University Engagement and Research (MEAL)

Photo by Michael Duff for CRS

University Engagement and Research

University engagement and research collaborations taking place at CRS are pivotal for learning and catalyzing transformational change. Partnerships with universities, consultants, and research centers serve to design innovative, data-informed, and evidence-based solutions to global challenges. CRS has collaborated with over 100 U.S. universities in all program areas. University collaborators share their expertise and knowledge on program areas leading to global information exchange, deep evaluation and analysis of ongoing project activities, and the development of new innovative project activities and programming. Aiming to improve lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, CRS works closely with university researchers to conduct quality implementation research and capacity building projects. From literature reviews to capacity building, CRS engages with universities and centers to maximize its positive impact on the lives of vulnerable communities. CRS collaborates with universities on a variety of research activities that include implementation research, surveys, cross-national comparisons and analyses, student capstone projects, trainings, workshops, capacity building, conferences, innovation projects, and meta-evaluations. The universities that CRS has been working with include: University of Notre Dame, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Villanova University highlighted below.


Integration Lab (i-Lab)

As one of the key partner universities, University of Notre Dame has been collaborating with CRS since 2000 by organizing and participating in conferences, engaging its students through internships hosted by CRS, developing and co-implementing research projects, among others. One of the main collaborations with this key partner university is the Integration Lab program (i-Lab). As part of the Master of Global Affairs program, i-Lab partners with organizations on a year-long consultancy, during which students learn through a hands-on approach, working at the frontline of global challenges such as food insecurity. Since 2018, CRS has been one of i-Lab’s global partners. Teams made of students and faculty advisors design a research project addressing a challenge or opportunity CRS is currently working on, to then offer effective recommendations and sustainable strategies that leverage CRS programs’ capacities and tools. The program includes the development and revision of a project proposal, project design, field work, data collection and analysis, and deliverable development and submission.

Improve support to communities recovering from acute and chronic shocks-Haiti

In 2021, a group of four Notre Dame students, alongside their academic advisors and CRS local focal point, designed and implemented a research project in Haiti to enhance CRS’s capacity to enable communities experiencing chronic poverty to sustainably recover. Chronic poverty and vulnerability to shocks are persistent and prevalent global challenges that are notably present in Haiti. This research presented an analysis of local barriers and backsliding related to recovery, a recovery framework, and factors influencing the ability to achieve these objectives. This research found that achieving recovery requires an integrated multidimensional approach that targets long-term intergenerational objectives (notably housing, education, and infrastructure), which chronically poor Haitians in the communities visited consider fundamental for transitioning out of poverty.

Below is a list of all past i-Lab projects in which CRS has been Notre Dame’s global partner:

  • 2019-2020: Extend the impact of shelter programs by supporting recovery efforts to build resilient homes- India and Nepal
  • 2019-2020: Expand effectiveness of humanitarian cash transfer programs following emergency situations- Uganda and Bangladesh
  • 2020-2021: Accompany the displaced in their journey to create a new “home”- Uganda and Myanmar
  • 2021-2022: Ensure that community-led natural resource management strategies are sustainable and replicable- Malawi
  • 2021-2022: Improve support to communities recovering from acute and chronic shocks-Haiti.
  • 2021-2022: Promoting Effective Adaptation to Climate Change through Strategic Short-Term Emergency Response Programming- Guatemala

    Sustainability of Water Smart Agricultural Practices in Guatemala's Dry Corridor

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  • 2022-2023: Assessment of Post-Project Resilience among Households in Central Africa-Nigeria


Ethiopia Country Program

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health work closely with the CRS Ethiopia country program by providing research support. This includes technical leadership, strategic direction, coordination and advisory to CRS, in addition to the implementation of research to inform service delivery strategies or document the effectiveness of interventions. Bloomberg School researchers support research uptake through refinement of CRS’ USAID funded Resilience Food Security Activity (RFSA) or Ifaa (Afaan Oromo for “light”) and the Joint Emergency Operation Program (JEOP). Researchers from the Bloomberg School are also involved in desk-reviews, analysis of program data and designing and implementing studies on a variety of topics including food assistance modalities, nutrition, the household economy, agriculture and livelihoods, natural resource management, early warning systems, targeting and safety and accountability.

