Disrupting the UN system - UNFPA's new vision on youth innovation

Fellows and victoria 1

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has embraced innovation to engage youth and to respond better and quicker towards the most pressing issues we face. What does this mean in reality for how UNFPA operates? How can staff introduce innovation in their daily work? How do the organization go from an idea to implementation? Learn about UNFPA Young Innovators Fellowship Programme and other great outcomes of this new vision that has disrupted the way the agency work.

– Today, there are 1.8 billion young people in the world – more than ever before. Promoting innovation will also be key to reaching young people and empowering them to become future change-makers”, UNFPA declares in their Innovation Vision.

In this article you will read how UNFPA are working to transform this vision to offer new solutions to both emerging and persistent challenges.

UNFPA Innovation Fund

In 2014 UNFPA announced “Promoting Innovation and Creativity” as a corporate priority, and in September 2014 launched the UNFPA Innovation Fund, establishing a two-streamed approach to funding innovative projects and promoting a culture of innovation.

The Innovation Fund is a dedicated function that calls for staff to propose new, pioneering initiatives either at HQ, regional or country offices. Projects go through a screening and voting process which the whole organisation can participate in, and ideas with the most support are taken forward and seed-funded. To qualify, these initiatives must be new ideas and not merely extensions of pre-existing programmes, which ensures that UNFPA is continually evolving and improving its programmes and operations.

To further drive innovation, UNFPA is shifting from a focus on funding specific innovation projects to an overall strategy to infuse innovation within their programmes and operations. The Agency hopes that this strategy will provide the necessary resources for even deeper creative thinking and experimentation. To help achieve this, UNFPA has embedded regional Innovation Focal Points who work directly with their programmes to foster innovation in their Country Offices. This includes running “Innovation Days” using a toolkit based on design thinking and creative problem solving principles, to help address country challenges in a non-traditional way.  UNFPA is also piloting an accelerator programme in our Eastern and Southern Africa Region, a mentor driven programme providing seed funding, which allows young people to develop innovative solutions to sexual and reproductive health challenges.

3 examples of successful projects so far

We at UNjobfinder would also like to highlight the UNFPA Young Innovators Fellowship Programme recently launched via the Innovation Fund. This is an amazing programme for young professionals to use their creativity and skills to be part of the innovation process at UNFPA.


UNFPA Young Innovators Fellowship Programme

Earlier this year UNjobfinder took part in the launch of UNFPA Young Innovators Fellowship Programme - a unique initiative with the intention to actively promote youth engagement and participation, as well as to foster innovation within UNFPA. The interest from junior professionals from all over the world was huge and UNFPA received thousands of applications. In the article we wrote to promote and describe the program our Director Talent Acquisition wrote:

UNFPA is the first UN organisation to show that youth innovation, engagement and participation is more than just talk, the launch of the Young Innovators Fellowship will be of benefit for the whole UN system”.

While UNFPA has a sought after internship programme, with a strong focus on development, interns are currently unpaid; therefore many do not have the means to work with the Agency. The Fellowship Programme was designed to help fulfil a key part of UNFPA’s mandate, to ensure every young person's potential is fulfilled.

The program is mutually beneficial; by giving exceptional young people from socially and economically marginalized backgrounds the opportunity to gain international experience and expand their skillsets, they in turn inject new perspectives and creativity into UNFPA.

– The fellows are encouraged to disrupt our ways of working and infuse the organization with innovative new solutions and perspectives. Fellows develop their leadership and innovation skills which empowers them to realize their career goals and ultimately effect greater social change in their home countries, says a UNFPA spokesperson.

One of the current fellows of the Programme, Jing-Sui Wang, is based in UNFPA Headquarters in New York for the duration of the year-long programme and is now working on an Innovation Curriculum to further embed innovation throughout UNFPA. She explains, “UNFPA champions a two-pronged approach to innovation: testing innovation projects globally, and promoting a culture of innovation internally”.

In order to continue fostering internal innovation, this curriculum will span approximately 9 months and comprise of several stages of understanding, motivation, and implementing innovation in the workplace. Innovation promotes innovation and this synergy ensures that both the fellows and the organization will maximize return on this partnership.


Many organisations have programmes for young professionals, the Junior Professional Officer positions with UN organisations, the Young Professional Programme at the UN secretariat. How is this UNFPA programme different and innovative?

– The structure of the Young Innovators Fellowship programme is part of what makes it so unique. The focus of the programme is on driving Innovation throughout UNFPA, whilst providing fellows with tools and techniques that they can then take back and apply to their regions, therefore building national capacity. Whilst other programmes may bring together young people globally and provide them with leadership training, UNFPA takes a holistic approach to the development aspect of the programme - empowerment is at the core of the curriculum, UNFPA says.


