Stanford-UN collaboration rethinks refugee communities


U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff estimates that in the last two years, the UNHCR has taken in an additional 2,000 refugees every day, making it one of the most challenging periods for the U.N. body in decades. Meanwhile, the traditional methods to shelter, protect and aid those refugees don’t always keep pace with growing demands and emerging technologies.

"Many of us work in ways we have worked for many years, where things that have worked in the past continue to work in the present. But, meanwhile, the world has moved on," Aleinikoff recently told a gathering of nongovernment organizations from around the world. The UNHCR, he said, is looking at mobile phone technology, solar power and lighting, fuel-efficient stoves, microcredit loans and stimulating refugee livelihoods.

The agency needed an incubator to test out some of these innovative ideas. So Aleinikoff turned to CISAC, calling on its security experts to collaborate with the UNHCR on a handful of prototypes that would better protect and support the more than 42 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people worldwide.

The request has led to a multidisciplinary partnership between the UNHCR and CISAC, with students from across the Stanford campus, professors and NGOs, as well as physicians, architects and other professionals eager to volunteer their time and expertise.

“This really matters; it’s about real people,” said Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, CISAC’s co-director and a Stanford Law School professor teaching a class to coincide with the project. “I like to think we are creating a network of people who will stay engaged. I’m looking for people who say: This is exciting, this is doable, this is important, and I want to be a part of this.”

Cuellar has found dozens. Students, professors at the Hassno-Platner Institute of Design – better known as the – as well as Bay Area NGOs and Silicon Valley designers have signed on, attending workshops and brainstorming sessions with UNHCR officials and Stanford students from around the world.

Some of the Stanford professors include Paul H. Wise, a professor of pediatrics at the Stanford Medical School and a CISAC affiliated faculty member; Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a specialist in international political economy; and Bernard Roth, a professor of mechanical engineering and one of the founders of the

“I’m curious to see how it’s all going to play out,” Paul Spiegel, deputy director of the Division of Program Support at the UNHCR and a senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, recently told the Stanford Law School class during a Skype chat from Geneva. “For us at the UNHCR, the most interesting thing is the multidisciplinary nature of this project. This is something we’ve never done before. So this is very innovative and different.”

Two dozens students with majors ranging from engineering to computer science, international policy studies, law and public health are taking Cuéllar’s class, Rethinking Refugee Communities, co-taught by Leslie Witt of the global design consultancy, IDEO.

“I got involved in the project out of intellectual curiosity and because of the prospect of seeing our ideas applied in the field,” said Danny Buerkli, a second year master’s student in international policy studies. “While most of us are not experts in humanitarian policy, we have the luxury of time to reflect and rethink how UNHCR deals with refugee situations. The project is a great way of exploring design thinking, humanitarian policies and working with a large institutional client all at the same time.”

Some of the students are preparing for a visit to a UNHCR refugee camp in Jordan for Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland. They want to see operations firsthand to better visualize what’s needed on the ground.

You can follow the project at CISAC’s page.