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At these camps, refugees can give real-time customer feedback

By simply asking the displaced people at a camp in Uganda what was broken and if they had ideas on how to fix it, the American Refugee Committee has found ways to quickly improve the quality of life.

At these camps, refugees can give real-time customer feedback
[Image: Ideo.org]

When a refugee at the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda goes to a water point to fill up a jerry can with water, someone in a bright yellow shirt will walk up with a tablet and ask them to swipe left or right to a smiley face: Were they satisfied with the process of getting water? Then they’ll ask if the refugee has any ideas to make it better.

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A customer service team now asks the same two questions throughout the camp–about everything from healthcare and nutrition to shelter–collecting feedback that can be shared in real time with camp management and the Minneapolis headquarters of the American Refugee Committee, the organization that runs the camp, so that services can improve.

“It’s shifting from the idea of a refugee as a beneficiary of services to really a customer, and someone that you’re providing the best services that you can for,” says Adam Reineck, global design director at Ideo.org, the nonprofit arm of the design firm Ideo, which worked with the American Refugee Committee to create the new system of customer feedback, called Kuja Kuja.

It’s also shifting the American Refugee Committee’s focus from donors to the people it exists to serve. “I’ve been involved in this work for 20 years, and I think what I’ve seen . . . is that as a group in the humanitarian field, we’ve lost our soul in a relentless drive for financial growth and influence,” says Daniel Wordsworth, president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee. The focus on donors comes out of good intentions, he says; organizations doing good work want funding to do more of that work. But it means that the customer satisfaction of refugees hasn’t been the priority.

The American Refugee Committee, which works in 14 countries at 55 different sites, including refugee camps and settlements for displaced people, operates hospitals and other medical facilities, provides services like shelter, sanitation, and education, and handles camp management. The organization began working to improve its services for refugees in 2011, and in 2016–as the world watched a record number of asylum seekers board flimsy boats and head for Europe looking for alternatives to traditional refugee camps–Wordsworth realized that the nonprofit needed to make a more radical shift to customer service, and began working with Ideo.org to develop Kuja Kuja.

An early version of the service was more analytical and data-driven, but it evolved into a brand that felt playful and optimistic–using a smiley face, for example, rather than just asking how satisfied someone was. The customer service team wears shirts emblazoned with Kuja Kuja’s friendly logo (the name means “come, come,” something that designers initially heard when refugees invited them into their homes to talk). The system was designed to create an emotional connection, not simply gather data.

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As refugees swipe to show their level of satisfaction, that data goes to the American Refugee Committee in real time, and also goes to a public website, because the organization wanted to be fully transparent about its performance. The Kuja Kuja team brings suggestions from refugees back to a service team, who can then begin to make changes. Because the data is also available across the whole organization, if staff working at a refugee settlement in one location sees that another camp is struggling with a problem they’ve already solved, they can make suggestions for solutions to test.

In one case, the community was unhappy about the hours that they were able to access water. In Nakivale, water is pumped from a lake to fill tanks, treated, and then sent to water points across the camp that are opened for a limited amount of time. Based on the feedback, engineers were able to make water available for an extra hour. One mother told them that having water earlier in the morning meant that she was now able to make porridge for her children before they left for school, so they didn’t go to school hungry.

In another case, refugees were unhappy about long wait times at a health clinic, and the nurses were able to rework their schedules and introduce a new ticketing system that made it possible to see patients more quickly. Wait times have dropped from two or three hours down to about 25 or 30 minutes. At a pharmacy, the camp staff learned from feedback that lines were long simply because the pharmacist liked to talk; after a conversation, those wait times also improved. Some changes also happen quickly. When refugees gave feedback that a water point needed shade, staff went to get umbrellas.

Though refugee camps have limited resources–and a typical assumption might be that services can’t easily improve because of that lack of resources–the team found that was not actually the case. “What we discovered was that we can typically get a 20% improvement in customer satisfaction over a three-month period with no additional budget and no additional training,” says Wordsworth. “It surprised us the degree to which–with what we had and the teams we had–the kind of improvements that we could rapidly make to make refugees’ lives substantially better.” When simple improvements reach a plateau, the organization can look for more funding to accomplish more.

The system continues to evolve. The team, which is still working with designers from Ideo.org, is now testing a self-swipe tablet to get feedback from more people than a Kuja Kuja staff member can get on their own. (Where this is being tested, the system uses both the tablet and a person with a separate tablet.)

It’s also quickly scaling. This year, the American Refugee Committee expanded the service from Uganda to Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan, and hopes to move into Pakistan in a couple of months. This year, it’s on track to collect more than a million responses from refugees. Within a year and a half, it expects to use the system in all of the countries it serves.

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“If you’re thinking of a refugee as your customer, it just makes sense then that they get to tell you if what you’re doing is good or not,” says Wordsworth. “I think our whole industry overcomplicates this stuff. In the end, we just ask them, did you like it or not? Then, by making it transparent, we hope that it will bring about change. And it has brought about great change.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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