Politics of Poverty

Where can “innovation” be found in the global development sector?

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Envisioning offerings for ‘More than a Job’, an employability platform for young people. Photo courtesy of Quicksand.

A new online toolkit provides useful guidance for development practitioners.

This post is cross-posted from the DIY Toolkit’s blog

Innovation is not a result of dictating or choosing from what is, but expanding options.” ~Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute of Social Change

Let’s face it. Some days, most days, development work is far from sexy. What’s most needed to bring about changes in ordinary people’s lives is citizens demanding fundamental services, community organizing and coalition building, governments and agencies managing their budgets, i.e. the day-to-day grind of making institutions function.

So why then is the development sector so obsessed with being “innovative”?

It may be because we are often working in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, within the risk-averse policies and procedures of aid agencies suffering from bureaucratic inertia. We long for a new ways of thinking and working and new ideas are way more fun and much less political. Nonetheless, I am often concerned that the term “innovation” gets over-used and misinterpreted in the humanitarian and development sector.

Rather than the usual “latest and greatest idea or fad” and “get-to-scale” mentality associated with innovation, I wonder if innovation can be re-defined to identify innovation first from the ground up? In other words, can more localized, grounded means of problem solving generate the most effective ideas, products, or processes to be labeled as “innovative”?

A new toolkit has been introduced, intended to help us do this better – the DIY (Development Impact & You) Toolkit: Practical Tools to Trigger & Support Social Innovation. The toolkit was created by Nesta, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and contributed to by various development organizations (including Oxfam). The DIY toolkit website contains 30 online, downloadable tools (and instructions) that can be used and applied across various sectors and settings to help “bring ideas to life.”

Throughout my experience in aid and philanthropy, I have found that local organizations are doing some of the most innovative, yet under-valued work in the development sector. Solome Lemma, co-founder and Executive Director of Africans in the Diaspora (AiD) explains,

“It’s often easy to forget the great amount of innovation that indigenous, grassroots organizations employ. Even more so because they often don’t frame their work within the language we understand or associate with innovation. You must listen, dig, ask questions, and reframe in your head to see that within what they describe as a regular part of their work lies ingenuity.”

Doesn’t it just make good sense to support more opportunities for “innovation” closer to where the problems are occurring? Aren’t the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out, more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation lie? And from small initiatives, is there not the potential to pilot and learn for application in larger programs? Ultimately, where we are looking for innovation and who defines innovation is vital.

One of the most important roles of us as development practitioners is to encourage, coach, and uphold processes of individual and collective reflection to identify and overcome obstacles, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work. If you are a development practitioner supporting community- or country-led initiatives, the DIY toolkit is a useful tool to enhance your support of development partners to think creatively about their programs and practices at all levels. Supporting people and leaders in the developing world to enhance their own efforts with openness and confidence is what gives birth to lasting innovation.

So perhaps it’s time to re-conceptualize “innovation” for global development. What if the thing really makes something innovative is not the idea itself, but the learning that made it possible?

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