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Top 2023 stories

Refugee-led innovation opens door to a new world

, the UN Refugee Agency, through its Refugee-led Innovation Fund, supports the work of organisations that are run by stateless and displaced people. To learn more about the scope of the fund and its impact, I caught up with Erika Pérez Iglesias, an Innovation Officer with UNHCR’s Innovation Service, who leads the Refugee-led Innovation Fund.

What is the Refugee-led Innovation Fund and what’s innovative about the way it operates?

  • EPI: UNHCR’s Refugee-led Innovation Fund proposes a fundamental shift in the way humanitarian and development programming gets designed and delivered, ensuring forcibly displaced and stateless people take centre stage in the decisions affecting their lives. We know these communities are best placed to identify the key challenges they face and to design innovative solutions to those challenges – and that refugee-led organisations are already making significant contributions to their communities. The Fund, essentially, is a mechanism by which we can provide direct material and capacity-building support to that process. While there have been efforts in the past to support organisations run by displaced and stateless people, the Fund provides really targeted and holistic support. It’s not just funding: it’s also project management support, technical expertise, and peer-to-peer networking. And it focuses very specifically on innovative projects – ones that are using new tools or approaches in new ways or new contexts to bring value to people forced to flee.

What kinds of projects are being supported?

  • EPI: The Fund launched last year in 18 pilot countries, and we received more than 1,820 applications. Of those, 17 projects were endorsed and are currently being implemented. We’re super excited about this cohort – they’re really diverse in terms of thematics and approach. For instance, we’re supporting an aquaponics project being run by and for women refugees in Malawi’s Dzaleka refugee camp, which is upskilling participants in this forward-looking field, providing a new source of livelihoods, and addressing food insecurity. In France, a project is providing tailored training for museums careers, partnering with some of the most prestigious cultural institutions in Paris. Not only is it boosting skills and job opportunities, it’s also changing the narrative about who refugees are and what they can achieve. We’ve got one project in Uganda/South Sudan providing cross-border medical care for returnees – including expectant mothers and persons with disabilities. It’s a real range!

How do projects backed by the fund get the freedom and power they need to grow?

  • EPI: Wonderful question. This, at core, is what the Refugee-led Innovation Fund is all about: not supporting one project for a set duration, but ensuring refugee-led organisations have the resources, capacity, and tools they need to thrive going forward. That’s why we built in this emphasis on networking, on capacity-building, on skillsharing. We’ve also worked to ensure that the reporting requirements aren’t onerous, so we are able to conduct monitoring and evaluation effectively, but organisations aren’t crushed by all the administrative work. And we aim to be as flexible as possible: we know that these organisations face specific contextual challenges, and we work with them through those to ensure they can succeed. These refugee-led organisations (RLOs), for the most part, were already doing amazing work in their communities before they applied to the Fund, we’re just enabling them to amplify their impact and supporting them toward greater sustainability.

How is the work of refugee-led organisations helping create a more connected society?

  • EPI: Ensuring refugees have more say in the big decisions affecting their lives, and supporting them to deliver projects that empower their communities, is – I think – generally a very positive step toward a more equal, empathetic, and connected society. But I think it’s easier to speak to this question by looking more closely at specific projects. For instance, one project supported through the Fund is facilitating greater social inclusion for LGBTQI+ refugees in Cape Town through sports tournaments. They’re facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue and understanding in a way that’s very fresh – working against prejudice to bring many different actors (displaced and host communities, LGBTQI+ and not) along with them. Another project, run by an all-female collective, is developing a mixed-media campaign to raise awareness about SGBV in Greece. The content is all produced by young displaced women and young Greek women – working side by side to learn new skills, connect, and start essential conversations.   

What partnership opportunities exist for organisations/institutions interested in collaborating with the fund?

  • EPI: Great question! We really encourage organisations supported through the Fund to seek out partners – whether NGOs, social enterprises, or other entities – who can bring unique skills and perspectives to these projects. So, while each project must be ‘owned’ by an RLO, organisations who are keen to support this exciting initiative could reach out to local RLOs to propose avenues for collaboration or to ask whether they’ve heard of the opportunity. Then, of course, organisations or individuals who would like to collaborate with or support the Fund (or specific projects) with funding or in-kind support can always reach out to us. Facilitating stronger networks among RLOs themselves and also between RLOs and local humanitarian and creative ecosystems is an important part of the Fund, so we do encourage anyone who wants to somehow be involved to get in touch, and we can work with them to figure out a way forward.

How do you plan to evolve the fund?

  • EPI: We closed the second call for expressions of interest at the end of June. This time, we expanded eligibility from the initial set of pilot countries to RLOs located anywhere in the world. We’ve been overwhelmed by the response, with more than 3,330 applications received. It’s so awesome to see this level of creativity and drive from RLOs. We’ve just finished reviewing those initial project proposals and there are some wonderful ideas in there. Looking ahead, we’re aiming to increase the number of projects we’re supporting in a given year, and we really hope that this initiative can also inspire other organisations to develop similar approaches. It’s essential that refugee-led organisations are recognized as equal partners, and that they’re supported to deliver the initiatives their communities really need. We hope the Fund can stimulate more substantial, flexible funding for projects run by and for displaced communities.


In tomorrow’s look back at the year’s top stories, we rewind to our interview with Cécile Pango, who leads Women for Action, an RLO implementing an aquaponics project in the Dzaleka refugee camp, to learn more about the work this innovative organisation is doing to address food insecurity.

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Written By

Iain is a creative writer, journalist and lecturer, and formerly an editor of two international business publications. Iain is now editor of Innovators Magazine, as well as the strategic content director for OnePoint5Media.


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