Entries tagged with “innovation”.

So, this just popped up in my twitter feed from @USAID:


Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.23.57 AM


What’s fun about this tweet is the fact that USAID, and indeed most development donors, are  “other places” where failure = damage to your career and budget. There are a host of reasons for this (just start reading this Natsios piece and work out from there), but anyone who denies this problem is just delusional (there are pockets of high risk operations at USAID, but they are the exceptions, not the rule).

Also note, this tweet is related to a discussion of innovation policy…which, it seems to me, missed the point of innovation entirely. Let me summarize a workable innovation policy for everyone: If donors want innovation, they need to foster a culture of reasonable risk for big rewards among their staff and implementers. They need to stop being the “other places” in this tweet. How they do this depends on the institution, but this should be the goal.

See, you don’t even need an executive summary for that.

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.

Well, they pulled all 33 miners out of the hole.  This is an absolutely staggering feat – first, finding the miners nearly a half mile underground in the first place, and then drilling a precision shaft all the way down to them that was straight enough to accommodate a rescue capsule – which then worked flawlessly 33 times.  It never got old watching the miners come out of the ground.  And certainly the Chileans have a lot to be proud of these days.

AP Photo/Jose Manuel de la Maza, Chilean presidential press office

But this whole experience has caused me to think again about development and our persistent inability to get things done in a consistent manner for the world’s poorest people.  This rescue was, in many ways, everything that modern development is not.  The Chileans never asked about the cost – in fact, nobody knows what this cost, besides a hell of a lot.  The government didn’t parse options and try to pick the most cost-effective rescue – they ran three plans at once, to see which would work best.  It was expensive, but saved time and probably saved some lives.  In short, the Chilean government didn’t even try to assess the value of a human life here – by any economic measure, they’ve probably spent a lot more saving these men than the miners will ever earn or spend in the Chilean economy, so the rescue was an economic loser all along – the government decided that saving these men was necessary at any cost, that the value of their lives was not calculable.

When I see that attitude, with this amazing result, I am appalled by the piles of monitoring and evaluation red tape that development organizations must wade through to justify their activities – was that the lowest bid?  The most cost-effective intervention?  All of that accounting misses the point – there is no such thing as a good intervention that leaves people behind in the name of efficiency or cost-effectiveness.  Human lives cannot, and should not, be valued that way.

Second, this rescue was innovative and risk-taking.  They ran three plans at once.  Nobody had ever done any of them at this sort of depth.  There were huge risks of failure.  And they plowed forward anyway – two of them did not work out, but the third (actually, plan B) saved 33 lives.  There are so many of us in development who carry around the desire to try innovative things, to risk failure, learn and try again . . . but the culture of development with its budgeting and monitoring chokes off these sorts of efforts for interventions that produce easily measured results.  When we take risks and fail, the accountants take the money away.  So we go for easy, safe results, even when those results have little meaning for the people at the receiving end of the intervention.  What does it mean to say that this year we trained 25 judges in country X?  Have we really improved the judicial system, or the standard of living for those subject to it?  That number does nothing to help us understand if what we are doing matters at all . . . but we keep working on this sort of project because it is a measurable outcome that is of relatively low risk.

Contrary to what Jeffrey Sachs keeps preaching, we DO NOT know what works in development.  If we did, there would be a hell of a lot less suffering in the world today.  We do know, however, what produces measurable results that look good, and we keep pounding away at that sort of work because we can rejustify our budgets each year.  Development is pathetically risk-averse, from the top down, and those that would take risks cannot find the funding or support to do so.

Chile just pulled 33 men out of a hole in the ground a half-mile deep.  They did it with help from mining and drilling experts from more than a dozen countries and with advice from NASA specialists on living in isolated conditions (if there were any doubt of the value of a human spaceflight program, here is yet another spinoff value that we have gained.  NASA’s unique expertise in this area surely contributed to the safe recovery of many of these men).  This was an international partnership to try to do the impossible, making it up as they went along.  And they did it.

Surely we can reimagine development in the same way, and with the same spirit.  But with much more urgency.  There are a lot more than 33 people down this hole.