Abigail Taylor

How to design research to make sure that Humanitarian Innovation gets scaled up?

Building on Elrha’s recent learning paper about the role of evidence in scaling humanitarian innovations, Abigail Taylor outlines how Make Music Matter has used evidence to enable adoption of its innovative Healing in Harmony programme…

Proving that a new idea or approach works is, sadly, not enough to ensure it is widely picked up. Innovators must follow up research activities by getting the right evidence to the right people in the right way at the right time.

Our new Evidence and Beyond paper provides guidance, tips and tricks on how to prioritise, tailor and communicate evidence effectively.

Make Music Matter, one of our former Journey to Scale grantees, has done just that. Its use of evidence to drive the adoption of its innovative Healing in Harmony programme brings to life the findings and recommendations of our research.

Generating evidence

Healing in Harmony is an innovative form of music therapy for survivors of gender-based violence and other trauma in conflict and post-conflict zones. It particularly addresses PTSD, anxiety and depression in survivors. The methodology enables survivors to focus on the creative process of writing, recording and releasing songs and albums about their emotions and experiences – working with trained psychologists and professional music producers – raising awareness, reducing stigma and becoming advocates for change.

The team needed assurance that its approach worked and did no harm. It also felt undertaking rigorous academic research was vital in part because Healing in Harmony is an innovation. As the founder and CEO Darcy Ataman said: “When you have a new innovation, it’s really easy for it to be dismissed”.

It would be much more difficult for the sector to dismiss Healing in Harmony with peer-reviewed empirical research behind it. And the evidence, published in  the Cambridge University Press journal Global Mental Health in April 2021, demonstrates the efficacy of the model: participating women showed a 54% reduction in PTSD, 67% in anxiety and 53% in depression, results that were sustained at least six months beyond the programme despite continued conflict and instability in the study region (South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

A Healing in Harmony session in progress. Photo Credit Jeppe Schilder for Panzi Hospital and Foundation and Make Music Matter

The evidence proves Healing in Harmony works, but the way the team use this evidence to engage with key stakeholders is critical to enabling adoption of the innovation.

Prioritising evidence users

Building partnerships with humanitarian agencies is key to Healing in Harmony’s scaling strategy. Agencies can integrate the programme with other response activities, creating a pathway to support more survivors than Make Music Matter could reach alone.

The team have created and strengthened relationships with potential implementing partners by prioritising the types of evidence they require.With World Vision, for example, this included utilising rigorous impact evidence together with standard operating procedure manuals – demonstrating not only that the innovation works but also how it can be implemented. The evidence instils confidence that the approach is safe and effective, it can be integrated within programmes and is backed by respected experts.

Using evidence to enable adoption                                                 

Importantly, key stakeholders include those affected by the innovation. Make Music Matter shares its findings with the communities it works within, including those new to the Healing in Harmony programme. This helps build trust with survivors who may then choose to engage with the programme, and helps gain community gatekeepers’ buy-in.

Make Music Matter generates a range of types of evidence and communicates them to develop active partnerships.

  • Peer-reviewed published evidence. Agencies need confidence that the intervention works and that survivors are not being used to test an experimental methodology. Robust evidence provides assurance that the programme is effective in improving the mental health of survivors.
  • Headline statistics. Powerful statistics from a peer-reviewed stepped-wedge randomised control trial can help to open doors, stimulate conversations and overcome hesitancy about introducing an innovative approach – particularly in programmes where survivors’ safety risks are significant.
  • Standard operating procedure manuals. SOPs help potential adopters see that the innovation can be implemented without reliance on key individuals, that the methodology can be adapted for different contexts, and play a role in maintaining quality control. Manuals have been produced in multiple languages and are regularly updated.
  • Champions for the innovation. Publication in a reputable journal inspires confidence to spread the message. Nobel Laureate Dr Mukwege, who has supported the innovation through the Panzi Foundation Hospital in the DRC, even presented the report in the national Parliament. Such credible voices improve how evidence is perceived and help spread adopting behaviour.
  • Storytelling. Through media attention and an emotive communications approach, Make Music Matter had generated keen interest from stakeholders – including potential partners, donors and champions – even before the research evidence was published.

All this built on years of groundwork. Darcy spent three years based close to the pilot location, the Panzi Foundation Hospital, persistently showing up and building relationships and trust with hospital staff. This eventually secured him a meeting with Dr Mukwege – whose support had the potential to drive scale enormously. Having built that relationship, and provided the necessary rigorous evidence, the Panzi Foundation is now a major implementing partner.

Invest in the impact of evidence

While many challenges limiting the adoption of humanitarian innovations are systemic and beyond innovators’ influence, some such as the generation and communication of evidence can be addressed with thoughtful, strategic planning. Simply having evidence of impact is not enough. Unless innovators invest time and thought into how they communicate that evidence, even the best innovations will fail to reach their potential.

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