Meet the Innovators: Monica Berti, Youth Empowerment and Development Aid


Categories: Community, Innovation

Meet the Innovators: This series highlights Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators. Throughout this series you’ll get to meet the people behind the bold innovations, as well as hear about their experience working with our community. 


Connecting Internally Displaced Persons with Humanitarian Organizations 

Monica Berti is a Programme Manager for Youth Empowerment and Development Aid (YEDA), a national NGO in South Sudan. YEDA’s work primarily involves provision of humanitarian assistance, especially shelter, water and hygiene services, and peace-building among others. For their most recent project they wanted to focus on data collection as part of a broader strategy, aiming to shift from emergency to recovery and development approach, by targeting the main needs of the population in an optic of building resilience to shocks.

“We saw that there’s always issues when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance that targets the real needs of the population,” explains Monica, “especially in countries where it’s difficult to access certain areas or obtain updated information. Many times we have found ourselves in an area that was not prioritized but where there is still a need. Maybe that’s because that area wasn’t accessible when the prioritization was done, but even though we know something happened and we have to go in and do something, we don’t have any trusted data. All of this can cause issues afterwards where either a blanket solution is provided that doesn’t really meet the individual needs, or what is provided isn’t really necessary and that leads to other complications.”

Monica cites examples such as when the needs of a population go beyond the packages provided by humanitarian clusters. “Due to resource constraints, lack of access to markets and housing, land and property issues, the need to build transitional shelters is often overlooked, and instead they are provided with plastic sheets, which have a lifespan of 12 months.”

This can result in the items being sold in order to provide money for food or hygiene items. “People would sacrifice sleeping under a roof for these things,” says Berti, “but this can be avoided if a shelter is built.” Similarly, when non-food items are provided to populations where the main need is food, people will, Berti says, “either sell the items or move to another area where they know there is food distribution, which undermines the whole projects if it includes construction of shelters or community assets like boreholes, latrines, schools, roads, etc.”

Some of these issues are often solved using approaches such as multi-purpose vouchers (i.e. combining food and non-food items) or multi-cluster interventions. However, this is not often possible, and the fragmented nature of the response often leads to fragmented data collection, due to resources and time constraints organizations collect data only related to their sector, which does not allow the proper response to be provided.


Photo Credit: Youth Empowerment and Development Aid


Creating a network of data collectors 

To solve this problem Monica and the team from YEDA looked at the potential of training groups of data collectors in these locations and providing them with equipment such as cell phones and FM radios, as well as the portable solar panels needed to charge them, in order to to create a network that could collect ‘real time’ information from the population.

In order to do this they formed local ‘Village Representation Committees’, containing representatives of various demographic groups and then training them in the use of mobile tools for data collection. These representatives then go into the field weekly and collect information from the local population about their needs, their movements and relevant events in the area.

“If we hear from an area there is something new, such as a natural disaster,” says Monica, “then instead of just relying on information that the local authorities provide and waiting for humanitarian partners to go in and collect data, we have these people that can reach a community because they have their own way of communicating and they can use the mobile phones to interpret the data and send it back.”

With the help of the Humanitarian Grand Challenge and a consultant from the World Food Programme the team performed valuable user research allowing them to adjust the tools for the end users, both the local population and the humanitarian partners who would use the data collected, to ensure it was as easy to use and as useful as it could be.

“Right now we have our prototype for the questionnaire and we have trained people on the Village Representation Committees to collect data,” Monica says. “The next stage will be presenting the data that we have collected to humanitarian partners through different forums at a national level and see if there is anything that can be improved, if what we’re bringing to the table is useful, if they would change anything, if they can suggest anything, if they would use this in the future.”


Addressing the motivation challenge

As Monica explains, the challenge the team has now is not a technical or logistical one, but a very human one: how to keep people motivated. “The response from the people using the tools in the field has been quite positive. It’s quite user friendly for them and they’re able to move back and forth and to collect the information we need. But we’re still at the very initial stages, so the challenge for us now is to keep the motivation high, and to keep doing quality work.”

“There’s a perception that we are not providing concrete help, we’re not going in with eye tests! We are going in to collect information… But then what?! When we have used this method of collecting data through a committee before, it was normally a one-time job for which participants were compensated with a facilitation fee, and the work was directly related to a response they would receive almost immediately. This time we’re just expecting from them something from them, and while we can show the importance of it to local authorities and local leaders, when it comes to the population who have needs today, their response is ‘You are not responding to my needs, why am I continuing to help you if I don’t see any immediate results?’ So the challenge is to keep them engaged throughout and finding ways of keeping the quality of data high, because when people lose motivation then quality can drop.”

To help them with this challenge, Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge has been able to connect the YEDA team with supported innovator Humanitarian OpenStreetMap who are expanding to South Sudan and could provide technical support to the YEDA project. “We wanted to speak to them because this is not our usual work and we wanted to find out more about how they go into remote areas for data collection and using community members to do that. Right now we’re talking to them to find the best approach in terms of partnership and collaboration”. 


Photo Credit: Youth Empowerment and Development Aid


The many different kinds of Humanitarian Grand Challenge support

Awardees of all calls for innovations under the Humanitarian Grand Challenge are eligible for a host of benefits in addition to financial funding, including, investor, and partner networking events, solution development acceleration support, mentorship opportunities, and partnership brokering support. This support is provided in partnership with Brink and the World Food Programme’s Innovation Accelerator.

“We’re about to do another session with the consultant from the World Food Programme,” Berti says, “to brainstorm our strategy for the next three year and think about where to go next. If we want to scale or if we want to replicate.”

Beyond that strategic support the Humanitarian Grand Challenge has also provided Monica and her colleague with a valuable network of like minded innovators that she has been able to learn from in a much broader sense.


“Connecting and understanding how other people are working is so valuable, especially now that we are all ‘smart working’ and we have to consider our own wellbeing. It’s so helpful, both at the project level but also for the work we do on a daily basis.”


“The networking sessions we’ve had have been really interesting, “ Monica explains. “For example, recently we were talking about cross cutting teams for people that do similar projects, both at that level of project implementation and at the level of us as individuals working in the humanitarian field. Connecting and understanding how other people are working is so valuable, especially now that we are all ‘smart working’ and we have to consider our own wellbeing. It’s so helpful, both at the project level but also for the work we do on a daily basis.”