The International Rescue Committee is a well known force in humanitarian aid. As the organization has continued to evolve since 1933, they have literally written the book, multiple times, on how to best serve those in need.
My guest for today’s 176th Terms of Reference Podcast is Jodi Nelson who is IRC’s Senior Vice President, Policy and Practice. Jodi has overall strategic and operational responsibility for IRC program technical units – including Research and Evaluation and Global Advocacy and Strategic Communications. And, for long time listeners, you already know all this as she was also a guest way back in 2014 on show number 33.
What I love about this conversation is its focus on how IRC is innovating through three specific lenses: First how do we get get enough of the right aid to the right people, second, how do we shift from planning the help the social sector delivers in terms of activities, to one of outcomes and finally, how do we ensure programming is designed based on the best available evidence rather than inertia and antidote?
You can connect with Jodi here:
IN TOR 176 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT
- The historically momentous origins of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), at the heart of the human displacement, rescue and resettlement during World War II
- The special fragilities of working with displaced populations. Why people flee
- Legal, social and cultural ramifications of refugee status around the world, and today’s landscape
- The importance of evidence as a way to hold less passionate debates about the right way to address displacement, rescue and resettling
- Education, economic development, health, children, violence and scaling issues for refugees
- How to provide long-term sustainable solutions that communities in temporary habitats embrace
- The importance of educating donors on the right kind of deliverables in displacement situations, and why in these cases rigorous evaluation is essential
OUR CONVERSATION FEATURES THE FOLLOWING
- International Rescue Committee (IRC), David Miliband
- IRC Healing Classrooms
- IRC Airbel Center
- Adolf Hitler, World War II
- Boko Haram
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
- World Bank
- MIT, Rachel Glennerster
- Poverty Action Lab
- MacArthur Foundation, 100&Change Global Competition
- US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM)
- Dubai Cares
- Project EVO
- Laura and John Arnold Foundation
- BRAC (Bangladesh NGO)
- Global Development Fund, Alix Zwane (TOR 166)
- Conflict Zones
- Displacement, Violence
- Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), Maltreatment of Children, Neglect
- Refugees, Resettling
- Refugee education, Children
- Sustainable development, Support systems
- Solar panels
- Cash transfers
- Impact Evaluation
- Evidence-Based Development
- New York City
- Sahel region, Africa
- Sierra Leone
- London, UK
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
Today, I am at the headquarters of the International Rescue Committee here in New York City actually just off a plane yesterday from the Sahel part of Africa.
Absolutely Stephen it’s a pleasure.
So IRC was founded in the 1930s essentially as a resettlement agency in a time when people were trying to get out of Hitler’s Europe IRC sent planes and had a lot of private individuals dedicated to essentially rescuing people to leave Europe and resettle in America.
And since then we continued to operate we still operate in that same way.
So we operate overseas in contexts that are fragile conflict affected or the home for big displaced population.
So where people flee we also support them in their journey to new countries to find safety or find asylum and resettle in third countries.
So that means so for example in Niger, I saw populations that were fleeing Nigeria and Tunisia are fleeing the violence and terror of Boko Haram and then they were settled you know temporarily I guess you could say in Niger.
For those people lucky enough to get protection status and refugee status and with claims that meet the UN’s criteria for resettling they might be resettled in Europe or America and then IRC is also on that side of the equation in both Europe and America working with the people who are fleeing those countries and helping them to either integrate or resettle in Western countries as you know all pieces of that journey are at risk today in the world.
And so IRC also does a good amount of advocacy and very strategic Communications to help people understand the plight that these people are facing and the policies that need to be either developed or adjusted to make sure that people are safe so that notion of the arc of the crisis is one that is unique to IRC.
We also work across the different areas of people‘s live so we’re not only a health organization an education organization an organization that seeks to help prevent violence and help people recover we work across five major areas of work outcomes that we want to achieve with people and see measurable change in their lives.
And those include health education safety or violence prevention and response empowerment and economic well-being.
And then finally I’ll just say and in particular because of your experience in monitoring and evaluation and I know that from your background IRC’s strategy right now and really for the last 10 to 15 years has been to make sure that our programs are not only designed and implemented to achieve measurable difference in people’s lives.
But also based on the best available evidence or contributing to the best available evidence so that aid continues to be increasingly effective at impacting people’s lives and does that give you enough of a high level picture
Great, so I mean maybe I’ll start by just making it clear what kind of needs IRC responds to right because for sure the world is evolving and continues to evolve and there’s so many different areas of opportunity and challenge that are out there.
