went right and what could have gone better on a recent engagement?

By Amy Lynn Smith, Independent Writer + Strategist

When faced with new or perplexing challenges, it’s not unusual for the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) country operations to turn to UNHCR’s Innovation Service. After all, the Innovation Service is tasked with supporting the needs of country operations by helping them develop more effective approaches for working with refugees and other displaced people.

But what exactly does it look like from the country operation’s perspective when the Innovation Service collaborates with them on an engagement? Is it helpful or can it sometimes be a hindrance? Does the operation develop new approaches to identify challenges and test creative solutions? Do they have the confidence to use these new approaches and tools in the future for other challenges, even after the engagement with the Innovation Service is completed? Does the engagement build competency and confidence in using the innovation approach?

That’s the question we asked Lanre Odunlami, a Senior Private Sector Partnerships Associate based in UNHCR’s Nigeria office, who was the key point of contact for a nine-month support initiative the Innovation Service took on, visiting the operation twice and working with them remotely in between. Admittedly, it can be challenging to get an honest critique — especially when the work that results from an engagement is ongoing — but the Innovation Service is being more proactive about seeking both positive feedback and constructive criticism from the operations it works with.

Doing the Homework: What Did Nigeria Need?

UNHCR Nigeria was facing some significant new issues. For the first time, they’d be working in the southern region of the country, mounting a large-scale response to reported human rights abuses and armed conflicts causing people to flee from Cameroon into Nigeria. Nigeria had faced tough issues before — such as the response to insurgency and conflict in the northeast — but addressing the needs of an influx of about 35,000 Cameroonians was a brand-new problem to tackle.

In keeping with UNHCR’s Policy on Alternatives to Camps, the operation wanted to establish a number of small settlements. But it’s a challenge to create new infrastructure for small settlements that will be integrated with existing host communities, from food distribution to energy provision to communication connectivity — particularly in parts of the country where connectivity and infrastructure may be poor or where there might be tensions between refugees and host communities.

So in March 2018, Antonio José Canhandula, the Representative of the Nigeria operation, reached out to the UNHCR Innovation Service, asking if they could work with them to develop some new approaches, particularly in terms of finding better ways of engaging with the private sector to assist and empower refugees and developing innovation champions among the staff.

“To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what we could bring to the table because we didn’t know up front what the operation wanted us to focus on, which is often the case,” says Agnes Schneidt, Innovation Officer (Energy and Environment) at the Innovation Service. “But we had a number of phone conversations with the team in Nigeria and they seemed to be really engaged and interested in how we could work together, so we decided it would be important for us to support the operation, especially as they were struggling with very limited resources for this emergency.”

After a number of consultations, where they identified that the Innovation Service wanted to support the challenges regarding integrating settlements into host communities, Schneidt and Katie Drew, Innovation Officer (Communicating with Communities), set out on a scoping mission to Nigeria, where they met Odunlami. Schneidt and Drew visited Nigeria twice, the second time accompanied by Hans Park, the Innovation Service’s Strategic Design and Research Manager.

As it turns out, the mission was more than a project to develop innovative approaches to the issues facing the Nigeria operation. It created an opportunity for everyone involved to learn a great deal about the work they do — and how they might do it even better.

“Sometimes, there are processes we have to unlearn,” Park explains. “I can learn something new from Lanre about what innovation actually means — what it really looks like in Nigeria. It’s going to look different in different places, so how do we help nurture talent and skill sets without the biases we bring in about what innovation should be?”

Getting Started: School is in Session

When operations engage with UNHCR’s Innovation Service, they often have a specific set of projects or needs they want assistance with. But in the case of Nigeria, they were more interested in exploring their options across a rather broad range of challenges they were facing.

“The leadership wanted us to find champions within the organization that we can influence in terms of how they approach challenges,” Drew says. “We saw it as an opportunity to move away from our usual approach of coming in to address a specific project, so it was nice to have a bit of flexibility in terms of finding space within the organization to innovate.”

