Towards grassroots innovation in humanitarian practice
Reflections from Jordan’s Mahali Community Innovation Lab
All communities have changemakers. The Mahali Community Innovation Lab aimed to find them from communities affected by the crisis here in Jordan, and support them in coming up with solutions to the problems they themselves have been experiencing. Over a year and a half, we ran three design sprints in which community-led teams developed solutions to challenges they faced. We worked with a total of 15 teams, and eight received seed funding to carry their solutions forward.
One team is working with local hospitals to create a “blood bank” to ensure that Syrians living in Jordan can get blood transfusions when they need them, since Syrians aren’t allowed to donate blood. Another team has developed playground equipment to foster early childhood development. Yet another team has developed a card deck for deaf children — one of the only practical uses of augmented reality for social impact that I have seen.
Needless to say, we learned a lot over the course of the year and a half of the program. A few reflections stand out on how this type of initiative relates to more traditional humanitarian practice.
From “provider” to “facilitator”
When we started this program, we did not initially realize how radical a shift it was to move from a service delivery model to an enabling environment model. That enabling environment included a vibrant space that encouraged constant interaction with different perspectives and new ideas; systems and practices that sought to level power imbalances between community stakeholders and “experts”; and access to materials and services by request.
This required a mindset shift in our whole team. We could provide advice, feedback, and frameworks, but when it was time to make decisions or take action, our job was to get out of the way. We had to fight our service delivery instincts, in which we are the ones who fix problems and find the best way forward. Fundamentally, this was about trust in our community innovators and in their ability to learn from failure, persevere, and grow their ideas.
For example, one team had the idea of formalizing and scaling up an existing community practice of sharing unused medications. We had a lot of faith in this team, but this idea was unworkable — it had major protection risks, and it didn’t seem possible for it ever to be legal. Over time, the team scrapped this approach, but stayed true to their mission of decreasing the costs of medication for people with chronic illnesses. Through their research, they found out that pharmaceutical companies dispose all of their medication when they are 6 months from expiry — and that disposal is actually quite expensive.
Their project now seeks to leverage existing supply chains to distribute close-to-expiry medications through pharmacies to uninsured low-income Jordanians and Syrians on a monthly basis. They are collaboratively building the technology to connect all the relevant stakeholders. They have completely graduated from the Mahali program and are now in an accelerator run by one of Jordan’s telecoms. It’s possible that the approach the team is taking now will also be unworkable — but this team has proved that they can dramatically pivot while maintaining a goal. I can’t tell you what their product will look like at the end of the day, but I’m confident that they will reach their goal. My job in this case was to step out of the way and watch the team evolve their thinking.
From “refugee” to “innovator”
While the innovation lab was fundamentally about finding new solutions to problems, perhaps one of its most profound impacts was on the community innovators — the mindset shift was not only on the part of our team. To move from “refugee” to “innovator” was in part a matter of learning new skills and having the resources and a safe space to take risks. But it was also a matter of viewing oneself differently. As Hiba, who participated in the second design sprint, said:
“When I saw the Facebook ad…I thought if I was a part of Mahali, I might be able to better help make the NGOs understand the problems refugees face and to be a voice for my community… My favorite part about being a part of the lab has been that my personality has changed. I’ve become more confident and I feel like I have more ways to express my feelings and articulate myself to people. I’ve learned not to be shy when I’m expressing my thoughts, and how to ask for things…That has affected my personal life in a very positive way.”
As I follow the evolution of the eight solutions, I wish I could follow the trajectories of all the Mahali participants as well. Of course, I know that wherever they end up, they will continue to be changemakers in their communities — that is the nature of the changemaker in every community. But I would love to see that, and to see in 10 years if the personal and professional journey they undertook at the Mahali Innovation Lab has stayed with them.
The Mahali Innovation Lab encouraged teams to advance their own solutions as stand-alone projects, but it’s clear that community voices have a lot to contribute to the work that NGOs are doing as well. We’re currently looking at different pathways for community-defined solutions to achieve impact, including within humanitarian organizations. And we’re starting with ourselves: At Airbel Middle East, we are using the Mahali model to co-create new solutions to challenges that are the focus of our activities, such as mental health, urban housing, voluntary returns, and information flows. For all of our focus areas, the “Community Design Group” will be an integral part of our research, ideation, and prototyping. Watch this space!