And so I think like if you were to look at a map of the world today you know you would see in fact I have in mind this great map that I’ve seen in a report on family planning that we did where you see all the hotspots in the world where there’s conflict where the governments are fragile, where people are on the move fleeing those contexts into neighboring contexts that are also fragile and poor and where people are on the moves.
And you know you can summarize it by numbers so there are more than 65 million people displaced in the world today that’s the most recent number from UNHCR this year.
But you can also kind of touch it with your own reality and what you hear every morning on the news you know people are fleeing people are poor people are suffering the circumstances of bad government and weak international regimes and institutions and so there’s no doubt that our current model and like you mentioned the model since World War 2 is not sufficient or adequate to meet the needs that you can imagine occur in the World because of those situations.
But I think this notion of innovation is really important to unpack because in some ways there are real basics that don’t happen and need to be fixed and IRC often talks out loud about the system that’s broken and so I’ll give you a few examples of how we ourselves want to you know fix our own programs and practice but also it’s not enough so we want the whole system to make similar changes.
Okay so I’ll give you three examples and then we can build on that okay.
So again so we’re trying to kind of to look at how does the current system that’s been set up you know in the 40s and 50s how is it not meeting people’s needs and how is IRC quote on innovating to change the way we work and also hoping others and needing others to change in similar ways.
So the first is really simply that there is not enough of the right aid going to the right people.
So again as I said in the Introduction I’m just off the plane from Niger and we were out of Niamey in the capital in an area called Defai (???) where there is an incredible amount of need and its tangible I mean you can really see when you’re in community so let’s say you go to you know we went to five different communities one day outside of Defai town.
So outside where the of market activities or where there are schools and hospitals even if they’re very basic and there are Nigerian refugees and people from Niger living in communities where there’s no health and no education.
So that’s just you know one very clear and obvious indicator that we’re simply not getting enough aid to people who need it and enough of the right aid to people who need it.
So as a result IRC sees strategy asks all of our country programs so our forty some country programs to make sure that they are thinking about scale and thinking about reaching more people and having more impact across those areas.
And then going back to the system isn’t quite right you know when you go to these countries and you talk to the bilateral donors or the multilateral agencies the UN the US government the Brits the Irish everybody is operating with positive intent.
Everybody wants to see those kids who don’t have an education get health and education but somehow the individuals needs and politics of each agency mean that those kids don’t get it and so there is definitely innovation needed in that area of how do these organizations come together and jointly plan for using their resources to meet people’s needs.
And we should definitely keep talking about that as we go on today I think maybe more specifically to other areas that are characteristics of the system and then point to how IRC is Innovating when you look at a given humanitarian project and look at its proposal and look at what the organization is asked to do plans to do and how a donor asked to report on that its often the case that both the donor and the organization characterize the work in terms of activities.
We’re going to train people we’re going to distribute stuff, we’re going to hold meeting we’re going to you know bring people together to have certain important discussions.
We’re going to train teachers train doctors hold community meeting similar you know I hope I’m getting across this kind of you know howdy it’s almost like how do you plan your day right and what you don’t see is an emphasis on outcomes.
So instead of we’re going to train teachers you know we’re gonna reach out of families and make sure they know about the schools in their area.
We want to see the donor the organizations we want to see learning outcomes we want to see kids learn, how to read we want to see kids learn how to do math, we want to see kids whose social and emotional abilities and functions are improving over time.
Because these kids have been suffering from violence and witnessing all kinds of things, so that emphasis on outcomes is something that you tend to not see in humanitarian aid and something that IRC prioritizes in all its programs then finally I’ll give you an example a similar examples .
As the activities one that when we talk as humanitarian actors we often design programs or design investments based on convenience and anecdote so we’re going to continue to do this training, because we’ve been doing it in other countries because the donors asked us to do it because we’ve done it for a long time rather than we’re going to do those interventions that are proven to work, to achieve those measurable differences of people’s live.
And So IRC has really prioritized this notion of working to achieve change in people’s lives and using the best available evidence to make choices about what to do so.
So those are areas where again this kind of getting donors to plan better with organizations on the ground so they meet people’s needs IRC driving toward a bigger scale with the same amount of resources or getting more resources to go to scale and meet people’s needs.
Focusing on outcomes or results instead of activities and using the best available evidence instead of anecdote those are areas where IRC is Innovating but if we do it alone we’ll only make the difference in our town programs which is really insufficient.
Yeah, great so I’m gonna use two examples.
From one example from Niger just because you know it’s not so much about I mean I think it’s more about doing things differently and not business as usual and not so much about doing things that are proven effective.
