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Chasing Ghosts: How the focus on innovation in development has gone down the wrong path

Nathaniel Heller, David de Ferranti, Thomas Feeny   |   June 27, 2018   |   10 Comments

Scaling Innovations

[Editor’s Note: This blog is the first in a series hosted by R4D’s Scaling Innovations practice, which aims to advance the effective integration of innovation solutions for health, education and nutrition. Over the coming months, we will explore the challenges and lessons associated with the design, implementation and evaluation of innovation programs, labs and partnerships with an eye toward tangible insights and practical guidance for others engaged in doing development differently around the world.]

Soon after the ink dried on world leaders’ ambitious commitments in 2015 to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, thoughtful observers pointed out that the goals could not be achieved by simply ramping up the best approaches known then. New solutions — better, faster or more affordable — would have to be found and applied widely across Africa, Asia, Latin America, as well as in high-income countries.

The importance of innovation in international development, already a familiar refrain for decades, has received even more attention since the adoption of the SDGs. But while global dialogue about innovation has proselytized in terms of the power of doing things differently, in most sectors, we remain seemingly stuck in an endless cycle of pilots, hype and showcases. And we often have little to show in terms of sustained gains and improved access to services for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Why the continued cycle of discovery, overhype and disappointment? Current thinking suggests either a market failure centered on access to financing (“we need more money to scale”) or a positioning breakdown (“social entrepreneurs can only take things so far, and government is dropping the ball”). Based on new research, we suggest a more fundamental disconnect in the current work to leverage innovation to drive development outcomes: the continued fetishization of the breakthrough “innovation” as the most important unit of analysis.

Current thinking on innovation for development

Conventional wisdom on how the international development community should embrace innovation as a key to improved and sustained outcomes generally flows as follows:

Step A: Stimulate key actors (often social entrepreneurs) to develop and test improved approaches to solving problems (thus the continued proliferation of various prizes and challenge funds).

Step B: Ease the way for those innovators to find financing to support their new approaches.

Step C: Scale up “the good ones” from interesting pilots to robust system-wide game-changers; and then,

Step D: Help decision-makers with access to system-wide financing, often in the public sector, make the right choices when determining which innovations to bet on and mainstream.

Contemporary writing on (and “doing of”) innovation often presumes that previous thinkers never thought much about it. In fact, emphasis on the power of innovation has been around a very long time in the development discourse, though with different monikers. When international development work suddenly took off soon after World War II, writers such as Walt Rostow (The Stages of Economic Growth) were espousing innovation and “doing development differently” every bit as much as today’s thinkers — and perhaps even more so because their ideas had more concrete advice on what needed to be done.  Successive waves of ideas — on how to radically change agricultural development, why economic growth is so important, or how performance-based financing could change the world (obvious examples include the works of Albert Hirschman and Joseph Schumpeter) — were no less founded on a belief in innovation.

Through the years, however, one constant has been the belief that by simply uncovering the next “silver bullet” for development, we could quickly make the leap from step C above (identifying the “good ones”) to step D (turning the good ones into business as usual across a given sector). It turns out that automaticity is not nearly as predictable as we would like it to be.

New research from Results for Development on the role of “translators” in the evidence-informed policy ecosystem (that is, the growing field focused on the role of evidence in data-driven policymaking) paints a far more complex picture concerning that aspired-for jump from step C to step D above. Based on in-depth case studies in multiple countries and a wide-ranging literature review, researchers found that:

  • The translator skills described as most critical [to effectively shepherd compelling evidence into sustained policy and behavioral changes] were political savvy and stakeholder engagement — two skills that are closely connected.
  • The [research] did not [emphasis added] identify analytical skills and the ability to adapt, transform and communicate evidence as important stand-alone translator skills.
  • While the research did not explicitly validate the importance of some of the skills that are typically considered key to evidence translation (e.g. analytical skills), development partners should prioritize working with individuals and organizations known for their credibility and political savvy.

Within the context of innovation in international development, these findings might be glibly summarized as, “TED talks matter more than randomized control trials.” That is, the continued obsession with finding the new “what works” solution may be quickly trumped by decision-makers’ tendencies to back solutions based on who surfaces them rather than what the evidentiary basis says about the same solution. This somewhat dispiriting finding may help to explain why “pilotitis” continues to dominate the innovation landscape in international development. As a community, we are likely promoting and backing too many innovations because of the personalities behind them and/or the reputation of the intermediaries who bring them to light. Harder evidence surrounding efficacy and potential to scale may be diminished or ignored as a consequence.

