Community-Driven Problem Finding in Jordan

Late last year, the IRC Jordan Country Office and the Airbel Center launched the Mahali Lab, a program inviting Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians to develop solutions to challenges impacting their communities.

The lab’s objective? To launch three 6-month “design challenges” for local changemakers to tackle. The lab will provide them with a co-working space, financial support, access to mentors and experts to help strengthen their solutions through structured context analysis, prototyping, and sustainability planning. Ultimately, the IRC will provide the most promising solutions with funding and support to implement, validate, and plan for scale.

From the outset, the premise of Mahali was simple: we wanted each decision to be driven by the community, at every step along the way. In building an innovation lab from the ground up, this also meant being issue-agnostic, and not bringing our own assumptions to the table when it comes to the problems that the local community feels are most pressing.

So we embarked on a three-month journey to let the community guide us in defining problems worth solving, and in turn, for us to invest time, resources, and efforts in. To our mind, the key question was:

What are the articulated and unarticulated challenges and needs that occupy the time, efforts, and mental energy of Syrian refugees and their host communities?

Getting an in into the community

We began by building our own capacity in terms of community outreach, identifying liaisons who are leaders in their own communities and have access to networks in the three main localities with high concentrations of urban refugees: Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq. We then conducted a series of open-ended, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with community members. Initial interviews were conducted one-on-one by the community liaisons in their homes, before convening larger focus group discussions involving the rest of the Mahali team. In total, 84 people contributed to the problem identification process, the majority of whom were women as they tended to have more availability to participate given that they were often not the primary breadwinners for their households.

Home interview with a group of women in Irbid.

Making sense of what we heard

Talking to the community was just the beginning of the process. We needed to analyze this qualitative data, and identify noteworthy themes and stories along the way. At times, it felt overwhelming. Our entire six-person team would cram into our 4x4 meter office in Amman, with our backs hunched, scribbling down notes, sorting through our synthesis worksheets, tagging and coding stories, and transcribing and translating quotes.

How do you bring justice to all the stories we’ve heard? When you start off exploring topics as wide as any issue a refugee or their host community could experience, it felt like a daunting task. How do you capture every aspect of their human experience? Mothers would fret over the poor quality of their children’s education and heads of households working without a permit expressed daily fear of any contact with the police that could mean being deported.

Sometimes, it felt like trying to build a library from scratch without having the Dewey classification system on hand. We went through so many tools, matrices, mind maps, buckets, theme trackers, and free writes, all trying to create order out of the very complicated reality that these communities faced. Throughout the process our guiding star was, “How did the community make sense of this?” We tried to replicate the mental models they used to describe the issues and relied on their own words and emotions to rank priorities. And to ensure that we didn’t go down a rabbit hole of analysis with no end, we scheduled a community workshop; one that would allow us to validate our understanding and force us to get something, anything, on paper for people to react to.

Checking back on our understanding

We held a larger workshop to validate the interpretation and synthesis of the data with community members who had participated in earlier conversations with Mahali as well as new ones. Invited attendees were asked to confirm, reject, or nuance our understanding of the problems and issues they shared, or add anything to the materials that we might have missed the first time around.

Workshop participants’ written reactions to a storyboard panel describing the opinions of parents about the education system.

Seeing the way participants interacted with the data, asked questions, and corrected assumptions was a powerful clue that we were on the right track. Overall, our materials resonated with the community. We had something that made sense. Now it was just a matter of deciding which of those issues needed to be tackled first.

Prioritizing community needs

Equipped with the collected and validated data, we extracted key patterns of experiences across locations, genders, and age groups, culminating in 6 main problem statements:

  1. Children are not learning.
  2. People struggle to access enough income to meet a dignified standard of living.
  3. People are not accessing the services they have the right to.
  4. People’s lives are dominated by opaque systems that they have no voice in.
  5. People are living with harmful social dynamics in their homes and communities.
  6. People don’t feel in control over their future.

To prioritize these 6 broad topics, we represented each one with a storyboard, based on the stories and quotes we heard during the consultation process. We then asked the community to vote on the top three challenges they believed were most crucial for them. The vote was both conducted online, through the Mahali Facebook page and key WhatsApp and Facebook groups with Syrians in Jordan, as well as in-person through our community liaisons who went door-to-door to collect votes in homes and community centers. In total, 1,543 votes were cast by 671 individuals.

In-person voting taking place at a community center in Mafraq.

Of the 6 topics that were identified, there was general consensus on prioritizing four challenges:

  1. People struggle to access enough income to meet a dignified standard of living.
  2. People are not accessing the services they have the right to.
  3. People don’t feel in control over their future.
  4. Children are not learning.

Since planning for the future was a cross-cutting issue across income, learning, and services, those three topics became the three finalists, with a commitment to integrate the concept of control into the design challenges within those other theme areas.

What we learned

In conducting this initial community-driven problem finding, we learned a number of lessons along the way:

1. On building trust

One lesson was the importance of tapping into volunteers (and their networks). NGOs do not have a strong reputation with Syrian refugees and discussing the experiences that people have had is an important part of rebuilding trust. The best way we introduced ourselves to the community was to go through the people they trust and make sure that all of our processes provided a sense of transparency, accountability, and control for the community. Despite the fact that we worked with established digital communities where refugee groups were already interacting, our most successful outreach methods were offline.

2. On meeting people where they are

Refugee communities in particular are accustomed in their interactions with NGOs to being asked to visit different offices and agency locations. However, we found that people are more open where they feel comfortable, and unburdened by the investment in transportation, time, and other opportunity costs to meet us. This meant conducting focus groups in neighboring community centers or people’s homes. The benefit to this method was the potential to gather more people by going to someone’s apartment and bringing in other residents from the same building.

Gathering in a participant’s home had the added advantage of being able to invite their neighbors over as well.

3. On childcare

Given that we mostly interacted with women, it was not uncommon for them to bring their children along. This meant that the team had to improvise impromptu child care techniques, from bringing toys to giving them materials to draw, or using one member of the team to care for smaller children while others did the research. In organizing future stages of the program, we took this into consideration, asking beforehand if anyone needed childcare and providing resources as necessary.

One of our participant’s child claiming the workshop materials for a drawing session.

4. On the importance of authentic rendition

Some of the topics discussed are either sensitive (like sexual harassment) or just difficult to communicate in a larger group. For instance, early marriage is typically understood as a product of cultural norms and resource constraints. In the Mahali problem identification, it was communicated by the community as being related to education quality. Giving the community the space to describe challenges and then replicating their specific language allowed us to address culturally sensitive and taboo issues that would otherwise be difficult to discuss or express appropriately. For this reason, we focused on expressing problems in people’s own words. And when using storyboards, we included exact phrases or sentences people had mentioned in the research.

Follow along as we unfold the experience of Mahali Lab in the next coming weeks, and stay tuned for our next blog post on how we framed our first design challenge around income.

This project is funded with support from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), and in partnership with the Start network.




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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Sarah Fathallah

Sarah Fathallah

Also known as سارة فتح الله or ⵙⴰⵔⴰ ⴼⵜⵃⴰⵍⵍⴰⵀ. Social designer and researcher. More about my work at

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