Open Innovation in UNHCR
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the United Nations initiative to protect refugees globally, assisting in their repatriation, integration and resettlement in a foreign country. The organization is responsible for guiding receiving countries in implementing regulations and rights to address 71 million refugees desperately in need of help.
The applied protocols however date back to post World War II and are almost identical to those created to resettle the then few million displaced refugees in Europe. The current refugee crisis is at an unprecedented scale and is vastly different from that post World War II. The current protocols are thus arguably insufficient in creating an efficient and sustainable long-term economic, legal and social integration of refugees in receiving countries. As discontent increases between and within receiving states, UNHCR must be highly responsive and act quickly.
Implementing open innovation and crowdsourcing to gather information from the affected refugees, and potentially also the pre-existing citizens, will be important in future success of UNHCR’s goals of quick and efficient integration and resettlement. Without gathering ideas in real time from the people whose lives and well-being is at stake, the UNHCR risks missing important sources of discontent and content alike which will inevitably emerge over time.
Organizational Plans for Improvement
UNHCR has been aware of the knowledge gap between the organization and partner states and the refugees, and have initiated an idea-management platform, UNHCR Ideas. Through the platform, staff members, partners, and refugee communities can provide feedback to challenges posed by UNHCR to contribute to solving various complex issues. The initiative is only in its early phases and expects to expand in reach and depth in the coming years.
Apart from UNHCR Ideas, UNHCR has initiated a new plan for possibilities of top-down and bottom-up information flow. It recognizes that a digitally connected refugee population can enable UNHCR to innovate and improve the quality of services provided and respond more effectively to the needs of the refugees. UNHCR intends to partner with private and public actors in the host communities to digitally connect refugees for strengthened communication and community empowerment. In collaborating with the technology sector, UNHCR may be able in the short run to provide refugees with pricing models that reduce costs of mobile connection. In the medium- to long term, UNHCR recognizes that it must identify sustainable market-based connectivity solutions.
Increasing digital connectivity is a means through which open innovation can take place, not the least in combination with UNHCR Ideas. However, there is no concrete plan for what necessary negotiations with public and private enterprises would look like. Furthermore, what remains to be seen are methods of creating honest and active engagement from the refugee population as well as systems in place for how UNHCR is to effectively respond to such engagement.
Recommendation for Improvement
UNHCR would likely benefit from further developing UNHCR Ideas and/or create similar initiatives, as a knowledge-sharing platform of the kind has major potential. However, if the initiative fails to garner reach and depth, it will likely turn out unsuccessful.
UNHCR must initiate serious efforts to inform refugees of the possibilities to improve their present situation in any language and form necessary, as well as prioritize solutions for connectivity. Information flow among disconnected populations could possibly be created through representatives in local communities who gather information from the people and upload to the platform.
Once connected -directly or indirectly-, creating e.g. contests in local languages with financial or other rewards for ideas acted upon (chosen through community voting) could generate high engagement. In addition to / instead of complex challenges that may intimidate participants, UNHCR would benefit from a broader open platform where refugees can introduce encountered issues with or without solutions, as the UNHCR cannot always predict what issues are relevant. To incentivize questions, one could also award some type of credit to the person who initiated the question that later received a successful response.
Successful communication in real time can further incite trust and engagement not only with the refugee community but also with the citizens of receiving countries who now see responsiveness from UNHCR, potentially allowing a new crucial dialogue to emerge.
Question Moving Forward
Suppose that the aforementioned platform with high engagement existed, and that the UNHCR were responsive to ideas. Would the ideas of relevant parties be informed and thoughtful enough to create long-term and widespread impact, or will they turn into time-consuming and short-term efforts at local scale?
 UNHCR, 2017 Global Report, p. 5, http://reporting.unhcr.org/publications#tab-global_report&_ga=2.59905194.645385229.1542056427-1381407412.1542056427, accessed November 2018.
 UN, The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, p. 2, http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/gr2017/pdf/GR2017_English_Full_lowres.pdf, accessed November 2018.
 Tobias Bohmel, Vincenzo Bove, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, ”Politicians blame refugees for violence. But refugees are more likely to be its victims,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/19/what-data-shows-about-refugees-and-violence-in-their-new-homes/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7ab2e74ce841, accessed November 2018.
 UNHCR, “UNHCR Innovation Service; Connectivity For Refugees”, http://www.unhcr.org/innovation/connectivity-for-refugees/, accessed November 2018.
 Kevin J. Boudreau, Karim R. Lakhani, ”Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner”, Harvard Business Review, April 2013, p. 64.