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USAID hopes to boost innovation in development with new lab

Former Sec State Clinton at the USAID Innovation Lab launch.
Former Sec State Clinton at the USAID Innovation Lab launch.
Rob Baker

Innovation is the buzzword for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with the launch of its new Global Development Lab. The agency held an event, featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to unveil its collaboration with 32 “cornerstone partners” including US universities, major corporations, foundations and nonprofits. It comes with a roughly $1 billion annual budget, marking a significant shift in US development priorities.

The new lab puts more emphasis on discovering and spreading solutions to the biggest challenges in international development.

“With breakthroughs that reach a global scale, we can really bring an end to global poverty,” said Lona Stoll, senior adviser to USAID Administrator Raj Shah, to Humanosphere. “It gets us to development impact better, cheaper and more sustainability.”

Its creation is the realization of a recommendation included in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, carried out when Clinton was at the helm of the US State Department, to review the performance of the entire US  State Department. USAID’s head Raj Shah has talked a lot about the need to support innovation. He has made previous forays with programs such as Development Innovation Ventures.

Private-public partnerships are increasingly getting  attention for both their positive and negative potential. The lab features notable corporate partners: Cargill, Cisco, Citi, Coca-Cola, DuPont, GlaxoSmithKline, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Nike, Syngenta, Unilever and Walmart.

The event came on the same day that an attempt by the agency to create a Twitter-like platform in Cuba to spark civil unrest, was revealed by the Associated Press. It gave cause for concerns that US development policy was not purely humanitarian. Critics the public-private partnership rush are concerned with what the lab will actually accomplish.

“This preposterous idea that corporations will solve the world’s development challenges is so out of touch [with]reality that it would be comical if it were not for its disastrous consequences,” said Anuradha Mittal, the founder and executive director of the US-based Oakland Institute thinktank, to the Guardian.

Statements from leaders representing USAID’s partners are expectedly optimistic about the potential of the lab.

“We know that no single company, government or organization alone can help solve the systemic challenges that continue to hinder development in communities around the world,” said Hannah Jones, VP Sustainable Business & Innovation, NIKE, Inc. “The innovations and initiatives required to create a positive future need new, often unconventional, models of collaboration. Working with USAID and the Global Development Lab can provide new opportunities to identify and foster bold ideas that will lead the way for breakthrough solutions for global development.”

Innovation broadly is used in describing the lab, but there are six areas that will garner more focus: maternal and child survival, energy access, food security and nutrition, clean water, connected technologies and child literacy. Existing examples of USAID’s work in these areas include the Better than Cash Alliance and Feed the Future. Mobile money and electronic payments are a focal area as a way to increase access to banking services for the poor. The Better than Cash Alliance seeks out solutions bring mobile money to more countries, after the wild success of M-PESA in Kenya.

The lab will seek to take many of the solutions to problems that are in the phase of pilot or operate in a small region, to scale. It has been a challenge in international development to bridge the scale gap and USAID hopes that it can address that problem through its own funding and by bringing all of its partners to the table.

“What the lab represents is asking a question, rather than saying, “Here is a solution.” How do we reduce the number of the deaths in the first 48 hours after birth? We want to open up to global problem solvers to answer that,” explained Stoll.

Logistically, the creation of the innovation lab is the result of a merge between USAID’s Office of Science and Technology with the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances. Crucial to the program is the increase in funding for research and development within the Agency. Funding increased from $127 million in 2008 to $611 million today, evidence used by USAID to point towards its shifting focus.

Stoll is most excited about the possibility of working with the private sector to solve some of these problems. The partnership is not done through the corporate social responsibility arms of Coca Cola and Walmart. USAID wants to work with the companies themselves in order to learn and encourage the companies in making the investments that will expand their work and impact in developing countries.

“We are asking them to co-create this lab with us by identifying shared goals without exchanging money,” she said about the corporate partners.

Not all people are excited greater private sector involvement. There are concerns that corporate interests will stand ahead of that of the people living in poverty that the lab is aiming to reach.

“[They] promote the interests of corporations like Cargill, Unilever and WalMart under the guise of tackling poverty,” said Christine Haigh, a spokeswoman for the World Development Movement, to the Guardian.

“In fact, by entrenching the power of major companies in the global economic system, these projects contribute to greater global inequality, and do nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty.”

A similar partnership that includes partners like USAID and the World Bank, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, has come under scrutiny for aiding foreign investors at the cost of smallholder farmers. A report by Our Land Our Business criticized the World Bank for using country rankings to prioritize pro-business reforms.

“[P]rivate agribusiness investors appear to be the core beneficiaries of the project, which again underlies a push for neoliberal land policy and further deregulation of the agricultural sector. The [Benchmarking the Business of agriculture], just like the [doing Business ranking of countries], is another tool for fostering economic deregulation to benefit corporate interests at the expense of the citizens of developing countries.

A focus on innovation and technology to solve problems related to global poverty have come with high hype, but not necessarily results. Some partners in the lab are cautious in their optimism.

“There are very few silver bullets in development. Technology alone cannot solve the world’s problems.  But leveraged effectively, it can, among other things, greatly improve how we collaborate, learn, continuously adapt and ultimately scale effectively,” said Tessie San Martin, President & CEO of Plan International USA.


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]