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Aid and Innovation

Few would disagree with the need for more innovation in aid and development. But we need to ask ourselves what it means, and who it is that is doing the innovation. By Tamas Wells

At the Canberra launch of the InnovationXChange Australian Aid initiative, Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said that she aims to put “innovation at the heart of all we do”. The InnovationXChange is designed to drive “new and exciting technologies, ideas and partnerships in our aid program”.

And who would disagree with that aim? “Innovation” is indeed a word, as Bishop suggests, that is “almost universally embraced”. While recognising the unique constraints of government agencies, which are rightly subject to more public accountability than other actors, innovation is a worthwhile emphasis.

The challenge comes when we turn to what the word innovation means in aid and development, and in particular, who it is that is doing the innovating.

Beyond the office décor – Minister Bishop commented that the InnovationXChange office is designed to “inspire thoughts of Google, or Twitter or Facebook” – it is important to unpack the ways that the word innovation is being used.

One trend in the use of the word “innovation” for aid and development is in referring to the development of new private sector partnerships. In her speech, Bishop highlighted the example of SEEDS, a new partnership in the Pacific region where aid agencies work together with global businesses to “bring ideas, new products and new solutions to the Pacific that, while making profit, have a significant development impact”.

Another trend is to attach the word “innovative” to technology based solutions. Bishop went on to give the example of the M-PESA program, which created mobile banking solutions in Kenya, and was backed by a partnership between Vodafone and the United Kingdom's Department for International Development.

A look at the list of International Reference Group members for the InnovationXChange – which is a collection of “creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, and leading business people” - also reveals this slant towards tech and private partnership meanings of “innovation”.

In thinking about innovation in aid and development we should of course be attentive to the potential of new technologies and partnerships. But the danger of focussing on these meanings is that we begin to think that “innovation” is something that happens mostly within aid agencies, or companies, or amongst designers of new technology. For example, in stressing the importance of innovation in DFAT, Bishop stressed that she wants staff themselves to “come up with the biggest, best and brightest new ideas”.

In contrast, another strand of thinking about innovation focusses on the ideas and solutions of beneficiaries, or “users”. Innovation is propelled by “co-designing” policy or programs closely with communities, or with the vulnerable or the marginalised. Rather than the epicentre of “innovation” being in the open plan offices of aid agencies or their private sector partners, innovation is something that is primarily centred within, and driven by, the poorest communities themselves.

A look over the history of efforts at development in poorer countries no doubt shows some value in private sector partnerships and technological innovations. Yet there is also a litany of examples where seemingly innovative ideas generated by Western aid experts or companies have ended up making the lives of the poorest even harder. For example, Western programs of “modernization” in the 1950s and 60s in Afghanisatan were based on the latest and most “innovative” technological and private sector know how, yet had disastrous effects on livelihoods and stability in the country, with decades’ long implications.

The best way to ensure that aid innovations have more benefit than harm, is to begin with the ideas, perspectives and solutions generated by poor communities. Aid agencies should of course strive to be innovators themselves, and novel new partnerships and tech developments may be beneficial. But they should first strive to be better facilitators of the ideas and solutions of those who are supposed to benefit from aid.

In the new thirst for innovation in aid we need to ask ourselves what “innovation” means, and importantly, who it is that is doing the “innovating”. Seeing “innovation” first through the eyes of poor communities, can help to make sure that we don’t repeat the glaringly obvious mistakes of the past.

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