Q&A: Former Zaatari refugee camp chief on the tandem approach to urban planning

A view of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo by: Helen Morgan / Devex

Last year, over 600 abandoned bicycles were sent from a bike depot in the city of Amsterdam to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Some of the bikes were to be used much like an informal bike sharing system, and repair training was provided. Municipal civil servants from the Dutch city also met with their Jordanian counterparts to share expertise in urban infrastructure, assist with public transport network development, and improve planning for new roads and buildings.

This was just one part of a broader initiative launched to help improve the living conditions of the residents, with a view to future camp developments and improved operational capacity. Dubbed the Local Government Resilience Programme, or Logo, the initiative is run in cooperation with VNG International — the International Cooperation Agency of the Association of Netherlands Municipalities — and involves the municipalities of Amsterdam, The Hague, and Almere; its aim is to help local authority staff in Lebanon and Jordan and is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through 2018.

This long-term planning is in stark contrast to the way that refugee camps are often perceived, as sites of transition. According to Kilian Kleinschmidt, a former UNHCR official who served as manager of the Zaatari camp, camps should instead be viewed as evolving urban spaces that require investment and planning, much like any other city.

In an interview with Devex, Kleinschmidt said it’s time for a paradigm shift. Just like the smartest cities around the world — in terms of connectivity, sustainability and inclusivity — this requires engaging with local actors, and forging new kinds of partnerships.

Kleinschmidt’s interest in implementing smarter initiatives began when he visited the Smart City Expo in Barcelona in 2015.

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“I was shocked to see what modern cities can do and how much technology and the knowledge there is that could be useful [in a camp context],” he said. “I got intrigued — as a field manager in Zaatari I had no clue what existed in terms of technology and innovation for urban spaces. How can we transfer that incredible wealth of knowledge and tech to a camp context?”

Since founding the Innovation and Planning Agency’s Switxboard — a database for connecting global technological, social, ecological and economic solutions to humanitarian needs — last year, he has been continuing to work on implementing sustainable initiatives in camp settings. He discussed some of these practical applications of smart technology, and explained how to forge partnerships for future cities.

Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How can technology companies, local governments and other stakeholders be galvanized to build a more inclusive, engaged and connected urban space, specifically for displaced communities?

We’re working within a logic that has, so far, been that governments are in charge of hosting displaced people, but they shift that responsibility to humanitarian agencies. None of these structures have the right reflexes and the right skill set to develop a functioning system that is ecologically and economically sustainable. That responsibility needs to be handed over in order to ensure sustainability, innovation and change.

It’s basically building a new city, and that is not done by the development agency. That is done by, for example, a public private partnership. It's not about a tech provider helping a [nongovernmental organization] ... It's about a tech provider working with a city government.

Host governments also seem more comfortable if they are dealing with municipalities, local government structures, with the private sector and so on. A good example is in the Zaatari camp: the first work permits for Syrians were obtained by commercial companies running the supermarkets for the World Food Programme. They had no problem to get work permits; we [the camp management] would never have gotten any work permits. But if a company says: “I’m setting up a supermarket needed in the camp, and besides people from the villages around the camp, I need Syrian workers,” it’s clear and logical, and they get the work permits. 

Shedding away the buzzwords of open cities, world cities, smart cities  what practical knowledge sharing could be useful?

Knowledge sharing and opportunities need to be brought together. There are garbage containers that, when connected, tell you when they’re full, and yet there are places in the world that have no proper waste management in place. For example, in the city of Daquq, Iraq, which used to have 600 metric tons of waste five years ago, they now have 2,000 tons, because they have 700,000 more people living in the city, including displaced people and refugees.

So how can we transfer that incredible wealth of knowledge and tech we have in the world to other places? First, we need a competent assessment of what should be done, not through aid assistance but through city partnerships. The region of Baden-Württemberg in Germany has partnered up with that region in northern Iraq. Hopefully some experts can be looking into working together with the waste experts at Daquq, and see what is out there in terms of business models, tech, recycling — what is happening with all this waste and what could happen.

Then we need to bring the necessary partners together to develop an investment scheme around that. It’s an engineering of solutions tailored to the environment, based on what the world can do.

When looking to the future, what would help to move things along faster or to ensure that these changes are implemented?

I think the shock therapy we had in Europe through the arrival of over 1 million people has helped to push the discussion, because basically these people came with a message and they’re saying it doesn't work out there. Humanitarian aid is insufficient, it’s not sustainable; development — we haven't really seen it.

Suddenly we’re seeing a massive change in terms of the narrative within the aid sector, where people like [International Rescue Committee President] David Miliband, for instance, are saying that the system is broken, not broke. That’s the first the first step in the direction of changing the paradigm.

I think we’ll begin to see that smaller, decentralized capacities can be brought together to solve particular issues, whether they're humanitarian, or policy, or whatever.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the author

  • Helen cropped

    Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an editorial associate at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.