Humbling lessons on rethinking what innovation means in Nigeria

UNHCR Innovation Service
Jul 24 · 11 min read

Every innovation engagement has its successes and failures. Here’s what the team learned from one.

By Amy Lynn Smith, Independent Writer + Strategist

When they’re called on to assist country operations in finding new ways to solve pressing problems, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Innovation Service leaps into action. The team is quite modest about their mandate: to provide whatever support country operations need to improve the work they’re doing on the ground. What’s more, the Innovation Service is committed to a steady flow of improvement — which includes both replicating successes and recognizing failures as crucial to the process of innovation, because both lead to better ways of getting the job done.

A recent nine-month engagement with UNHCR Nigeria demonstrates both the strengths in the processes employed by the Innovation Service and the areas where improvements could be — and already are being — made.

The Mission: A Unique Opportunity to Rethink What Innovation Means

The mission started out as a somewhat unconventional one, as UNHCR operations asking for the Innovation Service’s guidance usually have a specific task in mind. But in this case, UNHCR Nigeria had a more general request, which was to develop ideas and — perhaps even more important — innovation champions among the staff who would carry innovation forward after the engagement ended. So the Innovation Service team was starting from a place of relative uncertainty about exactly how the engagement might unfold.

“It’s the first time I had a conversation with senior management in which they didn’t have a preconceived idea of what they wanted us to work on,” says Katie Drew, Innovation Officer (Communicating with Communities) at the Innovation Service. “Sometimes it feels like we’re being called on to fill a functional gap, rather than in our capacity as a member of the Innovation Service.”

Rather than following a specific mandate requested by the country operation, the Innovation Service team — which also included Agnes Schneidt, Innovation Officer (Energy and Environment), set out to understand UNHCR Nigeria’s most pressing needs and help them identify new approaches, starting with their first of two visits to the country over the course of the engagement.

The Challenge: Building Strategies for Providing Settlement Resources

UNHCR Nigeria was establishing settlements in the southern part of the country for the first time, in response to the crisis in Cameroon, where human rights abuses and killings were a grave concern. Approximately 35,000 Cameroonians were fleeing into Nigeria, and settlements had to be set up — and quickly. The logistics of establishing a number of small settlements involves an intricate web of details. There was already a relationship with markets, given how close Cameroon is to the Nigerian border. But in consultation with refugees conducted in collaboration with UNHCR Nigeria, what refugees and asylum seekers said they needed most urgently was connectivity to the internet and mobile services, ways to access cash and energy for powering computers, and other resources necessary to live and work, most of which weren’t readily available.

Once they determined the most pressing needs in Nigeria, the Innovation Service set up a series of what they call “experiments” — opportunities for deliberate exploration to provide the resources most needed by refugees. The team spent some time defining the challenges, drilling down into them through consultation and research, and then developing a set of elements they wanted to test and the assumptions behind them, along with a set of experimentation plans.

For example, UNHCR’s Innovation Service ran an experiment with an online social media monitoring (SMM) platform (ForSight), to test the feasibility of using SMM to complement existing information from regions of Cameroon that were hard to reach., to support the contingency planning processes. The team also wanted to test using information sourced through the SMM to assist with internal and external advocacy awareness — potentially for both operations in Nigeria and Cameroon — and to use information sourced through SMM to identify individuals and groups who might be able to support UNHCR’s response in certain parts of Nigeria. Ultimately, only the first idea proved feasible so the team focused on that one, trying various approaches and documenting each one.

The experiment included reports, feedback, adjusting strategies in response, training, and sharing results through a website they set up to document and share goals, challenges and outcomes. Ultimately, only the first idea proved feasible so the team focused on that one, trying various approaches and documenting each one.

“During the mission, we were constantly trying to reflect on our role and how we can best engage,” Schneidt says. “Ultimately, we were looking at the larger picture of establishing new settlement sites surrounded by local communities with the goal of rapidly reaching a level of self-reliance and integration for refugees, with UNHCR being more like a facilitating platform and connecting force rather than being a provider of services.”

