UNICEF: ‘Turn the most innovative ideas into reality’

By Pauline Zalkin 23 March 2011

A member of the United Nations Children's Fund interacts with children. Photo by: UNICEF

The United Nations Children’s Fund was selected as a Devex Top 40 Development Innovator based on a poll of thousands of global development professionals who are part of Devex, the largest network of aid and relief workers in the world.

Announced on April 18, Devex Top 40 Development Innovators is an impressive listing of the world’s leading donor agencies & foundations, development consulting companies, implementing NGOs, and advocacy groups.

We asked each of the Innovators four questions to learn how they stay ahead to the curve and tackle old development challenges in new ways. Here’s how UNICEF’s Amanda Cockroft, the supply division’s innovation chief in Copenhagen, and Arturo Romboli, communications officer in New York, responded:

‘We have the global authority to influence decision-makers, and the variety of partners at grassroots level to turn the most innovative ideas into reality’

If you had to condense it to just one or two sentences, overall, what is it that makes your organization innovative?

UNICEF actively seeks out and cultivates all sorts of partnerships with academia, NGOs and the private sector – from grassroots to big global players. We aim to give our staff the space to generate and test ideas and solutions, stay positive about setbacks which we’ve found often lead to some of the most creative solutions.

Can you provide a specific example of something your organization has done that is particularly innovative?

UNICEF has a rich history of innovation. In response to the sharp rise in mobile phone use, UNICEF developed RapidSMS, an open-source framework for data collection, logistics coordination and communication, which allows even the most basic mobile phones to interact with the web. RapidSMS is currently being used in Rwanda to reduce neonatal and maternal mortality.

Another, more low-tech example currently in development is that we are innovating new approaches to diagnosis of acute respiratory infection, a major cause of death for under-5s. Our success in this area should have a massive impact on health outcomes.

Last year, together with Open Street Map’s Map Kibera, we launched a youth-led digital mapping pilot program in Nairobi’s Kibera slum aimed at helping young people, particularly young women and girls, where they use innovative technology to identify and map risks and vulnerabilities related to their health and protection. The mapping not only helped community members identify safe and unsafe spaces, but also to raise awareness and spur advocacy opportunities related to HIV and AIDS vulnerability.

Our Connecting Classrooms initiative is an educational program designed to link classrooms around the world. It enables students in developing and industrialized countries to collaborate around topics of shared global concern. Students and teachers in participating schools use an innovative online platform designed for group interaction and collaborative work. The curriculum is designed to encourage discussion and collaboration, to support active dialogue about global issues affecting young people, and to promote small group work within schools and between different countries. The program familiarizes teachers with cutting-edge methodologies based around group work and youth journalism.

Looking ahead 10 years, what are some of the innovations in international development that your organization wants to be a part of?

In line with our equity and systems approach to challenges, we’re interested in leveraging our experience with new media and communication technologies with our traditional, low-tech solutions to deliver innovative services to the field. We will continue designing innovative and creative solutions promoting a participatory approach, and expanding and developing our work in civic and social media, to encourage real engagement. We will work with other U.N. agencies involved in interesting challenges, such as our partnership with U.N. Global Pulse.

One factor in driving innovation at any organization is the talent you hire and the partnerships you make. How does your organization take into account innovation when it comes to cultivating talent and partners?

Without a doubt, it’s a major factor when making hiring decisions or choosing partners. Some of the most interesting creative outputs come from combining different people and groups and seeing what emerges from their different ideas and ways of tackling challenges. It’s key to involve everybody connected with a project – those developing solutions as well as those who will benefit out in the field.

Our innovative projects bring together teams comprised primarily of contractors, academic and private sector partners. We make a point of working with people who are doing interesting things, and have long focused on convening people and organizations from diverse backgrounds around issues central to young people and UNICEF’s mandate.

Check out the full listing of all Devex Top 40 Development Innovators on Facebook.

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