I am in Tromsø, Norway for a workshop on gender and adaptation. The conversation has been very interesting, with a lot of different people bringing different ideas/concerns to the table.  As you might imagine, a lot of it has been fodder for thought. But today a comment by Torjer Andreas Olsen, of the Centre for Sami Studies (SESAM) at the University of Tromsø, really stuck with me. In a conversation about business and innovation, he suggested that we face a challenge in the use of the term “innovation” when we talk about indigenous peoples such as the Sami. Because most business discussions of innovation are focused on technological change, they fail to see the development of new forms of knowledge and information as innovation.  Therefore, while indigenous peoples (and I would extend this argument to most of the global poor) have the capacity to produce important information and knowledge about the world, this often does not come attached to technological change and therefore goes unacknowledged.

I think Torjer is dead right, and I think I can extend his argument a bit here. By failing to acknowledge the production of knowledge and information as itself an innovation, we basically allow ourselves to write off the global poor as lacking innovation. This enables our usual narratives of development – of a helpless global poor waiting for someone to come save them from their routinized ways. This is enhanced by climate change, as this narrative, run to its logical end, suggests that the global poor have pretty much nothing to contribute in their own efforts to adapt, and therefore require massive interventions from the “innovative north”.

This is a major problem for development, especially as major donor start embracing the idea of innovation.  While at USAID, I looked up at the wrong time in a meeting and was tasked with identifying the Agency definition of innovation.  My friend and colleague Mike Hanowski kindly threw himself under the bus and volunteered to help me. What followed was a fairly hilarious afternoon where Mike and I called various people in the Agency to obtain this definition. Every person we called passed us to another person, until we were passed back to the first person we had called.  Really.  So, no formal definition of innovation (maybe this has changed, but I doubt much of the Agency would know if even if it had).

Now, I am a fan of the Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) folks at USAID (a group that was started after the aforementioned story). They do promote interesting, relatively edgy ideas within the Agency. But look at what DIV does – every project amounts to the use of a technology to address a “big challenge” for development.  In and of itself, this is fine…but in this focus, DIV (inadvertently) reinforces the trope of the helpless global poor, waiting for the “innovative north” (or ideally an “innovative southerner”, presented as an outlier who can lead the helpless poor in his/her country or community to a brighter future). Even as we find interesting solutions to development challenges, we are reinforcing the idea that such solutions are the Global North’s to give to those in the Global South. As long as this is the case, we will continue to miss the interesting opportunities to address these and other challenges that exist in the minds and practices of the global poor.