The Innovation Service also wanted to explore specific challenges, such as climate change, urbanization, and issues related to markets. Those initiatives didn’t come to fruition in the way everyone hoped, which Park considers a failure on the part of the Innovation Service and an area for improvement. On the one hand, it was important to consider all possible options, but the Innovation Service team learned that, at least in some cases, it might be more efficient to start small and experiment, rather than trying to explore every problem at once, and to place a greater emphasis on prioritization and follow-up.

However, Odunlami’s engagement with the Innovation Service team led to improvements and learnings. He says the Innovation Service helped him see things in different ways and that the experience improved his perspective on workflow. He quickly became the “innovation champion” in the operation and will be the primary contact person for innovation projects in Nigeria moving forward.

“They definitely improved our work and I gained a lot of knowledge, because I could see that maybe some of the work I do in supporting people of concern could focus more on the business aspects of what we do,” he explains. “If we want a company, like a Mobile Network Operator (MNO), to give us something, we need to give them something in return.”

One of the first projects the Innovation Service team embarked on with UNHCR Nigeria was to improve connectivity for the settlements with the greatest need, such as the one in Anyake. This meant forging stronger partnerships with MNOs to encourage them to provide connectivity, which included hosting workshops to talk through challenges and opportunities. Through meetings with the Innovation Service team and UNHCR Nigeria, Globacom Telecommunications Company agreed to provide a special package for refugees, who would pay a flat fee of 500 naira (about 1.4 USD) per month for unlimited calls.

“That’s a good deal, and the MNO also agreed to set up a toll-free line refugees could use to contact UNHCR at no charge,” Odunlami says. “This showed creative ways we can work with providers and we are already talking with others about ways to provide services to people of concern.”

Odunlami adds that through working with the Innovation Service team, he learned about many useful tools. One is an app called Speed Smart, which tests the effectiveness of various mobile networks, a crucial component in their pursuit of improved connectivity.

“The Innovation team were very willing to share information and I was very willing to learn from them,” he says. “In addition to sharing information with colleagues they also shared information with the community, such as how to use a solar dryer to preserve foods or harvest in general. ”

Lesson Learned: Know the Culture

The MNO initiative was a success for all involved: refugees will receive improved connectivity and the empowerment of taking care of their own needs by paying for the service, local businesses are discovering new market opportunities, and UNHCR Nigeria is building its own internal capacity for problem-solving and collaboration. But this process wasn’t without its hurdles — in fact, it brought to light an area in which Odunlami believes the Innovation Service could improve: a better understanding of the local culture.

Negotiating the plans for improved connectivity with MNOs provides a good example. Naturally, there was some necessary back-and-forth communication with the MNOs. According to Odunlami, there is a possibility of not receiving a response from a business within a week for a variety of reasons. But the Innovation Service — which wanted to move quickly while they were in Nigeria — encouraged Odunlami to follow up more frequently with the MNOs, which elicited a negative response from an MNO.

“Although we were creating a business opportunity for them, some individuals in some companies in Nigeria do not like to be bombarded with questions,” Odunlami explains. “I tried to shed some light on this for our Innovation Service colleagues — that this is simply one of the challenges of doing business in Nigeria. But because we continued to push them for a response, one of the MNOs actually blocked my phone number so I could not call them. We resolved it, but it shows how important it is for people coming in from other parts of UNHCR to understand some of the local culture. However, this is not always the case as some organizations are up to speed when being engaged.”

Schneidt acknowledges this as an area for improvement, while admitting it can be difficult when missions in a specific country may only last a week or two, even as part of a longer engagement. Particularly because the Innovation Service tends to drop into a country operation for brief visits, getting a better understanding of local customs and cultural norms in advance is essential to collaboration and teamwork.

“We should definitely take a step back and do a better job learning the culture,” she says. “A lot more communication up front would help, because sometimes we come in with our ideas about ways to help, but we should always let them show us the way.”