But you’ll see the examples so in Niger and as you probably know everywhere really you know the aid community has been criticized over time and even self criticizes over time.
For doing water projects that you know digging wells and creating bore holes and communities that then provide quality water for a certain amount of time and then they break and they don’t get fixed and the communities don’t have the resources to fix them themselves.
And the organization is gone and the donor is no longer interested and so I mean there are you know anecdotes about contexts in which you know you walk around and you see a bunch of broken wells.
For examples, so let’s say that’s business as usual in Niger IRC with support from echo I’m pretty sure that’s right I hope that’s right because it’s on a podcast so support from the European community has created a solar-powered borehole in a community Niger.
And it’s I mean I wish I could show you a picture.
It’s beautiful a solar panel so you see this huge solar panel and then you see the borehole on the ground and then you see a pretty large water tower and the yield from the system is quite large but the coolest thing is that then the water is channeled into the surrounding villages and then comes out in these quite nice kind of you know for lack of a better word and this isn’t the right word sinks throughout the villages and so it’s a sustainable you know impactful water system that was created with the same resources that other water projects have been done but it’s not at one site right.
So if you haven’t your head those pictures of people with their jerrycans going to clean water this throughout the villages that are surrounding the borehole it’s sustainable because its solar-powered it doesn’t require huge improvements over time.
So it’s again sustainable in the community that to me is like that’s not business as usual its using new models going to larger scale than a well or a borehole delivering clean water throughout a relatively large you know area of space and communities.
The other examples I mean I have quite a few examples I think of IRC and the community overall not doing his business as usual and you probably know about this as well but I would say over the last couple of years with increasing evidence that cash is a most effective tool to meet people’s basic needs than distribution of non-food items or in some cases distribution of food cash has become increasingly common.
So cash transfers in communities that are both poor so developing country and development context as well as poor fragile affected by conflict and humanitarian disaster that’s a great example of moving from business as usual to doing something that is both proven effective and then that is not the common approach to helping people.
So for IRC I mean we’ve gone pretty far in stating where we are and where we want to be so we’re committed to increase our cash distributions to be 25 percent of what we distribute so not 25 percent of our overall budget but 25 percent of distributions and we’re currently at around 16 percent and so it’s also innovative that we’re even working in our back office to figure out how to measure because that’s not you know a self-evident thing to be able to do so that is another example so again just to repeat I think we have a lot of innovative models throughout our country programs.
And I’m sure other agencies do doing things differently so they’re more sustainable and they affect more people and then there are several examples where there’s been evidence that something works better than something else and where the community has adopted it the community being a community.
I mean there’s several things that get in the way so I’ll start with what we can control right.
Because I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s all about the donors are all about the resources or the lack of resources you know I think I mean one thing that gets in the way is just habit that you know when you are in an industry that does things a certain way you continue to do things a certain.
And so that you know figuring out how to disrupt that is really important but if you do think about that and think about the fact that most of our country programs are under tremendous pressure to deliver on grant deliverables and that simply the business we’re in right for good or for bad its heavily constrained funding environmental where donors have their own needs.
And their own reporting needs back to Congress or back to Parliament of back to bilateral donors if they’re multilateral picture all the different incentives and all the different results that people in their jobs and in their political context need to report out on and that’s probably the biggest constraint.
You know I could go on to say you know the nature of the humanitarian funding itself is very problematic most of our grants by typical humanitarian donors are a year or less and so if you imagine you know you have short term grants with pretty clear and constraining requirements for reporting you as a country program.
You need to put together all of those investments make sense of them that’s not the same as saying I’m gonna go into this community in this community I see that you know, for example women and girls are not safe and there is domestic violence in the home and violence against children in the home.
And so the outcome I want to work toward is decreasing that violence and I need the space and the time and the resources to figure out not only how best to do that but what I know from best available research and other context in which I work to be able to do that that’s a very different set up than reporting out on short term milestones by many donors over short period of time.
So I think that the dis-incentives that are created by the context in which we work and the funding model are probably the biggest challenge that we face you know on the flip side when donors come to the fore and that can be government donors dif.
It is a great example of a donor that seems to really understand the need for longer term money more time for planning things like that so a public donor can come to the table with a longer term opportunity multi- country and time to do good planning so that you do focus on outcomes and bring to bear the best available knowledge or a private donor who truly gets that.
So IRC as an example IRC is in the Final Four for the MacArthur 100 million dollar grant and that’s another opportunity where you really do get the space and time to figure out how best to deliver for people and so there are lots of opportunities where we get the flexibility and the time and that kind of incentives to do a much better job planning for and delivering on outcomes for people.
