UNRWA: Technology transformation to drive refugees’ opportunities

UNRWA: Technology transformation to drive refugees’ opportunities

Kaan Cetinturk, CIO and Director of Information Management and Technology at UNRWA, discusses how technology is driving relief efforts for Palestinian r...

The plight of Palestine refugees represents one of the most enduring human tragedies of the modern world, such that the mere mention of the region’s name now evokes imagery of wars, refugee camps, dead-end peace negotiations and young Palestinians who long to get the same opportunities as their peers elsewhere. While the geopolitical complexities of the situation limit a full resolution of the conflict to the future, incredible work is being done to support refugees in the region through education, healthcare and job creation. Humanitarian aid for displaced Palestinians across Gaza, Jordan, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Lebanon and Syria is conducted primarily by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which currently provides vital services to over 5.6 million people registered with the organisation.

Founded by the UN General Assembly in 1949, UNRWA has delivered primary and vocational education, primary health, relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvements, microfinance, and emergency response in situations including armed conflict since it began operations on 1 May 1950. Over the past 70 years, the organisation has come to operate 709 elementary prep schools and nine secondary schools (together educating 540,000 young refugees alongside technical and vocational training for a further 8,000), and 144 health centres offering comprehensive primary care. In 2019, UNRWA’s provided health services to 3.5 million refugees through 8.5 million combined patient visits over the course of the year. 

Kaan Cetinturk, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Director of Information Management and Technology at UNRWA, began his career with the UN in 2005 as a Business Process Manager for the World Health Organisation (WHO), progressing through roles in Geneva and Kuala Lumpur before joining UNRWA in December 2018. In his current role, Cetinturk is the principal advisor to the agency’s management committee with regards to information management and technology, strategic architectural governance policy and operational methods; thereby orchestrating the technological offering for refugees and the continuous development of those platforms. 

“UNRWA is considered to be a huge UN agency with 30,000 staff members served by the IT department over five field offices,” Cetinturk explains. “That means we need an IT infrastructure that matches our operations, making sure that we are connected at all times. We are working together with an experienced long-standing provider of reliable satellite communication solutions enabling us to function in unpredictable conditions and even during emergency such as with power cuts and unstable terrestrial connectivity, all while keeping our data safe and protected. It is vital for us to use satellite connectivity in addition to terrestrial connectivity to mitigate business continuity risks and to ensure voice and video communications with our field offices independent of local infrastructure.” He adds that, despite its differences from for-profit organisations, UNRWA’s digital transformation strives for the same goals: to remain ahead of the curve, to be secure, to provide solutions for end-users, to develop cutting-edge applications, and to move to paperless operations. 

When he joined the organisation, Cetinturk inherited a challenging digital environment. “UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states,” he says. “Due to a very difficult financial situation we experienced over the last few years, the digital environment was obsolete. In order to drive digital transformation we had to find sources of funding, and so when I joined we turned every stone for cost efficiency.” Having spurred bigger coffers through this approach, Cetinturk and his team then turned to the six core strategies they sought to implement. “First was to drive engagement and value across our programmes and departments, second to improve the strength of our cybersecurity, third to drive process efficiency, fourth to boost cost-effectiveness, fifth to build staff capacity, and sixth to align technology and innovation.”

To facilitate these goals, the team was restructured into “a flatter structure” to enable greater agility and efficiency. “In this restructuring, we established individual offices under the CIO for information security, project management and enterprise architecture, along with dedicated teams for DevOps and business engagement,” elaborates Cetinturk. “Our business engagement team works to maximise the value we deliver to UNRWA departments and programmes by understanding their work and bringing innovation to the table. We have also significantly improved the way our headquarters, field information management and technology offices work together towards the same objective. That alignment has been absolutely essential for our digital strategy.”

The nature of the organisation, Cetinturk says, means that it does not have the luxury of sequential strategies with the aim of serving each goal in time. Instead, programmes are strategically aligned across all six objectives to serve them each in parallel. “These programmes include many cybersecurity initiatives, implementation of an agency-wide service management platform, a document management system for digitalisation of our paper records, adoption of business intelligence technologies for transparency and better decision-making, and modernisation of our infrastructure,” he says. “Along with this, we have finalised the agency cloud strategy.”