Woman filling a yellow bin with water.

CRS’ Resilience Food Security Activity (RFSA), entitled Ifaa (Afaan Oromo for “light”), will brighten the future for poor communities in Oromia by reducing intractable poverty, vulnerability, and food insecurity. Photo by Melikte Tadesse


Since 2010, students and faculty from the Villanova College of Engineering have been closely collaborating with CRS in a shared commitment for social justice. The College of Engineering has worked with CRS staff in Madagascar, Haiti, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Laos. It has hosted several capacity building workshops and seminars about sustainable development, specifically on water systems. CRS has been closely collaborating with Villanova’s Center for Humanitarian Engineering and International Development and its’ Engineering Service Learning for International Development program (VESL) which engages students in service learning, learning opportunities that both reinforce engineering fundamentals and students’ commitment to life-long service to society. As part of the VESL, students have contributed to CRS staff’s efforts on community development projects. Villanova’s faculty and students also continue to work closely with CRS on decreasing CRS’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Sierra Leone Country Program

Professor Virginia Smith, alongside graduate students at Villanova’s College of Engineering have been supporting the CRS Sierra Leone Country Program on water security programs. They have analyzed the extent of flooding effects on population and infrastructure in Freetown, to understand and mitigate its effects, and to reduce flood risk and to improve water security (2021).

Photo by Karen Kasmauski/CRS

Urban stormwater runoff increases stream flow, resulting in increased flood frequency, flash floods, and erosion, while urban land development results in higher sediment generation which impacts water quality and environmental integrity. Ultimately, these changes influence the local ecology, water security, sustainability of infrastructure, and the coastal sediment budget. CRS has been working with the Nature Conservancy and Villanova University professor, Dr. Virginia Smith and graduate students, Angela Cotugno and Wesley Shugart-Schmidt, to understand and mitigate these effects in the Western Peninsula and Freetown, Sierra Leone. The goals of the urban flooding and geomorphic analysis for Freetown, Sierra Leone were to determine the extent of flooding effects on population and infrastructure and the impact of conservation efforts on reservoir sustainability. The two-dimensional hydraulic model was created to show flood inundation, flood depth, and areas of high shear stress (erosion) for the city. While the one-dimensional morphologic model was used to determine the potential implications of changes to sedimentation rates on the reservoir bed aggradation and volume in the Guma and Congo Reservoirs under the various conservation scenarios. These reservoirs play a key role in the water supply for Freetown. Ultimately, these outputs show areas of flood risk and implications of land conservation on water security.

Madagascar Country Program

CRS has been a partner of Villanova’s Center for Humanitarian Engineering and International Development’s VESL program in Madagascar, focusing on water supply needs. Villanova University technical-support teams have worked with the CRS Madagascar Country Program to support water supply infrastructure projects by implementing performance monitoring, capacity building for local water operators, and developing asset management tools aimed at improving local operators.

The Zara Rano Project, led by CRS in eastern Madagascar, has officially launched 16 newly built water systems who have reached 27,500 people. Photo by Sedera Ramanitra/CRS

These include a remote monitoring system for measuring water levels in water storage tanks and a remote monitoring dashboard to evaluate water system performance through customer satisfaction surveys. Since 2016, students have collaborated on technical reviews and projects on water challenges such as water quality and water treatment systems. These projects led to 24 gravity-driven water networks (providing 82,000 people with sustainable access to water).

The collaboration also has resulted in:

  • Graduate research (research fellowships) on sustainable development
  • Technical briefs to document best practices
  • Faculty field visits
  • Technical assistance on the design of water supply infrastructure
  • Service learning courses
  • Summer internships
  • Capacity building to meet sustainability goals
  • Workshops and seminars

Climate Action Workshops

As part of CRS’ 2030 strategy, CRS has committed to: Promoting Climate Action and Care for Creation through stewardship and an integral vision of our common home. In demonstrating this commitment, CRS has signed a number of external commitments including the Laudato Si Action platform, the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations, and the InterAction Climate Compact, speaking to the agency’s efforts in leading on climate change adaptation and mitigation initiatives. Specifically on climate mitigation, CRS is committed to doing its part to reduce its Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and environmental impact and to influence others to do the same.

