This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Earlier this year, on a sunny but rather blustery spring day, I found myself drinking tea while sitting on the floor of a tent in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Across from me was my host, Fatima. Nineteen years old and a married mother of two, Fatima has been in Lebanon for seven years. At the age of twelve, she fled the violence of her homeland, Syria, where her family was killed. In Lebanon, she resides in a refugee community with about 25 other families, living in a vinyl tent meant to be temporary.
Many of her fellow Syrian refugees reside in similar “informal” settlements here—rural, hard-to-reach areas that have no official boundaries or addresses. My visit with Fatima was one stop of many over a three-day trip to Lebanon with Medair, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization I advise. According to Medair there are some 3,600 such settlements in the Bekaa Valley alone. Medair is in Lebanon as part of its mission is to provide humanitarian aid in some of the most conflict- and disaster-ridden places in the world. My firm, Bain & Company, as part of its $1 billion commitment to social impact work, has advised Medair’s Swiss headquarters staff on fund-raising, leadership and organization.
Over those three days in Lebanon, I met dozens of people, speaking with some, like Fatima, about their story; playing games with the children; at one stop helping families, usually women and young children, carry settlement kits to the spots where they would build their own tents. Sitting with Fatima, I couldn’t help but think of my eldest daughter, who is the very same age and had just finished her first year of university. How different their lives have been.
There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The UN estimates 12 million Syrians are displaced due to violence, of which over 5 million have left the country, seeking shelter and safety. Multiply Fatima’s story by a big number and you begin to grasp the scale of the tragedy. Yet for all the heartbreak that you feel visiting people living in such difficult conditions, there’s also remarkable optimism and hope there. You see it in the eyes of the children playing games together, and in the remarkable work of the Lebanese relief workers who have devoted themselves to helping their Syrian neighbors despite a difficult history between the two nations.
Informal settlements pose a challenge for the humanitarian agencies working in Lebanon. Until recently, there had been no good system for finding the people who need their help or for coordinating relief work. Agencies have been left to collect refugee data manually, using pen and paper, an uphill battle that has often resulted in information that was difficult to distribute, mislabeled settlements, duplicate information that easily went unnoticed, and other problems.
Through Bain’s work with Medair, we’ve seen the high priority that CEO David Verboom puts on innovation. Sitting in Switzerland, but with more than 20 years “field” experience across the globe, Verboom encourages and facilitates a culture of innovation that starts from the moment Medair employees meet with refugees and people in need in the field.
This front-line focus facilitated a response that allows workers to deliver aid much more efficiently to refugees in Lebanon. It started a few years ago, when Reine Hanna, a Lebanese national with a degree in computer science, joined the Medair team.
Hanna and her team created a geographic information system (GIS), a project that identifies settlement locations in a way that can be updated in real time. That location data is then used in conjunction with a system for coordinating on-the-ground assistance across various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). With better information about the location of each person, aid groups can better identify and address refugees’ needs, and even incorporate outside data on factors like weather and flooding patterns that can improve their overall response.
You can see more about the team’s approach and its impact on Syrian refuges in this video, but today tens of thousands of people receive the help they need because of Hanna and her team’s work. With Verboom’s encouragement, Medair is now exporting these innovations to other hot spots around the world.
I see three lessons for the business world in Medair’s Lebanon story:
- The power of tapping into front-line innovation
- The impact of sophisticated data analytics
- The critical role of people-to-people connections
These ideas didn’t originate with Verboom’s team in corporate headquarters. They emerged from on-the-ground experience and insight from the field, nurtured with the right balance of autonomy and support from senior management. It also demonstrates the power of smart data analytics. In today’s world, if you don’t leverage big data and advanced analytics to support your organization’s objectives, you’re likely missing big opportunities.
Ultimately, though, this is a story about people. It’s the story of Fatima and her children, and thousands of others like them. In business terms, she is the underserved customer. It’s also the story of Hanna. Without her energy, passion, and technical skills, this solution wouldn’t have come about.
This leaves me thinking about two worthwhile questions for executives in other organizations: Do you know who your Hannas are? And, are you providing the right conditions for them to innovate?