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World Refugee Day: Localizing innovation to address displacement challenges

Can innovation and technology help us do a better job in displacement settings? Our latest blog post explores good (and less good) practices with regards to innovation and technologies addressing displacement. It recommends more investment in localized innovation processes and solutions, while suggesting how to best capitalize on ‘external’ technologies.

Credits: Solarfreeze

By Ophelie Namiech, Mindset-PCS.

For the 20th anniversary of World Refugee Day, UNHCR released its global report on displacement: more than 1% of the world population is forcibly displaced today.[1]

Yet, despite billions of dollars spent annually[2], the aid community has thus far failed to address the deep root causes of international displacement. Traditional humanitarian assistance has shown its limitations, and is increasingly questioned.[3]

The aid community has been looking towards innovation – and more specifically technology – as a potential means to optimize humanitarian practice and increase impact.

Can innovation and technology help us do a better job in displacement settings?

First, it depends on our ability to think and act outside our biased box. We, in the Western world, must seriously challenge our somehow patronizing approach towards humanitarian innovation, according to which the Global North is best placed to solve challenges in the Global South.

It is true that advanced technologies developed in the Global North can be ground-breaking and even life-saving with an added value to solve global problems – and my country, Israel, offers good examples in the sectors of health, agriculture, security, and water. However, solving multifaceted and protracted humanitarian challenges is a complex process that goes way beyond the quest for technological advancement.

I recently met two inspiring and successful entrepreneurs from Cameroon, William Elong and Arielle Kito. Among many other tech projects, they developed a low-tech handwashing device to mitigate COVID-19 risks in displacement areas. The solution is simple, culturally relevant, easy to assemble and maintain, and locally produced. In less than a month, UNICEF purchased 3,000 products to contain the spread of the virus in a country already affected by three humanitarian crises.

According to William, technologies that are more likely to succeed in addressing humanitarian needs (and to be financially viable) are often the simplest and most culturally relevant ones. Speaking the humanitarian and development language is also a key success factor for entrepreneurs. The most promising start-ups I have met are probably those who can fully grasp the complexities of the ‘humanitarian mindset’ and dissect humanitarian needs and opportunities ‘from within’. Entrepreneurs from countries affected by humanitarian challenges are well positioned to design and scale technologies for such settings.

The Kenya-based start-up Solarfreeze, one of the 11 start-ups of Google’s global SDG accelerator, is another successful localized solution to local problems. Dysmus Kisilu, Solafreeze’s founder, represents a new generation of young African entrepreneurs who tackles the core social and economic challenges of the continent. He created Solarfreeze to address post-harvest food losses by offering portable cold storage units powered by solar energy for rural smallholder farmers. Solarfreeze is now piloted in Kakuma Refugee Camp to help the refugee and host communities durably achieve food security. It is encouraging to see that start-ups like Solarfreeze benefit from the support of a tech giant like Google, that helps them take their innovations to the next level by strengthening the hardware and bolstering their global visibility.

One of the reasons, in my opinion, why the true potential of humanitarian innovation has not yet been unlocked is that our conceptualization is still very much top-down. And as such, it prevents the advancement of solutions that truly reflect the realities on the ground, and can de facto be scaled.

In other cases, international start-ups that succeed in humanitarian spheres have professionals from the sector integrated into their management teams. They speak the language, have the connections, and are equipped to navigate the complexities of the aid system.

To maximize the prospects of humanitarian innovation, we can learn from our mistakes in traditional humanitarian action.

Many successful and promising entrepreneurs from the Global South, like William, Arielle and Dysmus, are tackling problems that concern them, their communities, and regions. To depart from traditional humanitarian programming that drastically failed to maximize the potential of local NGOs, innovation ecosystems must recognize and encourage such ‘localized’ solutions. In many Sub-Saharan countries, like Cameroon, Ethiopia or Kenya, national innovation hubs are flourishing and demonstrate a contextualized creativity that cannot be overlooked.

In parallel, it is true that there is still a need to capitalize on ‘external’ technologies to address global humanitarian gaps – especially when it comes to advanced core technologies like in the medical or agriculture sectors. But for such technologies to be successful, certain factors must first be met:

  • The solutions must be designed in full collaboration with local entrepreneurs, innovation mechanisms, and users. Successful community engagement does not mean conducting an occasional focus group discussion to tick the donor’s box but entails genuine and meaningful users’ involvement through horizontal approaches. A good example of such approach is the Israeli start-up OKO, that provides mobile insurance packages to small-holder farmers facing displacement risks due to climate change and environmental degradation.
  • We will not be able to find durable solutions to protracted challenges unless humanitarian innovation processes abandon the ‘humanitarian white-savor complex’. This includes, for instance, building on complementarities between entrepreneurs from the Global North and the Global South to promote horizontal collaborations. Joint accelerators, or innovation ‘exchange programs’ could be a good start. More diversity in funding committees assessing innovations should also be achieved.
  • In the humanitarian sector, we have been hearing a lot about ‘localization’. Yet, in practice, this localization has not materialized. With the advance of humanitarian innovation, we must strive to bolster existing local capacities and solutions to unlock the true potential of innovation and technology.

Thus, innovation pathways could offer us a chance to finally generate good practices in localization, and create a more equal, genuine, and sustainable (and yes, more financially viable) way to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.


[1] UNHCR, Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2019.

[2] In 2019, the international humanitarian community spent $28.8 billion in humanitarian assistance (UNOCHA).

[3] Louis Redvers, “Searching Nexus Priorities: Principles and Politics”, The New Humanitarian, June 2019.

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