Barcode tool could save vital funds for UN agency

A joint project between UPS and the UN's refugee agency, Liveconnect, is in its final stages of testing in refugee camps in Ethiopia

A system that uses barcodes to track relief packages for refugees is helping to cut costs and speed up distribution of aid items, a United Nations agency said.

The pilot scheme, called Liveconnect, is in its final stages of testing in refugee camps in Ethiopia by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and will be scaled up in the coming months. The system is a result of a tie-up between global courier giant UPS and UNHCR Innovation, a unit in the UN agency dedicated to technology and innovation.

“Until now, we had no systems to capture data of who was receiving what in the field,” said Olivier Delarue, head of UNHCR Innovation. “It was a black hole, we didn’t have the capacity to follow up on each item and now we will be able to.”

The tool uses mobile devices to track services and packages and log each time non-food items, such as blankets, tents or kitchen sets, are delivered to families in camps. The system will help the aid agency to tailor its packages to the most needy, and save money by avoiding duplication of effort.

“What [the tie-up with] companies does for us could actually be dollarless for them, by using their core competencies,” said Delarue. “But actually there are a lot of savings attached to those initiatives.”

The project is one of several being developed by UNHCR Innovation in association with corporate partners, such as UPS and IKEA Foundation. The unit takes advantage of each partners’ business know-how to improve the way aid is delivered and boost efficiency.

Cost-saving innovations are just as crucial to UNHCR as funding, Delarue said. The refugee agency depends on donations for the vast majority of its spending. UNHCR gets $41m a year towards its $3bn annual budget from the UN, leaving private donors and governments to make up the balance.

Launched in 2012, UNHCR Innovation combines expertise from the private sector, field staff and refugees themselves to manage and develop new ideas to solve problems faced by the UN agency. Many ideas bubble up from UNHCR’s staff on the ground, subsequently honed and developed by the innovation unit. Funding and saving money are critical for aid agencies facing a financial squeeze and rising demand.

The number of displaced people worldwide topped 50 million in 2013, the worst situation seen since World War II.

Photo credit: WFP/Alessandro Pavone