Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Leading with our Strengths

Innovation has become a watchword in U.S. foreign assistance, and a number of initiatives have institutionalized this focus. To this end, USAID established its Global Innovation Lab in 2014 which has a two-part mandate: (1) identify, test, and then scale up proven solutions to development challenges; and (2) to transform the practice of development by opening it up to good ideas from other sectors that have already leveraged scientific and technological advances. Now operational for two years, the lab has catalyzed and catalogued a significant number of partnerships, investments, and successes, and is now exploring obstacles to the adoption and scale up of successful interventions with a focus on removing as many barriers as possible.

More concretely, USAID and the U.S. government as a whole have made greater use of the Grand Challenge model for development, used so effectively already by others including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Designed to elicit previously unexplored solutions from nontraditional sources by offering sizeable funding to winning entries, USAID has issued eight Grand Challenges to date: seeking solutions for issues ranging from Ebola and Zika, to energy, water, civil society voice, literacy, and newborn health.

While USAID remains the largest provider of U.S. foreign assistance, other U.S. development agencies also took steps to institutionalize their ability to incorporate learning, progress, and innovation, particularly in light of the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced a plan to establish joint data centers in Africa in an effort to, “improve existing data and make it more accessible, strengthen data analysis and visualization, enhance opportunities for citizen contribution to data, cultivate talent, and ensure mutual accountability when implementing development aid so we can make a sustainable difference.”

InterAction Recognizes

  • Entrepreneurial approaches can be brought to bear on traditional development and humanitarian goals. It is easy to see how innovation and entrepreneurship play a role in large, high-profile advances such as vaccines, leaps in clean energy technology, or growth in global telecommunications. Bringing that same spirit of innovation to bear at local levels can also lead to better or more cost-effective solutions to problems that do not have technological solutions, such as maternal care, water and sanitation for families in refugee camps, or local agricultural practices. Effective U.S. foreign assistance balances these high-profile initiatives with continued support for the day-to-day challenges of humanitarian relief and development in which the dilemma is not the lack of a solution, but rather that there are too many places it is needed simultaneously.

  • Partnerships across sectors and innovative financing models are challenging to assemble but may unlock new results. The public, private, and nonprofit sectors each have specific roles to play in solving global challenges. While it can be time-consuming to identify shared opportunities and to structure investment vehicles that create gains for all sectors, they have the potential to bring market-based sustainability to development and humanitarian challenges.

  • Risk, failure, and impact evaluation all matter if innovation is to have lasting effects. Innovation inherently means testing new approaches. And that carries a risk of failure. Fully embracing an entrepreneurial approach to development therefore not only requires a willingness to commit to monitoring and evaluation of new efforts, but clear expectation—and acceptance—that a substantial portion of what is tried does not work better than the original model.

Upcoming Opportunities

  • Support the USAID Global Development Lab as an incubator of change, not a silo of science and technology [Ongoing]: The ability of the Global Development Lab to realize its full potential for innovation rests significantly on the notion that it is now possible for U.S. government assistance to support alternative approaches to the biggest engineering and social challenges of our time. U.S. development effectiveness is best served when the lab’s emphasis on an entrepreneurial spirit (not just science and technology) is highlighted—whether that is through the annual budget process, debate around pertinent legislation, or coordinating interagency efforts to tackle new challenges.

  • Allocate the funding needed to modernize agencies [Ongoing through the annual budget cycle]: Over the past 10 years, there have been a number of successful, high profile U.S. government efforts to embrace data and technology, and to integrate learning and approaches from Silicon Valley into the fabric of U.S. foreign assistance and policymaking. The advent of open data strategies, chief innovation officers, and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program all speak to the need to bring into government current tools and approaches. However, administrative funding for the information technology infrastructure and human resources that agencies need to follow through has not always been provided. Ensuring that the administrative resources are commensurate with expectations of progress will put the U.S. on a path toward more integrated innovation in its foreign assistance.

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