Reflections on 3 Years

The Airbel Impact Lab
Sep 3 · 9 min read

The Airbel Center was born from the belief at the International Rescue Committee that we can create a more effective and efficient humanitarian sector. We believe that addressing the evolving and growing nature of this crisis requires not just more aid, but also new thinking.

For the past three years, Airbel has been working to catalyze a humanitarian sphere that can provide urgent care to those who need it most, while also supporting and empowering people affected by crises, and meeting both their needs and desires.

Our vision is of a sector that empowers clients as much as service providers, where decisions are made based on data and research, and behavior change efforts support people to understand their options and take action to improve their lives.

Airbel unites the knowledge and experience of frontline humanitarians with new ideas from outside the aid sector. Over the last three years, we’ve worked closely with communities to design and test products, services, and systems in Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Niger, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States. In those three years, we have also:

  • Generated 60 potential solutions in areas like financing for humanitarian work, education, intimate partner violence, health, and nutrition.
  • Of these, we’ve prototyped 15 and tested 10.
  • We’re currently conducting rigorous evaluations of 3, while planning for randomized control trials for at least 2 others in the near future.
  • And we’ve begun to think about scale for all of our work

In so doing, this is what we’ve learned.

1. Innovation requires unrelenting velocity and profound patience

Our first generation of products — working to simplify malnutrition treatment protocols and preventing intimate partner violence — were driven by a sense of urgency. The scale of need and potential for these projects was clear, encouraging us to move quickly toward potential new solutions which could revolutionize humanitarian efforts. These projects are now generating the first set of experimental results to assess impact and determine whether and how to scale.

Faith leaders receive a physical Becoming One guide and a tablet with videos, such as this one, on how to conduct sessions and real life scenarios.

While we continue to evolve and implement rapidly, we also must wait for rigorous and accurate results to guide our actions. Studies indicate that simplified tools enable low-literate community health workers to follow protocols with high accuracy, with rates of child recovery meeting standards, and a potential improvement in access through earlier identification and timelier treatment compared to that achieved through a health facility. Further investigation is necessary to understand the most effective and efficient supervisory and supply chain mechanisms to operationalize this treatment model at scale and quantify its impact on access and coverage. In Uganda and Liberia, projects to prevent intimate partner violence are also showing positive results.

2. Innovation requires meaningfully integrating interdisciplinary skills

Integrating interdisciplinary skills requires carefully understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different skillsets and thoughtfully choreographing them over the arc of projects. While design is brilliant at turning ideas into reality, quickly prototyping them, and iterating upon them, strategy is a good complement for breaking down big fuzzy problems, prioritizing their constituent components, and modeling how major changes to program and product design shape the ability to create sustainable solutions at scale. And behavioral science is excellent at understanding individual motivation, collective behavior, and social norms — elements of context that we cannot ignore.

We have worked hard to identify a cadence that works. We begin our projects with strategists breaking down problems, behavioral scientists understanding individual behaviors, and designers creating new products and prototypes. We continuously iterate, drawing on these skills to then test, pilot, and scale our innovations.

3. It’s critical to change both behaviors and systems

Over the past three years, we’ve sought to catalyze change at two distinct levels using different sets of tools and approaches. On one level, we’ve employed human-centered design and behavioral science techniques to encourage behavior change — inspiring and encouraging the uptake of new behaviors by teachers, caregivers, and couples.

In Sprout, trusted mobilizers were trained to work with community members promoting positive practices that could reduce the risk of severe acute malnutrition. Initial results were positive: participants in Sprout fared markedly better than their non-participant neighbors across the indicators we studied: nutrition status, food consumption, food diversity, and knowledge of the five key times for hand washing.

A quote from one caregiver participant in Sprout

On another level, we’ve aimed to rewire systems that are inefficient and ineffective, unable to meet the growing needs, or to effectively complete their basic functions. In 2019, the IRC set out to radically shift the way in which resettlement work is done around the globe. Our vision is to harness private capital, data, and volunteers to change the calculus for host countries in determining whether to resettle refugees. The aim is to enable many more refugees to start a new life in a welcoming country.

4. Undisciplined capital creates discipline

The IRC, like many peer organizations, is a grants-based organization that consistently pitches new ideas for donors. This can generate incentives to develop a broad portfolio that caters to diverse donors interest, rather than on the greatest need or potential for impact. Additionally, grants have specific implementation and reporting requirements, which are time-consuming and often restrictive on how projects are implemented, not leaving a lot of room for iteration or learning.

Knowing this to be a challenge facing the sector, we launched an IRC Innovation Fund capitalized by flexible funding to invest in innovation projects. This flexible capital puts the onus of discipline directly on us and better aligns our incentives: we want to make sure we are using our limited flexible capital to achieve the greatest impact, remaining laser-focused on tightly-scoped work with the flexibility to learn throughout. This has taught us that undisciplined capital actually creates the type of internal discipline that brings even more rigor to our work.

Projects receiving a boost from the Innovation Fund right now include our efforts to create fortified bouillon cubes that introduce micronutrients into food for children at risk of malnutrition and to make pharmaceutical supply chains in Jordan more efficient to reduce the cost of medicine for people with chronic illness.

Medicine Bank, a solution from the Mahali Lab, to make pharmaceutical supply chains in Jordan more efficient.