Villanova University’s Sustainable Engineering Program has been instrumental in supporting CRS to finalize its first ever GHG emissions inventory using the Greenhouse gas Protocol.

The GHG emissions inventory covers all countries where CRS is operational and includes Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions as well as business travel for Scope 3. The GHG emissions inventory was a significant undertaking from the Villanova team and CRS staff.

A chart showing FY22 GHG inventory emissions data per emissions type and CRS region.
The chart depicts FY22 GHG inventory emissions data per emissions type and CRS region. The emission types inventoried per region included emissions from heating, generators, electricity, cooling, vehicles and flights. WARO had the highest emissions at 3,000 tons, followed by CARO, HQ, EARO, SARO, EMECA, ASIA, and LACRO (500 mt with 300 mt from vehicles and the rest from electricity and flights). Of all the regions, WARO has the highest emissions from electricity consumption (966 mt) and EMECA the highest from vehicles (1,649 mt) and the second-highest emissions from electricity use (645 mt). HQ stands out by producing more air travel emissions than any of the regions (1,649), particularly due to transcontinental flights. HQ was the only CRS region that had emissions from cooling (254 mt) probably due to non-electric air conditioning.

Villanova University continues to support CRS to understand its emissions profile to conduct relevant analytics.

In FY24, Villanova will accompany CRS to develop data driven mitigation strategies, working with executives across the agency to understand context specific entry points for emissions mitigation and priority investments. Through this process, Villanova is accompanying CRS to set specific targets across its scopes, to have a clear decarbonization roadmap and to expand what is included in Scope 3 of the inventory.

Engage with CRS

CRS Chapters are part of a national network of CRS Chapters and High Schools committed to transforming our world. There are more than 40 chapters in universities such as University of Notre Dame and Villanova University, with more about to be launched. As champions of change, student leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with our global family by taking meaningful actions through advocacy and fundraising to end global poverty and injustices. Throughout the school year, students put their faith into action by mobilizing their academic community to develop relationships with members of Congress, write letters to the editor and host campus events to raise the profile of critical issues. They also support the immediate needs of our global family through organizing community events. Funds raised through these events help CRS respond quickly to emergencies and leverage additional funding to reach more people in need.

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CRS’ policy and advocacy work is evidence-based, drawing from the breadth and depth of our programs in more than 100 countries around the world. Complementing and enhancing CRS’ humanitarian and development programming, CRS’ policy unit addresses the systems and structures that affect those efforts and advocating for stronger and more effective policies to address the needs of the world's most vulnerable. The policy unit has focused its research on the following topics: Local Leadership and Localization; Food Security & Agriculture; Health & Social Services; Justice & Peacebuilding; Emergency Response & Recovery; Foreign Assistance Funding & Reform; and Climate Change.

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CRS offers remote internship opportunities in the U.S. to learn about international relief and development. Interns work with our technical teams (health, agriculture, education, emergency response, etc.) as well as our core operations teams (human resources, finance, marketing, communications, logistics, and information technology).

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CRS is a consortium partner in the USAID-funded LASER (Long-term Assistance and Services for Research) PULSE (Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine) program which since August 2023 has moved into its no-cost extension period, with the continuation of Buy-in funding (LASER PULSE works with USAID missions/bureaus/independent offices to refine development challenges and assemble, fund, and support research teams from its network to carry out the research project). A consortium led by Purdue University, with core partners Catholic Relief Services, Indiana University, Makerere University, and University of Notre Dame, implements the LASER PULSE program through a growing network of 3,000+ researchers and development practitioners in 74 countries, all collaborating on research-driven practical solutions to critical development challenges in USAID Partner countries.

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Read More About MEAL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning)