USAID hosts innovation fair to avert maternal and child deaths

A mother plays with her young son in Mwea, Kenya.
A mother plays with her young son in Mwea, Kenya.
Gates Foundation

Innovators gathered in Washington DC to show off their ideas and inventions that will help reduce child and maternal deaths. Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development puts millions behind 22 grant winners though a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), and the U.K’s Department for International Development (DFID).

The WHO estimates that 800 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. More than 3.5 million children died in 2011 from preventable causes. Nearly all of the deaths occur in developing countries. The stats are striking and are why USAID and others are looking for ways to save millions of lives each year.

“Through Saving Lives at Birth and other programs, our Agency supports a large number of researchers and entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas and technologies with potential to save and transform lives,” said USAID Administrator Shah about the program in December.

Grant winning projects include a next-generation uterine balloon tamponade device to treat postpartum hemorrhage in Kenya and South Sudan by a team from Massachusetts General Hospital and a magnesium sulfate gel that simplifies treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia from Seattle-based PATH.

“You cannot have a successful society if women are dying of childbirth and if children go off to live with relatives or in orphanages,” said Shah to the Atlantic. “We know that a great majority of those deaths happen for children born outside of a medical facility. So, we thought, let’s invent new solutions that can tackle that precise problem.”

A too-fine focus on innovations and technical solutions has been criticized. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan mentions the usual examples of failure: One Laptop Per Child and the PlayPumps. She references Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article which argued that people, not technologies, push forward health solutions.

It’s hard to know which devices will prove lasting, but there are a few things USAID and its partners look for in competition winners to reduce the odds that the inventions will flop.

First, they must be cheap. Though the grant money will allow these devices get their start, the successful ones will eventually be perpetuated by purchases on the ground in the host country, and they’ll be re-usable and require few replacement parts.

Second, Shah says USAID and the other partners follow up on the grantees to make sure that they remain functional in the field, so the inventors must ensure the host communities want to use the product.

And as Gawande wrote, sometimes instilling lasting change in individuals’ routines is much harder than dreaming up a new gadget. Most of the inventors I spoke with included some aspect of behavior change in their project, like training sessions or education programs.

I asked Shah why USAID wouldn’t just funnel their money toward things like hospitals and roads in developing countries, rather than supporting solar suitcases and the like. Some countries lag so far behind in maternal health, he said, that the agency thinks it’s best to work within the nations’ current parameters — home births, unsanitary conditions, and all — rather than focus on larger-scale development.

“A young girl born in South Sudan today is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete a secondary education,” he said. “We can’t wait another 20 years for South Sudan to look like Iowa.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.