Yeah , I don’t know that I would frame it like I think there are lots examples and its I mean the first thing that comes to my mind is like every cholera outbreak you know that happens like IRC and other organizations respond and prevent cholera from continuing to kill people.
So you know there’s obviously an example where the current system works so not to say it’s always the case that what we doesn’t add up so just to make that clear and then I’ll give an example in education and kind of a really nice model that I think we try to replicate here at IRC.
But it also worth thinking about and so you know IRC for the last ten years and probably more has develop a certain educational model that we call healing classroom and that’s in reference to the fact that you know the kids that we support in many context don’t just need access to schools and need to learn.
But they’re also in situations where violence and displacement has really affected them and affected their well-being in their social and emotional well-being so we’ve been working overtime to figure out how do we address those three meats?
Access learning and social emotional learning and the partnerships with the US government with BPRM which is typical humanitarian donor and with many other you know kind of typical humanitarian donors has allowed us to do our program across many countries Afghanistan Ethiopia etc.
To impact evaluation to learn the effectiveness of our program so I’m going to get the dates wrong but I hope it communicates the point you know I think we delivered the first healing classrooms model in something like 2008.
We did it with bilateral so probably US government money and did it in three or four countries then we did an impact evaluation in Congo in from 2011 to 2014 and learned what about the program worked and didn’t work to achieve those outcomes and then we partnered with Dubai Cares a private foundation to using that evidence and other science develop an improved model for delivering education and achieving those learning outcomes as well as social emotional learning.
And that’s in three countries now and that’s Niger and Lebanon and Sierra Leone and so we continue to adapt the programming model within the constraints of our grants with public donors.
We continue to do rigorous evaluation both at critical junctures so 2011 to 2014 and then over time what we’re currently doing in the three countries I mentioned and we continue to partner with both public and private donors and try to work with them to really make the point that you need to kind of invest in both program implementation and evaluation and learning in order to become increasingly impactful on these kids’ lives.
So that’s all within the current humanitarian system there’s nothing particularly you know not typical it just requires the leadership the kind of humility to know what works and doesn’t work in a minute and the competencies to tap into research and use research to generate the evidence we need to help people .
Yeah, so I mean to run with the education example you know the MacArthur competition provides us an opportunity to scale lessons we have from this story I just told to the Middle East and to really make an important watershed change in the way that early childhood education is delivered sorry within humanitarian aid so there’s an example of the opportunity.
We haven’t nailed it yet but we’re in it to win it as David Miliband, IRC CEO but so if we should get it it’ll be a great story of scale scaling based on evidence and other contexts scaling in a new context and hopefully continuing to do so in other contexts.
But I think you know another important point to note is that you know there is something in the system our current system the humanitarian system that really prevents scale right so scale meaning working with government and supporting governments.
Because they’re the ones in many contexts that can actually deliver for more people and then also something about this the way that we all work in our own project silos that makes it the case that when you go to a country like Nigeria you can see great work great projects like the solar power project I mentioned or we have another kind of Project EVO.
So that refers to you know it’s cash transfers but it’s delivered through mobile technology that gives people the choice about what they want to buy it’s fantastic but what you don’t see is solutions that are affecting the largest number of people possible and that I think is outside.
The scope of any one implementer for sure and really requires collaboration and leadership among the donors in a certain context and the implements.
So IRC is an implementer as well as communication leadership coordination among the donors at their headquarters shops DC London etc and their field offices and that’s an area where I think we all have a lot to do to make sure that the right Aid is getting to the right people.
You know I wish I could say we have like this huge capital fund.
Right so we have to raise the money from different sources in order to do this we’ve had great success you know we like the examples I just gave you you know the MacArthur example is a private donor that Dubai Cares is a private foundation.
We have several stories of private philanthropies and Individual donors who have really given us the mean to be able to do better work and then I’ll give you another example of just because you mentioned this kind of tweak and adjust and scale IRC has also launched what we call our Airbel Center.
And So that’s specifically a you know a team dedicated to looking at problems that don’t get solved throughout traditional programs and understanding the context understanding the possibility to change people’s behavior and use insights from research from other sectors from other kind of solutions that have worked in other sectors and tweak our programs or try new things to come up with breakthrough solutions that make a huge difference and so Airbel is working on things like how do you really prevent violence intimate partner violence in the communities in which we work.
Because we have a basket of interventions and we have evidence about certain things that works better than others but it’s still not making enough of a dent on women and children’s lives.
