A new project in Ethiopia is exploring how anthropology can help deliver benefits in the design and delivery of support within refugee settlements.

While UNHCR endeavours to help displaced people return home or find long term solutions as quickly as possible, the reality is that many remain in refugee camps and settlements for years. In fact in 2016, the average time spent in a refugee camp rose from 17 to 20 years.

As refugee settlements become established, they also become new communities in their own right, with elements such as culture and language playing a major role in how they develop. UNHCR’s Innovation Unit has been drawing on the expertise of anthropologists to explore how daily life can be improved for refugees living in camps in the long term. This has started with a pilot scheme for Somali refugees in Ethiopia.

In partnership with the IKEA Foundation, UNHCR Innovation worked with an anthropology organisation called Desert Rose, and local refugee communities to identify initiatives that could sustainably improve life in a settlement. 

The project team included fluent Somali speakers and was embedded in camp culture to observe and interact freely with people. They lived in Kobe Camp for six weeks, building relationships and listening to the community’s needs. This provided in-depth insight to help generate ideas to improve daily life.

The exercise was very successful, generating diverse proposals such as:

  • Introducing a culturally acceptable fresh pasta to replace dried pasta, which in turn reduced cooking time and cut fuel consumption by 50%
  • Stimulating development of livelihoods by supporting businesses that trigger others—like an ice business that in turn could spur cold beverage businesses
  • Recommending updates to materials that would improve the durability, security and comfort of the refugee housing units

These and other ideas from this innovation project are now being considered by UNHCR and the refugee settlement community. Once trialled, they can also be shared with other settlements.

Learn more about this project.

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