From problem solvers to solution managers

Here’s a blog post I wrote a few days ago. Humlog is an interesting blog about humanitarian logistics from Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Research Institute (HUMLOG Institute) at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland.

From problem solvers to solution managers – a new perspective for humanitarian technology transfer

Innovation in refugee camps

Last Wednesday I was part of a panel about innovation in refugee camps organized by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) at the conference Re:publica. I was present as co-founder of Rethink Relief and member of the IDIN network, because of the work we do to bridge the transition between short-term and long-term oriented organizations with the participation in workshops of refugees, social workers, humanitarian workers in design summits and creative capacity building workshops.
The panel also included Kilian Kleinschmidt, Marlen de la Chaux, Grace Keji and Katharina Dermühl, as moderator. As part of an ICT/media/makers conference the discussion was destined to be framed within these topics but in fact is was less about technology and mostly about the role of refugee camps, the empowerment of refugees and how a systemic change is needed to address the problems. The discussion was rather consensual in most of the points with one or two exceptions.

Refugees, but who really?
Only about 1/3 of all refugees live currently in camps. Most refugees live in cities’ suburbs throughout the world. There’s an estimated number of 6 million urban refugees falling outside of the humanitarian radar, looking for work and opportunities in less segregated and limited places. Besides these, there are also “statusless” asylum seekers who more even than refugees face difficulties accessing basic services like healthcare or housing. And there are internally displaced people, who account for most of the total 60 million people of displaced people in the world. People who seek a safe place to live.
It is important to define whether we’re talking about the refugees in massive makeshift cities like in the Zaatari camp in Jordan; if we’re talking about refugees in open, smaller camps inserted in local populations like in Uganda, refugees arriving in Europe or refugees in the neglected trafficking roots between Myanmar/Bangladesh and Indonesia. It’s impossible to speak about all in the same way. The challenges they face are different and so are their motivations, their journeys, their cultures, their literacy levels and so on. If in many cases we must speak of difficult hygiene conditions and risk of disease, challenging seasons and social segregation or stigma, in other cases, where conditions in a camp actually exceed the ones of host populations it is more relevant to discuss the need to support their transition; In Europe where there is a huge mismatch between expectations between Europeans and migrants, the abolition of “temporary” camps and concepts like integration and engagement need to be more frequently and seriously discussed in a multidisciplinary manner.

What we could speak about however is the ‘refugee status’ and what that means. This status is not an unchangeable by norm and as the landscape of humanitarian aid changes, it becomes increasingly urgent, to challenge the advantages and disadvantages of how the status of refugees is defined. Refugee empowerment, a paradigm change, as Andreas Proksch, Secretary General of the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ) called it, means that the narrative of the refugee as an impoverished, vulnerable and victimized person, is misleading. On one hand, it is positive that media bodies spread the awareness, on the other hand, this should not be done on basis of pity or invoking the need for charity. The discussion about what refugees need, needs to be done with and by refugees themselves. And it’s more than time to involve them actively in humanitarian and developmental policy decision making. A refugee is a person like any other, capable and often specialized individual. Someone who was previously a decision maker and is unfortunately, as refugee, seen as someone whose decisions are made for. Furthermore, refugees are not only individuals but groups of individuals and communities and it is important to understand the respective the dynamics of refugee groups, their origin and their ways. And as refugees take their space in decision making, humanitarian aid organization models, funding structures will also need to adapt and modify their governing models.

One question generated some controversy. Is it better to plan and design refugee camps as cities or is it better to reinforce integration? And how can refugees be empowered to take part in that design. From the point of view of Kilian Kleinschmidt, former manager of the Zaatari camp in Jordan, the design and planning of camps should be in the hands of specialists and not humanitarian organizations. He argues that neither these organizations neither refugees themselves are capable of doing this properly. But there’s a different view on this.
Camps should remain a temporary, a transitional place. We should ask refugees, not to design their camps, but to design their journeys. We should support them in achieving a goal, whether the goal is to return or not, we must create bridges, services, with existing health and education systems to support that transition period, and that is entrepreneurs, specialized doctors, teachers, farmers, etc. Building new urban spaces for refugees, designed by western urban planners and architects, supported by private investment does not address the need for these refugees to be integrated in society, it promotes their segregation. Besides that, over reliance in private investment may lead to less governmental motivation to take responsibility on the distribution of refugees, and the provision of access to healthcare, education and welfare.