There’s no question that it’s a challenge for members of the Innovation Service team to fully understand all the cultural norms in every UNHCR country operation they support. For example, heading into one of the meetings with the MNOs, Odunlami was intent on making sure there were notepads for everyone, something the Innovation Service team didn’t think was very important — they wanted to focus on the problem-solving content of the meeting. But during the meeting, when they were asked for notepads, it was a moment of realization for Schneidt.

“I think we sometimes get caught up in the idea of how we want things to work,” she says, “instead of really listening to what our colleagues in the field are telling us they know works best with the limited time available.”

Not having notebooks didn’t change the meeting’s outcome, but it does highlight a very important fact: When the Innovation Service visits a country operation, understanding cultural norms and different work styles from one country to the next can help build trust and cooperation from the very start.

Lesson Learned: Consider Communication Strategies

Determining the best way to communicate across the Innovation Service team and the UNHCR Nigeria team was another learning opportunity for everyone — for better and for worse.

From Odunlami’s perspective, the Innovation Service team communicated quite well. He appreciated that their emails always included the leadership team as well as himself, keeping everyone informed. He also felt they were consistently respectful and polite in all of their engagements with the team in Nigeria.

“I wanted to try to go in without a specific goal, which is very difficult when you’re passionate about an area like I am — it’s like, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Drew admits. “I recognized issues from the perspective of my background, but I didn’t jump on them so we could elicit challenges from our colleagues rather than me saying. ‘Oh, that’s a problem.’”

According to Schneidt, the Innovation Service team was intentional about using a bottom-up approach to communication, which meant letting the UNHCR Nigeria staff lead the way wherever possible. However, it can be challenging because there’s generally an expectation that when the Innovation Service comes in, they will be delivering something new or different to the operation, such as technology tools and specific changes to the way the team is working, which is often not the case. So certain expectations are set from the beginning, which can actually hinder innovation because everyone comes in with a particular mindset that may not leave them open to considering different approaches. These expectations go both ways, and it’s an ongoing learning experience for the Innovation Service to remember that they should come into engagements without preconceived notions, so they can work as collaboratively as possible with the country operation to develop new approaches.

In keeping with the Innovation Service’s commitment to experimentation, they explored various ways of communicating throughout their engagement, Drew says. Particularly because the UNHCR Nigeria operation is rather non-hierarchical, she explains, it gave them the freedom to experiment with some different types of communication, such as creating WhatsApp groups and using a website for live updates rather than periodic printed reports, which has worked well on some projects and not so well on others.

Ultimately, UNHCR Nigeria staff did ask for PDF copies of the reports, so the website didn’t work out as planned. Drew says one reason for that was the fact some users didn’t like having to use the required password, but it was also simply that operations are used to seeing printed reports as part of their routine and UNHCR Nigeria asked to continue with them. But WhatsApp and frequent bilateral phone calls proved to be fairly effective ways of keeping the lines of communication open across the Innovation Service and UNHCR Nigeria, and with refugees themselves.

However, Odunlami felt there was one missing link in communication. Deeper engagement with the UNHCR staff in the field, particularly those working in protection, is essential to bring in value to the work from the protection viewpoint.

“In addition to communicating with the leadership and the head of sub-offices, you have to make sure the key staff and colleagues on the project who are in the field understand your mission, too,” Odunlami says. “People need to be carried along as part of the process from the beginning. We realized that when we had to move the connectivity project from Anyake to a different settlement, not everyone was aware of what we were working on because they were not brought in from the beginning.”

Schneidt admits that there are things she would choose to do differently in hindsight. Although it’s tricky to ask people to devote a lot of time to workshops and meetings in the midst of an emergency, the potential benefits may be worth it, and is something the Innovation Service may want to experiment with in the future.

“We could have spent more time preparing the team on the ground, maybe having a workshop with several staff members to look at the tasks and challenges they most wanted us to help them solve,” she says. “I think there’s value in bringing several people together to come up with the ideas and having us step aside and let them do more of the strategizing. We did have a lot of conversations, of course, but in the future I’d like to try a different approach so we’d take ideas rather than planting them.”

