Research & Innovation at the IRC

At the Airbel Impact Lab, we design, test, and scale 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.

We work to develop breakthrough solutions by combining creativity and rigor, openness and expertise, and a desire to think afresh with the experience of a large-scale implementing organization.

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What is the Airbel Impact Lab?

With over 70 million people displaced, the world is facing an unprecedented crisis. To address the evolving and growing nature of this crisis requires not just more aid, but new thinking. 

There is a lack of proven, cost-effective, scalable services for people affected by crisis. In some cases, there is a lack of evidence on what works. In others, evidence shows existing solutions are effective, but we need to find new ways of delivering them at scale in fragile states.

That’s why the IRC created the Airbel Impact Lab. Our goal is to find and advance breakthrough solutions — with people and ethics at the center of all we do.

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Our approach

We set tough goals to solve some of the world's biggest problems. We generate ideas by understanding the perspective of clients and practitioners, analyzing the evidence base, and looking at current solutions. We prototype and pilot ideas in the field. After many iterations, we conduct rigorous impact evaluations to measure impact and cost-effectiveness. Throughout the process, we keep scale in mind - thinking how we can shape policy and practice.  

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Our work

The Airbel Impact Lab has been working in more than 40 countries around the world. We are at the frontier of conducting rigorous evaluations in humanitarian settings. We rigorously evaluate existing solutions, make sure projects are good value for money, and inject evidence into decision-making.

Where best practice can get better, we work to adapt existing solutions, or to create brand new ones, that can fill gaps and get us closer to solving the world’s biggest challenges. Working alongside the communities IRC serves, we’re looking for breakthrough solutions that can create a paradigm shift in the field.

The IRC has conducted 47 of the roughly 261 high quality impact evaluations ever conducted with refugees or in conflict-affected contexts.

We’re using a matching algorithm, developed by Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab, to help identify where refugees will thrive. Studies show this approach could lead to gains in employment of around 40-70% on average.

Scaling up our project to transform malnutrition treatment has the potential to reach 13 million more children each year.

Families Make the Difference advocated for positive and nurturing parenting practices, leading to a 55.5% reduction in caregivers’ reported use of harsh punishment in Liberia.

Coach Erevu empowered 140 teachers in Tanzanian refugee camps to support 10,000 children with potentially traumatic backgrounds - increasing children’s attentiveness in class from 44% to 81%.

Participants in Sprout fared markedly better than their non-participant neighbours in areas like food consumption and diversity.

What we do

We are contributing to key advances in the evidence base on cash transfers, education, reducing violence in the home, and tackling malnutrition.

Economic Wellbeing Icon Economic Wellbeing

People caught in crisis may struggle to meet their basic needs and those of their families - such as food, water, shelter, and other basic household items like soap. Direct assistance, such as cash distribution can help people meet these needs. But opportunities to work can help people build stability and prosper. Yet, in most situations of protracted displacement, there are considerable legal, policy, and financial barriers to unlocking this potential.

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Education Icon Education

During conflict and crisis, education protects children and sets them up for a better future. It provides a sense of hope and enables them to recover, learn, and thrive. However, over 62 million children in countries affected by war remain out of school, while many others only receive poor quality education. Despite this great need, education has received less than two percent of all humanitarian aid in recent years.

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Empowerment Icon Empowerment

Millions of people across the world don’t have control over important choices that affect their lives, such as where they live, how they live, and how they are governed. Women and girls, in particular, struggle to advocate for their rights and make their voices heard. These issues are worsened by crises, which often uproot families, tear apart communities, and weaken government systems.

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Health Icon Health

Each year, millions of people, particularly women and children, die from preventable causes in countries affected by violent conflict and natural disasters. Most of these deaths are the result of disruptions related to crisis: poor sanitation, shortages of food and medicine, and inadequate prevention. Refugees resettled in the United States can also face difficulties accessing proper health care.

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Innovative Finance Icon Innovative Finance

The financing systems designed to serve conflict-affected communities are broke and broken, and despite years of hype, the potential of innovative finance for people affected by humanitarian crises remains unfulfilled; new approaches are needed. The research - and ongoing pilots - of the innovative finance practice seek to demonstrate how progress can be made through novel applications of existing financial tools to new contexts.

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Other Icon Other

Talking about a “humanitarian business model” might sound like an oxymoron. But humanitarian aid is delivered through a complex system, and incentives don’t always generate the desired outcomes for people in need. What systemic innovations could unlock impact for people suffering the effects of conflict and crisis?

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Safety Icon Safety

Each year, millions of people—particularly women and children—are subject to violence and abuse, and struggle to feel safe in their homes and communities. Trapped in countries plagued by crisis, many cannot access the resources they need to ensure their own safety and recover from abuse.

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Why "Airbel"?

Airbel is named for Varian Fry, who arrived in Marseilles in 1940 with $3,000 and a mission: to help people escape occupied France. There he established the Air-Bel Villa, a secret safe house that helped thousands of people escape to freedom.

Like all heroes of the early International Rescue Committee, Fry had no playbook or standard operating procedure to guide him. He learned by doing, applying ingenious methods, embracing inventive thinking, taking calculated risks, and building on success. This spirit has persisted for over 75 years and echoes throughout all of our programs worldwide.

Latest updates

The IRC’s ambitious plan to scale acute malnutrition treatment

Nearly 80% of malnourished children are still not receiving the treatment they need to recover. A simpler, community-centered system could reach millions more children.

Where the world is most in need of humanitarian research and innovation

How the Airbel Impact Lab is focusing our efforts in a shifting landscape

Fast Company announces two IRC projects as World Changing Ideas

We’re excited to announce that two IRC projects in Education are honored in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas.

Displaced Podcast

Our Supporters

We work with partners and donors from within and outside the humanitarian sector to bring fresh thinking, refine and implement projects, and achieve better outcomes for people suffering from violence and displacement.