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Panel “Innovation in Refugee Camps“, 4th May at Re:publica in Berlin. Foto: re:publica

Interesting links

“Treating the refugee crisis as a design problem is problematic”

And some flying thoughts and open questions about innovation definition and opportunities…
Can we develop innovations for the people or is innovation what people come up with? Is a refugee-app innovation or is the use of tourist-apps by a refugee, innovation? Are systems like rain water harvesting or hydroponics that circumvent problems of land owning and dependency on limited systems innovation (Rethink Relief)? And as Marlen de la Chaux said: “when a refugee who was previously a barber, sets up a barber’s place … is that innovation? Are programs, governmental, non-governmental and private/for profit that empower refugees in transition or humanitarian workers to use and develop their capacities innovation (e.g. Kiron University, Unicef Innovation labs)? Are programs connecting refugees with companies innovation (e.g. Intelli-grate)? Are maker spaces offering tools to refugees innovation (e.g. comunitaire)?

Relative burden

Hans Rosling demonstrates with a simple visualization of Syrian migrants numbers, how the burden of middle-east refugees is overestimated in Europe. Often the numbers of asylum seekers within EU is not balanced with the number of internally displaced or refugees hosted by neighboring countries. In fact it’s mostly Middle East, African and Asian countries who host a higher number of refugees. As analysed by UNHCR, it’s poorer countries like Ethiopia, Jordan or Pakistan that support the great majority of refugees, on top of internally displaced as well.

Syrians represent 25% of all the refugees in the world. They are amongst the many African and Middle East nationalities most threatened by the migrant crisis int he Mediterranean sea. The man, women and children who survive the long walks and horror sea crossing are provided by humanitarian organizations with blankets, pre-packed food, and hygiene items. Organizations attempting to include for example pocket money or shavers in these kits can be accused of promoting violence or themselves. Above all, humanitarian organizations are seen as reasons for more migrants to come to European borders.

Refugees seek humanity, as anyone else would in their situation. Unfortunately, whereas most of the news published about today in the media are whether European borders should or not be closed, information about migration policies and refugee rights are rarely publicly discussed.

Defense and mini-symposium

The 10th of July will be a full day! I’m please to announce that I will defend my PhD thesis entitled Mind the Gap: Designing Sustainable Healthcare for Humanitarian Aid (see teaser in Tab above), and organize a great mini-symposium.

What is global health? How can design contribute to an equitable healthcare access worldwide? What are the products, processes and services can designers improve?

This mini-symposium aims to address these and more challenges regarding the emerging fields of Humanitarian and medical design, with the contribution of two international medical doctors and the two leading pioneers of medical design from TU delft.

Innovation at Médecins Sans Frontières

I was last Thursday at the MSF Scientific Days in London. MSF organized for some years a day dedicated to in-house research that advances knowledge on frontline practices. This year, the research presented and exhibited included topics such as Cholera, HIV, maternal health and Ebola.

What brought me to London was not so much the medical research as it was the 1st time a second day was organized in name of in-house innovation.
The presentations were mostly related to digital data and mobile technologies. Included were mapping technologies, community-based healthcare delivery models and unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones). All of these presentations raised very diverse technical and philosophical questions. And it was clear that that was the result of a multidisciplinary and multi-section attendance. There were medical doctors but also logistitians, engineers, epidemiologists and more.

You have 1 million euros: how would you use it to foster a culture of innovation in MSF?
This was the title of a discussion panel that included people from MSF, ICRC, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. All the panelists presented a short list of issues they propose as essential to create a culture of innovation.
The most mentioned included internal communication, engagement in partnerships with external actors, project commitment and agile management, focus on beneficiaries and on strategic opportunities. I personally liked two: creation of innovation metrics and of incentives. For MSF it is important to adhere to a healthy form of competition, sharing resources, ideas and partners for the greater good.

Open questions
The environment was sometimes rather tense. It is clear that there are many unsolved internal discussions but above all that this day opened many questions that remain to be answered. The reference to collaboration within MSF, with the private sector or local ministries of health is still spoken at a very abstract level. Another tension point is related to the position of MSF action in the spectrum of emergencies to development. Especially because several innovative approaches imply looking at prevention and at very local initiatives. Issues like IP, costs of technology development, regulation were still left unaddressed.

There are so many opportunities to improve field work and I’m happy to see that MSF stands open to them. After such a successful day I look forward for more next year!


Photograph by Andreas Larsson