What we’ve learned about scaling humanitarian education innovations: Lessons from the UNHCR Humanitarian Education Accelerator

After 7 years of existence, UNHCR Humanitarian Education Accelerator is coming to its end. This blog presents the lessons learned from this experience and the global public goods it has produced.

April 24, 2023 by Kate Dodgson, UNHCR Humanitarian Education Accelerator
3 minutes read
Ismat Khatun, 12, attends grade 6 in an all-girls class at the Chayabithi Learning Center, in the Rohingya Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: GPE/Salman Saeed
Ismat Khatun is 12 years old and attends grade 6 in an all-girls class at the Chayabithi Learning Center, located in Camp 4 of the Rohingya Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Credit: GPE/Salman Saeed

The Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA) was set up in 2016 to support promising education in emergencies and protracted crises (EiEPC) innovations to transition to scale.

After seven years, three accelerator cohorts, and 21 innovations supported, the HEA has completed its final cohort, and closed in December 2022. Throughout the seven years, the HEA has compiled many lessons and has built an evidence base on what it takes to scale EiEPC innovations.

This article shares some of the major lessons learnt, and points readers to the Global Public Goods that the HEA has produced, with the aim of supporting and influencing future scaling efforts. The following major lessons learnt through the HEA’s experience are detailed in the HEA Learning Synthesis:

1. Sectoral and contextual barriers remain

Scaling impactful EiEPC innovations remains hindered by sectoral barriers. For example, structures and incentives in the humanitarian sector mean that it is easier for teams to launch multiple pilots rather than scale up an existing one (the ‘perpetual pilot’ problem).

Further, business models for sustainably scaled EiEPC innovations are limited. While government (likely the ministry of education) adoption may seem the most feasible and desirable path to sustainability, the HEA experience showed the challenges of getting government buy-in, and that due to both prioritization and resource challenges, and to the engagement of multiple line ministries in refugee education, government ownership is not the silver bullet to sustainability.

There should be more exploration of business models that involve the ministry of education as a collaborator rather than owner.

2. Lack in financing for long-term scaling

A greater interest in and appreciation of innovative humanitarian solutions has meant there is an increase in ‘innovation grants’ to support projects to pilot and transition to scale. However, there is a funding gap when moving from the early transition to scale stage to long term-sustainable scale.

Donors need to be aware of this gap and work to ensure there is a pipeline of funding available so projects don’t get lost too early on the scaling journey. Read more about financing scale in the HEA Learning Paper on Financing Scale in Humanitarian Education Innovations.

3. Evidence and monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL)

A major focus of the HEA has been to generate evidence surrounding education innovations including by supporting teams to strengthen their key skills, and building the requisite systems that allow them to generate evidence. Mentoring and capacity building in MEL and evidence generation so that teams can better design, implement and guide their scaling, was found to be critical.

The HEA curated a MEL Toolkit for innovators to use, and commissioned rigorous external evaluations on the innovation projects in the final HEA cohort. These evaluations helped the teams measure their impact, and feed into their scaling strategy.

They also contributed to a much needed evidence base for education innovations (what works, what doesn’t), including as evidence for adopters and funders to base their decisions. Executive summaries of these evaluations are available on the HEA website.

4. Capacity building, knowledge and skills for scale

Through the HEA, research and practice explored what activities are important to support innovation teams to scale. The HEA found that building capacity, knowledge and skills in the following are critical in the scaling journey:

  • Partnerships, including fostering relationships with government
  • Documenting and codifying the innovation
  • Investing in research and development
  • Project management and leadership
  • Evidence generation and M&E
  • Financing: ensuring there is an understanding of the financing ecosystem, pipeline and opportunities.

All of the learnings from the HEA are captured in various publications on the HEA website. Besides the hyperlinks above, there is more information about the innovation teams in blogs on the HEA Learning Series, and on the HEA YouTube channel.

On 27 April 2023, the Scaling Up Community of Practice will host a webinar focusing on the above lessons and knowledge. Presenting will be the HEA team, HEA mentors NYU-TIES, an innovation team from the final cohort, Cohere, and one of their partner RLOs, Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre.

Register for the webinar.

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