The work that became a major emphasis, based on input from UNHCR Nigeria, was creating business opportunities for local MNOs as a way to provide connectivity to refugees. That solution proved to be quite successful, although it was not without its challenges. (See previous related story.)

The Innovation Service team applied the Connectivity for Refugees model, which involves bringing together multiple, diverse stakeholders to develop sustainable connectivity solutions that engage refugees as active “consumers.” The model is used elsewhere, such as Uganda, but it proved much more challenging in Nigeria. The team spent a lot of time seeking ways to incentivize Nigerian MNOs to invest in infrastructure for what would be a relatively small number of refugees compared to the population of Nigeria. In the end, the initiative helped the operation make significant progress toward developing a solution that will benefit all involved, in part because the team brought in the Nigeria Communications Commission, a governmental agency.

“It was a bit of on-the-job training for Lanre Odunlami, a Senior Private Sector Partnerships Associate, our main contact at UNHCR Nigeria, in learning how to connect his normal role of coordinating private sector partnerships with creating solutions for people of concern,” says Schneidt. “I think the most exciting thing for me is when you see the people you’re collaborating with identify a different way of working and building their capacity to innovate moving forward.”

In a way, Schneidt adds, the engagement was a bit of “on-the-job training” for the Innovation Service, too, which reflects the Innovation Service’s commitment to continuous learning.

The Next Step: Rethinking Assumptions is Essential to Innovation

As the engagement progressed, an important takeaway for the Innovation Service team was the need to be flexible — and rethink their assumptions about not only what it means to work with a country operation, but what innovation actually is.

Hans Park, Strategic Design and Research Manager at the Innovation Service, who joined his colleagues on the second trip to Nigeria as well as contributing to the prior remote engagement on the project, considered the experience a valuable learning opportunity.

“I was happy to go to really understand, from a personal and professional growth point of view, what we are actually dealing with when we go on missions,” he explains. “I don’t know that we’ve really discovered the best way to do remote operational support from headquarters. Katie and Agnes have more experience going on missions than I do, so I bring a different viewpoint.”

He admits innovation is a long game, and embraces the Innovation Service’s commitment to collaboration and testing which elements of innovation work — and which ones don’t. He emphasizes that sustainable innovation can take longer than a nine-month engagement like the one in Nigeria.

This isn’t to say the team — which included the Innovation Service and colleagues in Nigeria, particularly Odunlami — didn’t accomplish a great deal during their engagement. They established connectivity solutions and strengthened potential relationships for the operation to pursue moving forward, in terms of financial services and energy provision. And not only did the Innovation Service team give UNHCR Nigeria some tangible tools to use in their work — such as teamwork, collaboration, and “thinking outside the box,” as Odunlami put it, solving immediate problems and setting up strategies to do even more moving forward — they brought home learnings of their own.

The Internal Challenge: Willingness to Rethink Conventional Approaches

“There are aspects of the innovation process I need to unlearn so I can actually relearn how to become more innovative,” Park says. “It not only helps the organization become more innovative — because that mindset is key — but we must look at our own biases that contribute to a culture like UNHCR’s that is reluctant to change. I think we need to have a critical viewpoint on this to improve and better understand what innovation actually is.”

Drew agrees, admitting she can be headstrong in her ideas about how the process should unfold, only to discover it isn’t necessarily the best way to go about things.

For example, the Innovation Service team suggested setting up a WhatsApp group as an alternate communication channel with the operation, the host community, and refugees. The idea wasn’t a failure, but it could have been more useful than it turned out to be.

“If we hadn’t rushed it and had spent more time building up the trust on the WhatsApp channel and making sure all of our colleagues in Nigeria went on the journey with us to develop it, we would have been more successful,” Drew explains. “But especially because it’s not a traditional communication style in UNHCR, and coming in as outsiders like we did, you have to encourage people to provide feedback. We’re still looking at it because if you can’t do it internally, it’s even harder to do with partners and refugees. It’s a real learning for us.”