For example so we have a center it’s funded it’s a dedicated team and it’s funded by mostly private resources.
But not only so the Arnold Foundation for example gave us a sizable grant to make sure that our Airbel Center had the new competencies and skills we need to really try new things and to find solutions that then we can advocate both within and outside IRC should be scale to impact more people’s lives.
It really depends and so I don’t want to equate so there’s several different things that you’re asking about right because so Airbel Center is one we have different kind of technical resources for lack of a better word here in IRC that support this kind of you know improving the work we do so Airbel works on really identifying you know breakthrough solutions that require a different way of looking at the world and you know what the sector is now called innovation or R&D.
We also have technical teams that work closely with Airbel and so we have teams in health and education in violence prevention etc. who are charged with supporting and improving our overall program quality.
And so I can give you example in both cases you know I think cash is something that was a breakthrough solution for the aid community IRC did a seminal impact evaluation of our winterization program in Lebanon that became a reference point for IRC and other players to say we can deliver cash in humanitarian contexts IRC implemented designed and implemented parenting programs that we then found were effective at decreasing maltreatment of kids in the home and now we do parenting programs.
When we see that child neglect and abuse is a situation that we can respond to it just so happened at the time that we were doing and replicating our parenting programs.
And I think this is right but you’ll get the gist again that UNICEF was writing a new kind of manual on the same type of programs and so our parenting intervention made it into their manual that’s awesome right!
That helps us document a proven model to achieve an outcome right to decrease child abuse or increase safety for children in the home and then to get it into UNICEF.
And then it be reference guide for other organizations is a great example of something being scaled and so it really depends and it requires whole host of different things coming together you know the technical leadership to recognize that we have an area that we need to improve the competencies to do quality actionable research whether we do it through kind of quick prototyping like we do in Airbel or more longer-term investment of evidence that we do over time.
The example I gave you both on parenting and education and then it requires opportunity and communication and advocacy to make sure that we’re in the right forums talking to the right donors and communicating in a way that people can understand what it is we did and what it is we’ve learned.
Yeah, that’s a great question.
I’m gonna leave that for a second because I do want to call out a few like I think important trends maybe okay that we’re paying attention to so the first is the World Bank.
You know I think a big watershed moment for the humanitarian sector and for those of us really again looking to get the right aid to the right people.
More resources to really get to scale and meet the needs that we see in the countries in which we work there’s a huge opportunity currently on the world stage because the World Bank and Jim Kim in particular has really taken on board that need to make sure that development money goes to fragile refugee hosting contexts and so we are watching that we are partnering with the bank we’re offering our own technical advice where it might be helpful and really watching that to make sure that we can do the most,
I think Brac is also interesting and important in that area these are organizations that early on partnered with the poverty action lab at MIT and really took on board as IRC did 10 or 15 years ago this idea that it’s not enough to use conventional wisdom and anecdote.
And we really do need to be more rigorous and how we design and evaluate our programs I also I think in terms of people there’s a great blog out this morning or yesterday by Rachel Glennerster who is also at MIT but now is now going to be the chief economist at DIF it and acts you should definitely read it and you readers should read it it’s on innovation and evidence in development.
It’s great read this morning and talks to a lot of the questions that actually you’ve been raising.
But in a development context also dear friend and former colleague Alix Zwane who’s the CEO of the Global Development Fund and a real thinker in terms of breaking out of business as usual I mean my hope I that all of these players also start focusing on the context in which IRC works where you know people’s needs are astronomical and we’re not as focused.
As we are in counties that are poor so I do look forward to that and we as IRC try to make that point as much as we can but those are some of the names and organizations that I am most interested in.
No , you know I’m not a shiny new object person you know I don’t think we’re doing enough just with the nuts and bolts and I worry about shiny new objects you know I think the people that need humanitarian aid need us to be doing our best at planning for outcomes.
Instead of activities not doing short term investments that make no sense that aren’t logical that require incredibly high transaction cost for implementing agencies to deliver using anecdote and repeating unproven models across contexts and time you know not coordinating in a country having their own pet projects instead of really assessing the needs of people not supporting government capacity and things like health and education and instead delivering technology.
You know I really think that one way we can define innovation in our space is really doing what needs to be in done because it’s not getting done so I don’t have a think things like technology need to make easier the work that’s being done and that the real work is hard nuts and bolts commitment long term investment.
You know really pushing against the political winds that exist you know not only in the West and prevent us from getting the best available a to people but also in the countries in which we operate where people are subject to pressures and oppression that is really keeping them from living the life we hope they can get.
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