Development needs to adapt with global challenges: Innovation is key

The world today is rapidly changing, and to stay ahead of global challenges, those working in international development must adapt. This requires not more of the same, but constant innovation to help drive progress.

Innovation is not necessarily creating something entirely new, but using something in a new way to achieve better results. Examples of development innovation were ubiquitous at USAID Global Innovation Week, a time to showcase new tools and processes to improve the way the U.S. does development. Participants presented new technology to help deliver refrigerated medicine to remote, tropical locations. Others discussed new business models to provide medical supplies to families and help African youth prepare for and acquire skilled jobs. Infinite examples of using phones for everything from mobile payments to information sharing were also discussed. Across all the participants, the need to think out of the box and adapt their solutions to the ever-changing problems was a constant theme.

Technology continues to be a key element of innovation. However, innovation in the form of new business models is also making great strides in development. A panel discussion, moderated by InterAction’s Vice President of Global Development Policy and Learning, Alicia Phillips Mandaville, discussed two projects that were utilizing innovative business models to tackle development challenges. In “The Walmart Model: Process Improvement to Drive Cost-effective Scale-up of Evidence-based Innovations”, Maryana Iskander, CEO of Harambee Youth Employment and Shaun Church, President of Living Goods, explained the new ways that they are approaching youth unemployment and personal medical supply distribution, respectively. Both spoke on the need for collaboration with both the public and private sectors to ensure that their approaches are not competing and potentially providing an opportunity for other sectors to learn from their innovation. They also spoke about borrowing ideas from the private sector, but ensuring that doing so doesn’t impede impact.

The panelists also spoke about the difficulty of finding funding for innovative projects, a major roadblock to moving development forward. Innovative solutions require trial and error and the ability to make mistakes. However, donors are historically risk-adverse, more willing to put their money into tried and tested methods of development rather than taking a risk on something new. While this is understandable from a business standpoint, development funding needs to allow flexibility and understanding of failure to move beyond this roadblock. This is crucial to allow for new methods to be tested and continued progress on development projects.

Innovation is key to successful development in an ever-changing world. Events like USAID’s Global Innovation Week provide a glimpse into some of the creative ways in which development organizations are working to make a lasting difference in the world.  New technologies, but also new business models and strategies, can have striking results and improve the lives of thousands, even millions. Yet securing funding for these solutions from traditionally risk-adverse donors remains a roadblock. It is important that donors recognize the importance of trial and error and allow development organizations to fail in the discovery process to create new and more effective ways of doing development. As the development community continues to make strides toward greater progress and achieving the SDGs, innovation needs to remain a key component of the development process.