Schneidt came away with similar thoughts about the need to question some of the assumptions they might have going in.

“We had one idea of how we should best engage with the Nigeria operation, but rather than strictly following the innovation approach we should practice what we preach and not try to push things through,” she says. “It was a really revealing experience for me to see how you’ll gain new and different insights through participatory engagements rather than always thinking of yourself as an expert that already has the solution in mind.”

There are also the realities that are a natural aspect of any endeavor, which must be addressed when they occur. For example, the Innovation Service and Nigeria teams were working diligently to set up connectivity in Anyake … only to have to move the connectivity project to Ogoja due to tensions with the host community. Because the move happened rather quickly, the Innovation Service didn’t have time to apply their usual methodological approach of going back to the beginning of the innovation journey. The fact is that innovation often isn’t linear, so sometimes it’s impossible to go back to the way a project began.

“When we had to move from one location to another, we didn’t really get the chance to go back to the beginning of our usual process,” Schneidt explains. “Normally we’d start by talking with leadership in a particular location, but we didn’t always have a chance to do that. The realities are that people aren’t always available to talk or things just move too quickly. That was probably our biggest mistake.”

The Innovation Service team did speak with as many members of the UNHCR Nigeria field staff as possible at the beginning of their first mission, but learned from Odunlami’s feedback that they could have established an even deeper engagement, especially with protection personnel. They also agree there could have been more two-way communication at the outset, rather than simply sending around documents for input and comments.

The Results: Progress in Nigeria, Improvements in Geneva

The work started in Nigeria in conjunction with the Innovation Service helped the operation make significant progress and the work is ongoing — and so is the learning of the team that went on the mission to Nigeria.

One takeaway that made a strong impression on Park is the level of privilege the Innovation Service team has from their vantage point in Geneva, compared to their colleagues working feverishly in the field, struggling to even take a weekend off from work.

“It becomes a question of what is actually the best way to support these operations,” he says. “I’m not sure the consultancy or ‘humanitarian aid’ model used by the Innovation Service really works — that isn’t an innovation-first model. We need to understand that innovation won’t happen if we don’t understand the people and cultures of individual operations. I’m convinced we can do a better job of creating sustainable innovation, and that’s something we’ll continue working on through documentation and examination of our results.”

UNHCR’s Innovation Service received direct feedback from the operation on what worked and what didn’t, which proved quite empowering. In fact, in some ways, these learnings are part of the mission’s success.

Among the many ideas for improvement — some of which were inspired by suggestions from Odunlami — is a strategy for better understanding the environment and culture before embarking on a mission.

For example, Schneidt suggests asking other colleagues about cultural norms in countries where the Innovation Service is about to go on mission. “If we’re headed to Sudan and someone has been working there for a period of time, we should ask them for insights on what they’ve learned, what the culture is, and what are the do’s and don’ts we should be keeping in mind,” she says.

But the learnings go even deeper than that — and, true to the Innovation Service’s philosophy that failure is a necessary component of breaking through to something new and even better, the team came away with as much as they left behind in Nigeria.

The Innovation Service team always conducts a post-mission debrief, but their experience in Nigeria also taught them that getting feedback from the country operations about their experience — in terms of what worked and what didn’t — is invaluable to documenting each mission and improving their capabilities for future engagements.

“By asking our colleagues, like Lanre, crucial questions about how it went can take us from failure to success or make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in,” Schneidt says. “It allows us to really look at ourselves more closely and shape the way we work and improve, instead of just saying what worked and what didn’t from our own perspective, which will leave us always coming up with the same things.”

In the end, Drew says, it was really a learning opportunity for everyone. “That’s a big part of what the Innovation Service is all about — experimenting,” she explains. “Sometimes it works really well and other times it’s a failure, which isn’t a bad word. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow and improve.”

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

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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.

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