Four Lessons from the Amplify Refugee Challenge

Design principles when developing educational programs in refugee contexts.

In 2013, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) partnered with and OpenIDEO to launch Amplify, a set of innovation challenges focused on finding and supporting early-stage solutions to emerging and complex development challenges. Over the past four years, we’ve run eight of these challenges, focused on a range of topics from urban resilience to disability inclusion. In each challenge, a cohort of 5-8 grantees has been awarded small grants to bring their idea for a new product or service to life, and support from’s human-centered design experts to test, adapt, and improve upon their idea. For our third challenge, UNICEF and UNHCR partnered with Amplify to host a challenge aimed at improving refugee education.

The five winning grantees from our Refugee Education Challenge and their projects represent the breadth and complexity of educational needs facing those displaced across the Middle East and Africa. Each organization spent 18 months developing and piloting their approach, documenting their learnings, successes, and failures along the way.

From these diverse projects, a few themes emerged. Together, they form four design principles—or considerations—to keep in mind when developing educational programs in refugee contexts.

1. Design for confidence

Refugees live in a perpetual state of transition—navigating unfamiliar, sometimes inhospitable, environments and depending on humanitarian organizations for daily allowances that can fail to meet their basic needs. This incessant instability invariably erodes their sense of agency and confidence.

In Amplify, organizations that focused on building confidence as well as great educational content saw their students flourish. YARID, an organization that piloted a unique bridging program to help urban refugees in Uganda transition into formal schools, noticed that their refugee students were reluctant to ask questions in English (the local language of instruction) because most had grown up in francophone countries. When YARID tested bilingual instruction for parts of the bridging course, students better absorbed the information they received and felt more comfortable asking questions. At the end of the pilot, every one of the children in YARID’s initial cohort successfully transitioned to local Ugandan schools at or above grade level, and 70% were ranked at the the top of their new class by the end of their first term. The bilingual instruction they’d received in YARID’s bridging course didn’t erode children’s ability to succeed in English-speaking schools—it gave them the confidence boost they needed to get there.

2. Meet complex challenges with comprehensive solutions

The barriers to quality education are intersectional, including lack of financial resources, language barriers, insufficient infrastructure, and a myriad of other challenges. So in order to improve education, many Amplify grantees complemented their educational programming with initiatives that tackled adjacent issues outside the classroom.

In YARID’s case, this meant starting a financial education and savings program for parents during the bridge course, so that by the time children were ready to enter local schools, their families had the resources to pay for the necessary fees. Another Amplify grantee, Heshima, sought to train female refugees in Kenya vocational skills. But when tensions between refugees and the community threatened to derail the women’s ability to put their training into practice, Heshima conducted anti-xenophobia trainings to mitigate animosity market vendors exhibited toward refugees. Without this intervention, it’s likely that the small business loans Heshima made to women they’d trained would’ve failed.

These are just two examples of how our grantees found creative ways to improve education comprehensively, often from the outside in.

3. Trust (and elevate) local expertise

At the start of our challenge, many refugees expressed skepticism about international organizations and the promises they’d been made in the past. So perhaps it’s no surprise that refugee-led organizations and those that closely co-designed their programs with refugees were most successful. Taking the time to foster real trust produced better, more authentic feedback from end-users (refugees) about what was and wasn’t working, allowing for rapid iteration of solutions to increase engagement.

One example of this co-design approach comes from i-Act, an Amplify grantee that launched a distributed network of home-based preschools in Chad. By creating a space for and inviting honest feedback, i-Act learned quickly that their curriculum (which was carefully crafted by technical staff based on teacher input) had missed the mark. Teachers viewed the activities as too complicated, and wanted space for more storytelling with their students. i-Act quickly turned this feedback into a revised curriculum that elevated the teacher’s voices and incorporated lessons plans using stories from teachers’ own families and cultures. In another case, Amplify grantees Finn Church Aid and Columbia Teachers’ College gathered real-life examples from teachers in Kakuma Refugee Camp to bring their professional development curriculum to life. This style of teacher-centered professional development has led to improved teaching for over 10,000 children in the camp.

4. Plan for uncertain funding

Most programs assume an eventual repatriation of refugees to their countries of origin, but the reality is that many families remain in their host countries for decades. The international funding that helps operate these refugee programs can fluctuate markedly, so it’s important to design solutions that are durable, and can withstand fluctuating conditions.

In order to prepare for volatile funding conditions, Amplify grantee Taghyeer began testing sustainability strategies from the beginning of their pilot. An early partnership with UNHCR allowed Taghyeer to experiment with deploying their program model through an implementing partner. The organization also worked with a team of designers from to explore and test a number of future business models—including NGO subscriptions, an online toolkit, and a consulting model—to ensure their solution’s scale would not be limited by a future funding environment that was uncertain at best. While there are no easy answers to creating sustainable education solutions in such a resource constrained environment, taking an experimental approach to defining the business model for a new solution is a critical step towards that goal.

In addition to producing the lessons above, the five winning grantees from our Refugee Education challenge have reached more than 17,000 teachers and students across Africa and the Middle East through their pilot projects. With limited resources, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to adapt, these organizations have made great progress, but there’s still so much work to be done to ensure every child has access to a quality education.

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