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Dr Alexander Betts writes for the UNHCR Global Views blog – a new forum to discuss refugee policy and practice

There has been an “innovation turn” in the humanitarian world. A number of United Nations organizations, including UNHCR, have been pioneering the drawing upon of ideas and language more commonly used by the private sector in order to rethink humanitarian response. This work has offered an opportunity to transform old ways of working. Across the humanitarian system the dominant part of that debate has focused on improving organizational response. What has been neglected is a recognition that “affected communities,” including displaced populations themselves, engage in innovation on a daily basis, adapting to new markets, social networks, and regulatory environments as a matter of necessity.

At the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, we set up the Humanitarian Innovation Project in 2012 to inform this debate, focusing our research on innovation by affected communities, and in particular by refugees and displaced populations. We have been privileged to work in partnership with UNHCR on much of this work. Drawing upon ideas from human-centered design, indigenous innovation, and participatory methodology, we have tried to shift the lens from “top-down” towards “bottom-up” innovation, premised upon the recognition that refugees themselves have skills, talents, and aspirations, are frequently entrepreneurial, and often use and adapt technology.


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