The global refugee crises: how to crowdfund new ideas for better aid

Corinna Frey is an ESRC PhD student working on refugee crises and humanitarian emergencies, exploring innovative ways of sharing knowledge and making use of evidence and research. She is based at the Cambridge Judge Business School and promotes knowledge translation as Head of Lectures for CUSPE, the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange.

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The world has a new UN Secretary General and it is not by chance the former Head of the UN Refugee Agency, a global sign that the United Nations are putting refugees and global displacement on top of their agenda. And it’s about time! Currently, around 65.3 million people are displaced from their homes, fleeing war, persecution or natural disasters. And while we (too often) hear about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, only 6 per cent of the global refugee population ever make it to any of the European borders. In fact the majority of refugees find themselves in over-crowded refugee camps spread across the world.

It’s the camps where people suffer

While rarely on our radar, suffering and humanitarian needs in such camps are escalating rapidly. For my research I have been spending months in refugee camps in Lebanon, South Africa as well as Rwanda and met women who were raped in the darkness of the camps, saw children affected by cholera outbreaks and talked to families being traumatised by war and persecution.

What is done?

To provide aid and relief, humanitarian organisations are establishing public health programs in camps, formulate poverty reduction strategies or provide access to basic education. Even private sector companies such as TOMS are distributing shoes for free in Syrian refugee camps and celebrities such as Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie are visiting these places to raise awareness and more funds.

While the tenor is to ask for more programmes and more funding, more money does not automatically turn into more effective interventions and existing programmes such as TOMS initiatives might solve the problem of ‘shoelessness’, however fails to address the real issue of missing jobs and opportunities in these camps. Actually, we need better aid, not just more!

Crowd-sourcing new ideas

In my research I came across an initiative called UNHCR Ideas, a truly new approach to crowdfund innovative ideas, featured by the UN Refugee Agency. The vision behind it is simple, yet powerful. First of all there is an online platform based around field challenges and UNHCR invites refugees, staff members and partners to come up with, and post ideas of how to tackle these challenges. The crowd is then able to comment and review each suggestion, to collaborate, and to learn from other’s good practices. The highest-rated ideas are evaluated by an expert panel which selects the top idea to be piloted and implemented! When discussing this new approach with UNHCR’s Innovation co-lead, Chris Earney, he explained that one of the biggest strengths of this approach is that it gives equal rights and power to everyone:

“No matter if you are a refugee, a director or young staff member, every idea will be treated equally, because it’s online, and it’s a collaboration platform. This helps to ensure that the ideas and perspectives of everybody, including refugees themselves are included, heard, discussed and given the chance to be taken forward!”

So far UNHCR Ideas has explored how to better prevent sexual violence in camps, how to improve information access for refugees in urban areas, what to do about language barriers, and how to ensure that more refugee girls are going to school.


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