5. Scale is fundamentally difficult in humanitarian settings

Scale is an important north star that can guide us in our work. But two of the most common pathways to scale — government policy and market mechanisms — are often limited in humanitarian contexts. Sometimes, overburdened governments struggle to scale policies or programs. They may not want to use scarce resources to pay for refugees who are citizens of another country. And markets are dysfunctional or absent in many countries in crisis, leaving individuals unable to pay for products or services. This makes it hard to create viable business models.

We work constantly to focus our attention on the greatest needs to avoid the potential pitfall of re-focusing attention away from weak states where individuals have little market power to more stable middle-income countries where solutions may be easier to scale. One lesson we’ve learned is that building upon existing platforms may be the most scalable way of delivering our solutions. In the Middle East, for example, we are prototyping new ways of delivering educational content through mobile phone networks. Moving forward, we’ll continue to think creatively about how to deliver at scale.

6. Delivering services in the toughest locations requires right-sized technology

Our most successful technology either simplifies processes or builds on existing platforms — but all of it puts people’s needs and desires first. Currently, we’re using an algorithm to help identify where refugees will thrive. Studies showed that this approach could lead to gains in refugee employment outcomes of around 40–70% on average.

Technology can also be powerful when building upon existing platforms. For example, in Liberia, Modern Man used social clubs and SMS messaging to engage men in changing behaviors around masculinity. These SMS challenges encouraged behavior change through a forum which was familiar and already ingrained in people’s lives. We’re now looking into how technology can support children to learn independently in crisis settings. These approaches must unify software, hardware, and the human touch. Without this holistic approach, and these three key components intentionally supporting each other, it is likely that programs won’t reach the intended impact or full potential.

7. Where we sit impacts what ideas we source and the solutions we create

Who you are, where you’re from, your experiences, and your access to opportunities have major repercussions on how you understand problems and what opportunities you can seize to develop solutions. Working at global and local levels each have key advantages. Setting up regional hubs has helped us to bridge the gaps in each approach, and to magnify the advantages.

We found that work coming from IRC’s headquarters was better able to link into global efforts and build connections with global actors. However, from this vantage point, it can be difficult to understand the nuances of local problems. Human-centered design can be a powerful tool to help mitigate these challenges.

Our early childhood development portfolio includes Ahlan Simsim (formerly Sesame Seeds), a collaborative effort with the Sesame Workshop, which won the MacArthur 100 and Change 100 million dollar grant. We work with Vroom to integrate human-centered design and behavioral insights into these global efforts.

On the other hand, working to understand challenges and thinking through solutions locally has been a game-changing approach. The Mahali Lab was one of the flagship projects from the IRC’s Middle East Research and Development hub. The Mahali Lab sought to work with communities affected by crisis in the Middle East to better understand the problems they faced. We found that they were effective in identifying potential opportunities, but creating effective and scalable products or services has proven more challenging as the projects are highly localized and context-specific. A key lesson learned has been the importance of thinking about scale from the very beginning of any project to ensure it both solve local problems but also have broader applications.

As we move forward, we will need to better harness local collaboration while leveraging global networks and systems to scale. The IRC’s Middle East R&D hub was a first effort to bridge the local and international spheres. Currently, we’re working to set up a second hub in Tanzania.

8. Champions and first adopters can take many forms

We know that champions and first adopters can be key to breaking through, introducing new products, projects, ideas, and solutions. But sometimes, the right champion can be found in unexpected places. We knew we wanted to help reduce intimate partner violence in post-conflict settings. By working with pastors, we were able to work with trusted and important leaders in the community, and to make sure that our messages hit home.

When working on financial solutions to fund refugee response quickly and equitably, we’ve worked closely with DFID’s Center for Disaster Protection to identify key financial problems and potential solutions. As a major donor and supporter of this area of work, DFID has been critical in generating enough steam to bring together a wide variety of actors and amplify efforts. Other donors and partners have been critical to championing our new and innovative approaches. Donors like Citi, Elma, and Arnhold Foundation have presented us with critical latitude to take on smart-but-risky approaches and try out new solutions.

What’s next

At the IRC, we reject the dichotomy that pace, innovation, and boldness are at odds with rigor, expertise, and humility. We believe that breakthrough solutions combine all of these attributes. In order to continue driving our solutions in this direction, we will be combining our strengths in research and innovation. Our work across various thematic areas will benefit from close links between rigorous research and approaches such as strategy and human-centered design.

We believe that if we combine perspectives of users, practitioner expertise, evidence, cost analysis, and inspiration from analogous problems, we can generate potentially life-changing, scalable solutions. Iterating will improve them, de-risk implementation, and accelerate learning. Evaluating solutions rigorously will allow us to attribute whether our interventions deliver improved outcomes. Implementing within IRC, we will help grow our programs to reach millions. And scaling outside the IRC will help us reach more people than we ever could alone.

As we wrap up our first three years, we’re preparing to launch into an exciting new phase. Stay tuned.

The Airbel Impact Lab

The Airbel Impact Lab designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster. Our aim is to find the most impactful and cost-effective products, services, and delivery systems possible.

The Airbel Impact Lab

Written by

The Airbel Impact Lab at the International Rescue Committee designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster.

The Airbel Impact Lab

The Airbel Impact Lab designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster. Our aim is to find the most impactful and cost-effective products, services, and delivery systems possible.

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