How UNHCR Brazil harnessed the power of innovation

By Amy Lynn Smith, Writer and Strategist

What does innovation look like in a rapidly changing environment — and once you have a definition in your hands, how do you use innovation to carry your work forward? And does that definition change in the face of an unfolding emergency? To explore these questions, we took a close look at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) operation in Brazil, where a number of innovative initiatives have prospered in recent years. What were the factors that drove that innovation and helped it succeed? And how can Brazil’s efforts be replicated by other country operations?

Recognising the urgent call to respond to intensifying humanitarian needs worldwide with creative, collaborative solutions, UNHCR is committed to creating a culture of innovation. Understanding exactly what innovation means is essential to infusing it into every area of UNHCR’s work.

Consider, for example, Raizes da Cozinha (Roots in the Kitchen), a gastronomy entrepreneurship project of UNHCR Brazil partner Migraflix. According to Camila Sombra, a Durable Solutions Assistant at UNHCR Brazil, the partnership provided a direct response to a specific challenge: organisations like Migraflix want to support refugee integration and access to sustainable livelihoods, but often don’t have the resources to do so on a significant scale.

Partnering with UNHCR and others helped Migraflix build a more robust, strategic project. Raizes da Cozinha provides entrepreneurship opportunities for displaced people and gives them training to open their own restaurant or catering businesses, while raising awareness of refugee issues among the Brazilian public. What began as a pilot project in 2017 is expected to involve more than 100 participants in 2019.

“When we talk about innovation we normally think of something digital, so at first I didn’t think I had a good example of innovation among the projects I have been working with,” Sombra says. “But innovation can be seen as a new way of providing responses to issues that we have already identified, but we were not able to tackle. Innovation means developing tools and expertise that enable us to provide broader responses to needs.”

Swimming against the stream of assumptions

Sombra is not alone in her initial impression of innovation as being exclusive to technology. It’s one of the many assumptions people make when they hear the word “innovation.” But having experienced the spirit of innovation that runs through UNHCR Brazil — inspiring new approaches to solving age-old problems — she has a much different viewpoint now.

According to Emilia Saarelainen, Manager of UNHCR’s Innovation Fellowship Programme — which develops UNHCR staff’s innovation skills and supports them in facilitating innovation with colleagues, partners, and refugees in their own operations — it’s natural for people to associate innovation with technology. After all, technology innovations like 3D printers are concrete and very visible examples of one kind of innovation. But creating sustainable innovation at UNHCR and beyond requires embracing the less tangible aspects of innovation too.

“People typically think innovation is about technology or ideas,” says Saarelainen. “Innovation is about both of those things, to some degree, but it is about much more than that. An idea is only the beginning. Innovation is about how you put those ideas into action in a way that creates value.”

At UNHCR, innovation is centered around people and processes. As Saarelainen explains, sustainable innovation requires people who will put processes into action to solve problems and achieve an operation’s goals — and those processes aren’t linear, which can create challenges. That’s one of many reasons that innovation is a team effort, because people engaged in the process of innovation must be willing to ride the waves of each project as it evolves.

In fact, the prevailing myth of a lone “hero” who saves the day with a bright idea may be one of the biggest misconceptions about innovation there is.

“We have this picture of the ‘lightbulb moment’ of a single individual, but it’s rarely like that,” Saarelainen says. “Especially in an organisation like UNHCR that’s hierarchical and bureaucratic, we don’t only talk about the creative type who comes up with the big ideas then leaves the scene. That’s where the work starts: someone must test and develop the idea and finally push the idea through, which takes a collaborative effort. The people working together as a team are really the innovation heroes.”

So what is in the water in Brazil that has made innovation catch on across the operation?

Although some of the drivers of innovation in Brazil were specific to the country’s culture and the operation’s immediate needs, many of the other principles applied in Brazil — such as community-based engagement, collaboration, an appreciation for diversity and inclusion, and supportive leadership — can be replicated at other UNHCR operations.

Principle 1: Turning a drought of resources into a cascade of solutions

In many ways, Brazil’s rapid adoption of innovation was a case of necessity being the mother of invention, as the saying goes.

Although Brazil doesn’t have the highest number of refugees across UNHCR, the population of displaced people seeking protection in Brazil is at an all-time high, specifically with the influx of asylum seekers from Venezuela beginning in 2017. What was once an operation with one small office and one satellite location, with a total staff of about 25 people, has grown to include five field offices across Brazil with a staff of almost 100.

