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Gates Foundation calls for “wacky” new ways to say that aid works

Finding new ways to communicate

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officially calls it the Grand Challenges Exploration program and it was initially launched to fund unorthodox — some might even say ‘wacky‘ — scientific research projects aimed at solving problems in global health and development.

They’ve funded research projects exploring how to use microwaves for treating malaria, make cell phones run on dirt, use gold particles to fight TB and other crazy-sounding things.

This week, the philanthropy is asking for a new round of proposals from all you creative types, including the standard calls to optimize crop yields and improve vaccines but this time adding a new not-so-technologically geeky category into the mix: Advocacy. Storytelling.

“We thought the timing was right for a call on aid effectiveness, said Tom Scott, head of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “It’s a tough economic environment and difficult choices need to be made.  At the same time, the story of aid and its effectiveness is not breaking through.  We hope that can change.”

Basically, the philanthropy wants to come up with some innovative ways to show that aid and development projects are succeeding and to counter the media’s tendency to do mostly “stories of corruption, waste and broken systems.”

They call this new Grand Challenge category of request for proposals Aid Works:

We want to find revolutionary ways to make these issues matter deeply to the global community. We’re inspired by projects that allow anyone– no matter where they live or what their background– to take part. We encourage projects that embrace the complexity of these issues. We admire work that surprises us with its emotional power, and that comes at the problem from entirely new angles.

Scott also posted further thoughts on Impatient Optimists, the Gates Foundation blog, explaining why they wish to emphasize success stories. In an email, he added:

“The idea of telling success stories is not new, but the need is more critical than ever.  The key for us is to encourage creativity and innovation in completely new and different ways.  I can’t wait to see what kind of ideas come in.”

The Gates Foundation will select up to 10 winning ideas, each of which will receive $100,000 and also be granted the opportunity to be further mentored by some French expert communicators known as the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. (I wonder if you can opt out of that part?)

Using prizes, contests and competitions to solve major social, political and economic problems is becoming very popular, notes Tina Rosenberg at the New York Times. It’s not a new idea, Rosenberg notes, but it’s gained steam lately:

The change has come in part because of a flood of new philanthropic money (a lot of it from the tech sector) wielded by people looking for different ways of doing things, and because of a growing impatience with the limitations of in-house research and development and giving grants. The world brain pool has also never been larger.

More important, prizes work where other methods do not.   A lot of problems aren’t new — someone has already solved them or has solved something similar. By casting a very wide net, prizes find these people.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.