UNRWA’s operations and services have all benefited exponentially from these comprehensive strategies, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by its healthcare and education platforms and the ways they have both aided millions of refugees. E-health, its proprietary healthcare management system, is connected to the organisation’s ERP platform and is thereby augmented with the medical data of all registered refugees. “Before the implementation of e-health, UNRWA’s health centres were very crowded with patients who had to wait a long time to receive the services they need,” recalls Cetinturk. “Contact time with doctors was also relatively short because of the crowdedness.” 

A major factor causing these bottlenecks was the lack of digital infrastructure, leaving healthcare providers to use paper-based records whose receipt was delayed by the inherent slowness of inter-office transfers. “It was also very tedious to extract reports about any of the functions in the health centres, including statistics about services delivered and the consumption of medicines, medical supplies and other required resources. Upon the introduction of e-health, there has been serious improvement.” 

By conducting ongoing assessments of the system to ensure its value is maximised, some exciting statistical examples of e-health’s impact have been drawn out. “The daily medical consultations for doctors were reduced from 104 to 86 a day, the time needed to collect medication was reduced to three minutes, and the antibiotics prescription rate was decreased from an average of 27% to 24.7%,” says Cetinturk. Along with these improvements to patient care and operational efficiency, e-health also provides a remote dashboard detailing health centre status, daily operations and healthcare provided to patients, delivering a daily stream of comprehensive reports and statistics. 

While figures such as these can mask the real-world approval of such systems, UNRWA’s healthcare providers have been overwhelmingly positive in their feedback. “89% of physicians surveyed expressed satisfaction with the new e-health system, particularly in terms of time saved and how it allows them to provide more and better attention to patients, and they believe it manages the crowds in a timely and fair way.”

In addition to the impact made at healthcare sites, e-health provides additional services through its integrated mobile applications such as e-MCH (maternal and child health) and e-NCD (non-communicable diseases). E-MCH, Cetinturk explains, offers an Arabic language interface to enable mothers to access the electronic health records of both themselves and their children, push notifications for appointments and reminders based on either the stage of pregnancy or the ages of a mother’s children, along with health education content.

Education forms a considerable component of UNRWA’s services, and its education management system offers similar benefits for students and staff across the organisation and the people it serves. As a result of its deployment, enrolment, registration, attendance, transfers, and achievements are all handled via the app, streamlining the administrative processes whilst democratising the services’ availability. In addition, students can access their unique reports, student identification details and achievement certificates through the app. 

These efforts support one of UNRWA’s most ambitious projects: a Gaza-based IT centre that has entered operations and seeks to capitalise on the wealth of digital literacy among young Gazans. “The near-13 years of blockade has taken a huge toll on the economy and on the prospects for young people to achieve their dreams,” says Cetinturk. “Their travel is tightly restricted, business is difficult, the politics are very complicated, and the borders are nearly sealed. So what can a 20-year-old IT professional do under these circumstances? The economy’s devastation has resulted in impoverishment and retrogression of a highly skilled and well-educated society. In 2018, the average unemployment rate was over 50%, one of the highest according to the World Bank, and the number of Palestine refugees relying on UNRWA for food aid has increased from fewer than 80,000 in 2000 to almost one million in 2019. With this in mind, Gaza should be turned into an opportunity.”

UNRWA has thus established an IT centre in Gaza to deliver offshore IT services. Employing young Gazans, the centre leverages the global connectivity of the internet to provide service desk, application development and business management services for enterprises around the world. “I encourage businesses worldwide to explore ways to connect with young Gazans and see how much space there is to support young people in launching and managing businesses online. The centre is fully functional and has already delivered an agency-wide in-house development information system,” enthuses Cetinturk. “My next mission, from this point onward, is to make the IT service centre known to other UN agencies so they can make use of it. We’re now in discussions with other agencies to use it as their application development competency centre.” 

In the age of digital transformation, it is deeply encouraging to find such humanitarian efforts being delivered through technology by passionate and driven teams such as that headed by Cetinturk, and indeed across UNRWA as a whole. For those who would like to get involved, Cetinturk is enthusiastic for their prospects. “I would like to emphasise that any company that would like to partner with us to drive our digital transformation should contact me. It can start as part of their social responsibility initiatives, but we are keen and able to quickly develop partnerships that benefit both parties.”