“We went from a very quiet operation to emergency mode, so at the same time we are growing and struggling to offer better services, we have been very open to innovative solutions,” says Luiz Fernando Godinho, a Spokesperson for UNHCR Brazil.

“It happened very quickly and I think that’s one of the reasons UNHCR Brazil is so committed to innovation,” adds Diego Nardi, a former Durable Solutions Assistant in Brazil who is now a Associate Protection Officer (Community Based Protection) in Ecuador and a current Innovation Fellow. “When we do this kind of work with low resources, we need to be very creative about the solutions we create.”

The culture in Brazil is another factor, Nardi says. A history of resistance to dictatorship has influenced a deep commitment to civil society, and there’s a strong legal framework in place to assist refugees and asylum seekers.

“The people in Brazil who are interested in the refugee agenda are very focused on inclusion and diversity and empathy, which is the mindset needed to push innovation forward,” he explains. “This also reflects the community-based approach that is a policy across UNHCR.”

UNHCR’s community-based approach aims to intentionally involve refugees in accelerating solutions for their own protection and integration in collaboration with UNHCR and their host community. This approach in itself is a significant driver of innovation.

“In times of unprecedented crisis we need an unprecedented response, and that’s going to require an innovative mindset,” explains Vinicius Feitosa, a former Senior Protection Assistant in São Paulo who is now an Associate Research and Information Officer in Copenhagen and also a current Innovation Fellow.

It’s notable that three of the current cohort of 25 Innovation Fellows came from the Brazil operation, having worked under Isabel Marquez, who was the country Representative — the highest level of country leadership — during the operation’s period of rapid growth. The Programme’s application process is rigorous and highly selective, so having such a high percentage of participants from a single country reflects the operation’s commitment to innovation.

“We need to implement new solutions with a human-centered approach,” Feitosa adds, “and it’s very inspiring to feel connected to the community with a shared mindset of reframing the problem and trying something new.”

Principle 2: A rising tide lifts all boats

The spirit of community-based engagement was exemplified by a project called Creatathon, a partnership between UNHCR Brazil, Google, Impact Hub, and Migraflix, which began taking shape in 2016.

“We wanted to create a structured approach to having an open discussion between refugees and locals about the main problems we needed to solve,” Feitosa says. “It was obvious early on that we, as a group, had a very good understanding of the problems, but we needed to create ideas and experiment with solutions.”

This experimentation was carried out through a series of workshops during which refugees mapped their most pressing demands, along with local entrepreneurs and technology developers who collectively created solutions for those problems. The workshops covered topics such as design thinking, business models, and client development, and led to the creation of a number of solutions.

All of the solutions were focused on giving refugees access to reliable information and integration tools. For one project, participants built on an initiative that was already underway within UNHCR’s Innovation Service:, a global website that provides information on protection and integration for refugees.

While UNHCR Brazil prepared to launch its version of the platform in 2018, Creatathon participants brainstormed ways to take the initiative one step further, and started developing a network of supporters to the program.

“The website is more mature now, with lots of countries involved, and Brazil now has a consultant working full-time to scale up community engagement around the website,” Feitosa says. “I think this initiative has inspired our operation to continue to look for innovative methods of incorporating refugees’ voices and mindsets in the work we do.”

Principle 3: Community engagement creates a wellspring of innovation

Innovation doesn’t have to be as highly visible as Creatathon was. Smaller community-based projects also make a significant impact on achieving an operation’s goals.

One excellent example is UNHCR Brazil’s partnership with Télécoms Sans Frontières (Telecoms Without Borders), which was established in response to the influx of refugees from Venezuela. The emergency required UNHCR to quickly rethink the environment in which it operates to respond to the needs of asylum seekers. Télécoms Sans Frontières, an NGO that specialises in technology and telecommunications for humanitarian crises, approached UNHCR and together they initiated a pilot to provide free telephone calls to refugees living in UNHCR settlements.

“It was such a relief for displaced people be able to contact their families and let them know their journey to Brazil ended well, and to coordinate if they have family in other parts of Brazil so they can be reunited,” says Flavia Faria, Senior Public Information Assistant in the UNHCR Field Unit in Boa Vista. “The project with Télécoms Sans Frontières has now grown to multiple shelters and a fixed space at a local university near our office, where refugees can go to receive orientation about the procedures for asylum and temporary residence claims, apply for social benefits, and attend Portuguese language classes. The project has potential to grow and inspire others.”

Innovation was equally important to the creation of the Young Professionals Program, a project launched in 2017 that extends an opportunity to refugee youth that was already available to Brazilian youth. A law in Brazil requires large companies to hire a certain number of young professionals between the ages of 14 and 24. Refugees are allowed to participate but were often overlooked, perhaps because they didn’t speak Portuguese well enough.