Fellows gets personal development programme to become good leaders

One of the most transformative aspects of the programme is the bespoke Leadership curriculum crafted by UNFPA’s youth and leadership development partner “Leadership for New Emergence”. Rather than didactic instruction, the programme comprises of a range of activities aimed to encourage introspection and self-reflection, which takes shape in the form of interactive workshops, seminars and even watching seminal movies. The programme’s philosophy is that in order to affect change on a global scale, the individual must first understand who they are, what drives them and shapes their value systems. The curriculum was designed primarily to equip fellows with the tools to reflect on a personal level and translate this new-found self-knowledge into the workplace to optimize innovation, productivity and the ability to be a good leader.

UNFPA has focused on developing two profiles, a management profile to drive innovation from an operations perspective, and a technical profile for field-based roles. The programme blends knowledge from many industries and disciplines and gives fellows a space in which to actively implement and experiment with these ideas. The first three months of the programme sees fellows working at UNFPA HQ and undergoing leadership development and innovation training, from seminars and workshops to project development and cross industry off-site visits.

The programme is also unique in that it fosters a symbiotic relationship between the fellows and the organization. It is not simply a one way teaching process, as fellows are encouraged to challenge and disrupt the organization to optimize growth on both sides. In order to maximize the value of this experience, the fellows take an active role in shaping their programme experience towards their specific areas of interest. By being able to follow their passions and refine their skillset, the fellows also enhance the benefits UNFPA gains from the presence of such a diverse and talented group of young people.


Mentorship programme with leading private sector innovators

UNFPA aims to provide the fellows with holistic learning, development and experience. To achieve this UNFPA is collaborating with the private sector via a mentorship programme, which pairs fellows with private sector mentors who are leading innovators in their field, ranging from Google to LinkedIn to the innovators in the fashion and technology industry. This exciting opportunity provides the fellows with valuable guidance and exposure to other career fields while equipping them with transferrable skills. All of these components of the programme work together to drive innovation, which is central to the programme’s goals.  


UNFPA’s Young innovators are making a global impact!

Although early in the programme, the fellows are already making an impact on the global stage. Erika Yague, recently spoke at the UN Women’s Conference on Youth & Gender Equality at the UN Secretariat, discussing her role as the youngest person and only woman on the Youth Council of the Philippines’ government. Erika’s speech highlighted the importance of empowering young women and giving them a voice at all levels. Her journey from grassroots work in communities in the Philippines, to addressing a prestigious international forum is exactly why the programme was launched.


How many fellows are now going through the programme and what will happen once they have completed it?

There are currently eight fellows, all from diverse backgrounds and bringing unique experiences and achievements to the programme. The fellows come from Swaziland, Egypt, Syria, Uganda, the Philippines, China, Turkey and Palestine. Each fellow has been actively involved in their communities in the fields of sexual reproductive health, gender based violence and youth empowerment issues.

A valuable aspect of the fellowship programme is the bringing together of impressive young people with vastly different backgrounds and skillsets, but with the shared dedication to UNFPA’s mandate. Each fellow boasts a unique set of skills; Esther uses technology to develop apps and digital solutions to sexual reproductive health issues in Uganda while alternatively, Rand from Palestine founded ‘Randistic’, an artistic social media platform which showcases her passion for activism through using the tool of make-up to raise awareness. Through creating this melting pot of different cultures and talents, fellows are able to learn from one another, gain inter-cultural experience and improve their understanding of the global landscape.

Once the fellows complete their three months in HQ, six of them will go into the field to their respective regional offices for a nine month period. This way the fellows will return to their regions equipped with innovative ideas and an ability to apply the skills they have acquired here. The aim is to aid building in-country capacity and knowledge sharing through these communities. The remaining two fellows will stay at HQ and work to develop innovation projects to improve UNFPA’s effectiveness in achieving our mandate.


Fellows becomes ambassadors

Once the fellowship is completed UNFPA’s alumni will return to their home countries as ambassadors for UNFPA and continue working towards fulfilling our mandate in their own way. This is another important differentiating aspect of the programme.  The idea is not simply to build a pipeline of talent for UNFPA, but rather to support the fellows in achieving their own goals as relates to UNFPAs mandate in a way that is meaningful to them. The focus on building of an international and national network is key to ensuring that we meet this objective.  Fellows will become alumni of the Programme and contribute to the next generation of youth leaders.

UNFPA is optimistic that the Young Innovators Fellowship programme will inspire other UN organisations to adopt a similar inclusive model to further embed innovation in the UN, and most importantly enable every young person to realise their potential.


Read more about careers and find all vacancies at UNFPA here