Central to some of the biggest projects in recent years that address poverty is the idea that innovation is the single most important element in bringing change. The Gates Foundation put money behind new condom designs, systems that re-use waste water for drinking and no-water toilets. Companies like Facebook, which wants bring the Internet to everyone in the world, are hoping that its products and efforts can spark life-changing innovation.
Inherent in this push is the idea that poor countries can’t innovate and wealthy countries can. That is plain wrong. The recent Global Innovation Index shows that many countries score well on innovation, despite having small economies. Malawi, for example, rates well on the index and happens to be one of the world’s poorest countries. Tiny Vietnam is apparently more innovative than the emerging economy that is Brazil. Plotting innovation against GDP shows some correlation between national wealth and innovation, but it is not that simple.
Innovation is happening everywhere, but innovation doesn’t necessarily solve every problem. The very idea was challenged by Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh Mwangi. She was part of the team that developed the post-election violence crowd mapping platform Ushahidi in 2008. She worked for a time for Google Africa and is now leading investments for the Omidyar Network in Africa. Quartz named her as one of the top African innovators last year, a term she later explained is deeply problematic.
“I’m concerned about what I see is the fetishization around entrepreneurship in Africa,” she said in an interview. “It’s almost like it’s the next new liberal thing. Like, don’t worry that there’s no power because hey, you’re going to do solar and innovate around that. Your schools suck, but hey there’s this new model of schooling. Your roads are terrible, but hey, Uber works in Nairobi and that’s innovation.”
She points out that calls for innovation in Africa are not seen in countries like the U.S. Greece, she says, was not told to innovate its way out of its financial crisis. It worked with the European Union, Germany and other countries to come up with a solution to its financial woes. Major social change requires addressing core problems. Innovation is not going to solve the problems of racial and economic inequalities in the U.S.
“I didn’t see anyone entrepreneur-ing around public schooling in the U.S. You all went to public schools, you know, and then made it to Harvard or whatever. You turned on your light and it came on. No one is trying to innovate around your electricity power company. So why are we being made to do that? Our systems need to work and we need to figure our shit out,” she said.
The fact that the top countries in the Global Innovation Index are Switzerland, the U.K., Sweden, Netherlands and the U.S. may be the result of their economic prosperity, not the cause. In Ghana, entrepreneurs are making bicycles out of bamboo. Children in Uganda are re-purposing electrical and radio parts to make speakers in bottle gourds. India is home to the cheap tablet and the $50 no-electricity refrigerator. Examples of innovation across the world are plentiful and they have an impact.
When sickness spread in U.S. cities like Boston and New York at the turn of the 20th century, it was public action and regulation change that led to widespread improvements. Innovation has never been the way out of poverty for massive groups of people.