In 2016, a group of unaccompanied refugee youth arrived in São Paulo, and with the approval of the country’s justice system, they were eager to begin working to support themselves. UNHCR Brazil connected with an advocacy group called Mulheres do Brasil (Women of Brazil), which suggested that UNHCR organise a group of asylum seekers and refugees who would participate in a two-month course to prepare them for employment opportunities. The course was delivered by an established educational institute, Instituto Techmail, with scholarships provided by private companies. After the success of the first course, the institute now reserves four spots for refugees and asylum seekers in every class of 30 it hosts a few times each year.

“This project helped change my mind about the way we work with refugees,” Sombra explains. “Instead of thinking of them simply as refugees, now we also see them as young people, as people with disabilities, as LGBTI people — Brazil has well-developed policies for these groups. Now we no longer have to do something just for refugees, but we can include them in a mixed group of Brazilians so they integrate and make friends and can take advantage of ongoing opportunities that already exist.”

Principle 4: Leadership steers the team toward innovation

For innovation to thrive as it does in Brazil, the entire operation needs to be supportive and engaged, which begins at the highest levels of leadership.

“Managers must create the structure and space for true collaboration, and leaders need to set the tone for a collaborative culture,” says Saarelainen. “This includes letting the team know that failure is okay — it’s part of the process of trying something new.”

At UNHCR Brazil, leadership has demonstrated a keen understanding of the importance of innovation and its willingness to give the team opportunities to collaborate and experiment with new ideas. Marquez, who is now Deputy Director for UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for the Americas, is recognised as a true champion of innovation, especially during her time as Representative in Brazil.

“She empowers people to have a vision, and I think this is a game-changer in innovation,” says Feitosa. “Isabel has been a mentor to me and so many people in the operation. She set the tone by making innovation one of her priorities, which is a powerful message coming from a manager. It forces people to not only think of different solutions but to look at the problem in a different way.”

Nardi agrees, noting that rather than micromanaging the team, Marquez trusted them to move forward with any good ideas they presented. Often, he says, an effective leader will create this kind of team-based engagement without thinking of it as being innovative — but that leadership style is crucial to sustainable innovation.

“Isabel’s trust and empowerment was very important for the operation to grow so fast and keep our motivation to innovate,” he explains. “She included everyone in the operation in the process of creating and implementing new ideas. When people know their ideas will be taken into account, they will participate. Senior management recognised the work everyone was doing, and people are motivated by this and by seeing the results of their efforts.”

Opening the floodgates for innovation across UNHCR

The same principles UNHCR Brazil used to establish a sustainable culture of innovation can be applied by every UNHCR operation to create their own wave of innovation.

What’s more, people who move around the global organisation — a common practise across UNHCR — can bring the principles of innovation with them to their new assignments. Innovation Fellows, in particular, play a significant role in this.

“The innovation mindset is something I am really carrying in my heart, in everything I’m doing with UNHCR,” says Feitosa. “Especially because I’m connected with many colleagues who are doing amazing work in the field, it’s very powerful to be part of a community of people who share this mindset.”

Having been assigned to three different countries in the last year or so, Nardi also has first-hand experience in the value of spreading innovation from one country to the next.

“International colleagues bring new views and you can benefit from them, and they’ll have other ways of working with partners, with the private sector, with the government,” he explains. “They will bring their best experience and we can all take inspiration from that.”

Across UNHCR, the pursuit of innovation will continue, with a commitment to embracing new ways that innovation can manifest in practise. After all, innovation means being nimble and adapting to the shifting tides of humanitarian needs — and catching the big fish requires flexibility and openness.

“Creating the kind of behaviour and culture change that will make a measurable impact on UNHCR and our mission means continually finding innovative ways to think and work together,” Saarelainen says. “When people are enthusiastic and willing to take initiative — and accept feedback that can improve on their idea, which might mean doing something differently — that’s how innovation happens.”

This essay was originally posted in the recently released publication — UNHCR Innovation Service: “Orbit 2018–2019”. The publication is a collection of insights and inspiration, where we explore the most recent innovations in the humanitarian sector, and opportunities to discover the current reading of innovation that is shaping the future of how we respond to complex challenges. From building trust for artificial intelligence, to creating a culture for innovating bureaucratic institutions and using stories to explore the future of displacement — we offer a glance at the current state of innovation in the humanitarian sector. You can download the full publication here. And if you have a story about innovation you want to tell (the good, the bad, and everything in between) — email: