A different approach to building solutions for humanitarian challenges

  • Leila Toplic, NLG Tech Task Force Lead at NetHope
  • March 8, 2018
A different approach

Using design thinking and collective impact to create opportunities
for conflict-affected youth.

Photo: Norwegian Refugee Council's program at Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan

In a previous blog post, I reflected on the critical needs of conflict-affected youth: education, participation, and access to dignified work. I detailed the contexts in which these young people live. And I posed the question: How can we start solving these complex problems in real time? U.N. agencies, international NGOs, and local Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), are all responding as best they can, but the overall number of youth that need assistance remains high.

Humanitarian and private sector organizations must work together to create innovative solutions that scale to address the magnitude of needs. That is my personal experience, and it’s also core to the work I am doing with the No Lost Generation (NLG) Tech Task Force, leading collaboration between the humanitarian sector and the private sector, with the focus on tech-enabled programs for conflict-affected youth.

In this post, I will describe how the NLG Tech Task Force is working with private sector companies, humanitarian organizations, and conflict-affected youth to co-create solutions to the challenges they face, including education, livelihoods, participation, and representation by applying lean and user-centered design, and leveraging technology where appropriate. While the work is in progress and solutions are being developed as I write this post, it’s part of our approach to share broadly what we’re working on and what we’re learning so that others may benefit.

Start with the problem you want to solve

In September 2017, NLG Tech Task Force brought together private and humanitarian sector stakeholders at the NLG Silicon Valley Symposium in San Francisco to collaborate on addressing four challenges that conflict-affected youth face. Humanitarian organizations and impacted youth researched these four challenges and brought them to life with videos. Understanding these issues was a starting point for envisioning what it would take to empower them to create a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Think big, work toward a collective impact

With those four challenges in mind, Task Force participants framed the approach for solution development: activate all resources and strive for collective impact.

For the private sector, this meant expanding the possible scope of engagement beyond Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropy to include: 1) business operations and product development; and 2) advocacy and policy.

Private sector companies have a long history of providing grants and other financial support to humanitarian organizations. In addition to financial contributions, businesses are supporting humanitarian efforts through employee expertise and volunteering, as well as through in-kind donations of company products and resources. But there are two other important ways businesses can contribute: through core business operations, including hiring practices; development of products and services that address the specific needs of refugee populations; and/or adaptation of existing products, such as skills training platforms, to be available offline or in local languages.

“In the private sector, there are a number of resources and expertise that can be activated to help develop solutions that meet the unique needs of millions of displaced youth. And, many employees are eager to contribute their time and energy to have a positive impact,” said Ross Smith, Director of Skype for Good at Microsoft.

Additionally, through advocacy and public policy engagement, the private sector can amplify the voices of those affected by humanitarian situations, including those whose perspectives, experiences, and priorities may not otherwise be heard. This Guide provides more information about the private sector engagement opportunities and examples.

For the humanitarian sector, collective impact means shifting from implementing as individual UN/NGO agencies to incubating for, and sharing with, all NLG partner agencies. 

Co-design solutions with humanitarian and private sectors, and conflict-affected youth

To brainstorm ideas for solutions to the challenges presented at the Symposium, 50 participants worked together for an hour in multi-sector groups.1 From the private sector came suggestions of resources and expertise they have ready or could activate in support of the four challenges, including educational platforms like Pluralsight, communities of educators via Skype in the Classroom, creative initiatives like Adobe Project 1324, conversational AI powering Skype bot experiences, Cisco’s Networking Academy, and more. Humanitarian sector participants provided deeper context about the needs and situations of conflict-affected youth, such as low digital literacy, lack of connectivity, cultural norms, and similar. While we could have brainstormed for hours, the time spent provided a good starting point for the next step.

Following the Symposium, I used the ideas to formulate four specific projects with several private sector companies —  Microsoft, Salesforce, Adobe, and Pluralsight. With the support from the NLG Working Group leads from UNICEF, World Vision, Mercy Corps and Save the Children, we identified the lead humanitarian organization to support the planning and implementation of each of the four projects and to integrate end users (i.e. youth) into the process as active participants and co-creators. This approach allowed us to bring diverse types of expertise together and design solutions with direct end-user feedback.

End users, in this case conflict-affected youth, have been part of the co-design process since the start. Building empathy for end users helped develop the understanding of the context that they face every day and adapt our solutions to meet them where they are.

Use lean startup methodology to act with urgency and efficiency

These are complex and urgent problems we’re trying to address with a diverse set of stakeholders working across at least three different time zones. To make that possible, we need collaborative, iterative, and user-centric ways of working together.

I’m a big fan of lean methodology and design thinking, so I proposed we start with a lean canvas for each project in order to establish a shared understanding of the problem, target audience, and a possible solution. For most of the participants, lean methodology was new, but all quickly saw the benefits of the approach. “Lean canvas has helped us stay focused on the problem we’re working to solve, the needs of the target audience, and context in which they live,” said Barbara Bergamini from the Norwegian Refugee Council, working with Microsoft on one of the Task Force projects.

With the lean canvas in hand, our goal is to develop each idea to the state of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), rapidly test the proposed solution, and iterate towards a solution that really works. What does that mean? When building a product or a program with minimum features (i.e., an MVP), we have to make assumptions based on the available information in order to test if what we’re creating is a viable, relevant solution to the problem we want to solve. This ensures that the pace is commensurate with the urgency of problems we’re solving — that it is quick, that imperfection and failure are acceptable, and that improvement comes through iterating based on the end-user feedback.

Integrate technology as needed

Technology is one of the tools in Task Force’s toolbox. We know from current programs that technology, when integrated in the right way, can help scale programs and enable more young people to access educational opportunities; learn in-demand skills; connect with economic opportunities; and/or find meaningful opportunities to get their voices heard and influence their positive representation in the media. Through collaboration, humanitarian organizations and young people can help shape the future of technology, adapting products to meet the needs of the vulnerable populations they serve.

Keeping the local context in mind, we identified several ways technology could support our work in solving the four challenges:

  • It can help us scale our programs to reach more youth where they are using mobile phones, tablets, real-time translation, offline capabilities, and similar.
  • Real-time discovery and just-in-time access to learning resources can be made easier with the help of technology, including access to role models and mentors outside of the region, or access to learning content 24/7.
  • With technology we can do more to provide equal access to learning and economic opportunities. For example, with the help of web-based learning and employment, young women can overcome cultural norms and societal boundaries.
  • Technology is key to access to a broader range of economic opportunities, such as impact sourcing and remote work.
  • Proof of learning through digital certifications or badges, learning pathways personalized to your level or needs; life-long learning that follows you wherever you go, your whole life — are some of the other ways technology tools can support the needs of conflict-affected youth.

Measure, learn, share, and iterate with end-user feedback

The first MVP was delivered at the NLG Tech Summit in Amman, Jordan, in February 2018. It is part of the solution to the challenge around participation. MVP of Adobe Project 1324 Challenge: Defined Without Borders is now available to all youth worldwide, including conflict-affected youth supported by NLG partner agencies.  Amie Wells, project lead from Mercy Corps for Defined Without Borders project, said at the Summit: “This is the first time I am incubating a program that will benefit all NLG partner organizations, not just Mercy Corps.” Learn more here

Other MVPs are on track to be available to a select number of end users later this spring. We plan to measure, learn, and iterate with end-user feedback while sharing our learnings broadly. I’ll share more in subsequent posts.


1Participants included representatives from Microsoft, Adobe, Salesforce, Pearson, Accenture, Pluralsight, HPe, Box, Cisco, Arizona State University, UNICEF, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, and Mercy Corps.