Park emphasizes the importance of doing away with power dynamics that can still exist between colleagues from different countries. “Obviously everyone is respectful and attentive,” he says, “but we need to be able to understand the multiple cultures we are intervening in when we go on mission. There are the cultures and subcultures of the office, the host population, the refugee population — we need to try to understand or at least be sensitive about this mix-match of cultures in the ways we communicate and collaborate.”

Lesson Learned: Share Responsibility and Information

In a similar vein, Odunlami encouraged greater shared responsibility during UNHCR Nigeria’s engagement with the Innovation Service. Although he felt the MNO workshops led by the Innovation Service team were excellent, he suggested at the time that they let members of the Nigeria operation lead some of the workshops, too.

“They were very good about accepting my suggestions and we quickly brought in some colleagues,” he says. “It was a good joint effort, because the Innovation Service team not only worked well among themselves, but also with me. These are positive things, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for improvement.”

In addition, Odunlami recommends more in-depth pre-engagement and post-engagement briefings, saying it would be beneficial for everyone involved — especially in terms of strengthening the ability of the local operation to continue building on the increased capacity and skills they’d developed during the engagement.

“The pre-briefing session would improve inclusion, because you could have not only key staff on the project but also protection colleagues and others from the field so everyone understands the mission,” Odunlami says. “The post-briefing would make sure everyone has a good understanding of what was achieved during the mission, especially if there is any change in leadership at the field level, key staff on the project in the field will be on the same page and this will help with smooth project implementation.”

Park, like all of his colleagues at the Innovation Service, is a strong supporter of building capacity so country operations can continue their work through an innovation lens. The training, project collaboration, and idea-sharing that takes place during an engagement with the Innovation Service leaves the country operation with a set of skills and tools they can apply to any challenge moving forward, to test and implement new approaches.

“It’s important to look at how each person, each team, each operation, and field office can really do the best work they can do — and how might we support that?” he says. “The Innovation Service needs to be really mindful when intervening and interjecting. We don’t want to go in and just tell people how things should be. Our goal is to collaborate with country operations and create opportunities for teamwork and shared responsibility that ultimately gives UNHCR’s operations the tools to explore innovation on their own moving forward.”

Final Grades: Assessing the Results

There’s no doubt that there are plenty of bright spots that came out of the Innovation Service’s engagement with Nigeria. These include the pursuit of improved connectivity for refugees in the settlements, explorations into improved use of solar energy and market access, and engagement with financial service providers and corporate partners to explore future opportunities.

The Innovation Service made significant progress toward a number of the tasks they set out to do, including helping UNHCR Nigeria develop different approaches and embrace innovation as part of their ongoing work — and shape the operation’s perceptions of what innovation actually is.

“Through the conversations I had in Nigeria, it’s clear we can socialize innovation together in a way that hopefully helps everyone understand innovation is nuanced, local and messy,” Park says. “We hope to support colleagues in thinking about challenges and solutions in a different way that can lead to tangible outcomes for refugees.”

Looking at the mission in those terms, the Innovation Service team’s support was useful from Odunlami’s perspective.

“I learned from them in terms of empowerment, collaboration, and information-sharing,” he says. “I have a much greater appreciation of teamwork, because we work as a team — both virtually and in the field — which can lead to more new ideas within our operation and potential outside partners. Plus, I learned how we should focus more on the empowerment of refugees instead of them relying entirely on us.”

As for the Innovation Service team, there were plenty of valuable learnings, too, which they’ve taken back to their headquarters in Geneva and will apply to future endeavors with other country operations. (More on this in a companion story.)

“It’s really very easy to take the approach where you jump straight to a solution or a recommendation, instead of unpacking all of the assumptions you have,” Drew says. “But that’s a complete paradox of innovation. If you think you’re an expert in something you stifle innovation, so it was a challenge and a learning opportunity — and a vulnerable experience — to stop thinking as an authority in order to bring people together to create space for us to develop new ideas collaboratively.”

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.