There are two simple but important takeaways from this analysis for boosters of innovation in international development:

  1. We need to focus more explicitly on the strategic communications skills and political savvy of our entrepreneurs. Simply showcasing them at glitzy events or on websites is insufficient; these entrepreneurs need to be able to earn the trust and respect of decision-makers in positions of power (often inside of public sector institutions). This takes time, coalition building, practice, repeated failure (and subsequent course corrections), and coaching. Investing in those soft skills may be equally or more important than investing in additional innovations themselves.
  2. Funders of development innovation may want to more seriously weigh the costs and benefits of continuing to flood the market with “the next new thing in [fill in the blank for your favorite sector].” Given the serious and chronic challenges associated with scaling up promising innovations (and the corollary challenges of porting and adapting successful innovations from an initial and often unique political-economy context), are new and additional challenge funds and prize-driven innovation contests really the best return on investment? Instead of focusing on generating more step A solutions, perhaps investing in better understanding the transition from step C to step D is where our collective attention should increasingly focus.

We hope this blog series will stimulate discussion, change minds and inform action. We want to hear your thoughts on the role and potential of innovation within your work, and we encourage you to comment below.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series, which will look at learnings from the LAUNCH Food experiment and how innovation can catalyze systemic change for food systems.

Photo © Karen Dias for CHMI/Ziqitza Healthcare Ltd

Comments 10 Responses

  1. John Hoven October 12, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

    Why did this qualitative study avoid using the methods of qualitative causal inference (particularly process tracing, since that is a fairly simple extension of Theories of Change)?

  2. Larry Cooley August 1, 2018 @ 4:40 pm

    If I could add a point to the argument, it would be this: The blog post rightly highlights the “political” functions needed for successful scaling, but doesn’t give enough attention to meeting the operational challenges involved in moving interventions onto large, stable platforms. I am ever-more-drawn to the realization that the missing elements in fully realizing any major change (including, but not limited to, scaling) are often the unromantic, practical actions needed for embedding and institutionalizing that change within existing systems. The people talented at external promotion of change are rarely gifted at leading internal reforms and realignments, and neither of these skill sets typically coincide with the skills and attributes we typically think of when we use the term “innovator.”

  3. Saku Tuominen August 1, 2018 @ 5:07 am

    Probably the best short text about scaling innovations I have ever read. (and I have read way too many). Spot on. So many useful insights from pilot-madness to overvaluing people vs the actual quality of innovations – and underestimating the amount of distribution work needed (c -> d). We need to pay so much more attention to this stage. As poet J.D. McClatchy says it more beautifully: ”Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”

    1. Nathaniel Heller August 1, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

      thank you, very kind!

  4. Kristie August 1, 2018 @ 2:01 am

    I agree a lot with your comments (I work in the agriculture sector) but for me the elephant in the room is ‘gender’ and power relations. We still haven’t found a way to have the agricultural sector work for women as much as it does men. The system relies upon unpaid, or poorly paid, labor. Yes, long term support is needed but for institutional change (to turn institutions into learning entities that serve the worlds citizens) and how policy and current practice impacts negatively on women. Our current organising structures do not serve us well.

    1. Nathaniel Heller August 1, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

      Very much agree. We are beginning to invest more heavily in bringing a gender lens to our work here at R4D for precisely these reasons.

  5. Benjamin Bach July 26, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

    In this regard, I can highly recommend the brilliant piece in Africasacountry by Naledi Yaziyo, “The New Testament”

    > Much of black youth culture in South Africa celebrates constant self-invention, and is built on the gospel of entrepreneurship.

    Also the ideal of the “Ted Talk genius”, which so reminded me of this article when I read “TED talks matter more than randomized control trials.”

    > It aspires to the casual intellectualism of the Ted Talk genius and the easy generosity of the mega philanthropist.

    Read it here:

    1. Nathaniel Heller August 1, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

      thank you!

  6. Luc Lapointe June 28, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

    Great article and several good conversations on this topic but to date, I havent seen any consolidated efforts to make a significant dent in the pilotitis! We are hosting a meeting with all financial service providers in Colombia to present a collective approach to innovative finance (or innovative ways to do finance). Hopefully this will resonate with this new president who can send a message to the world and donors that the most important SDG is still #17.

    Each year in Colombia millions of people work in hundreds of thousands of organisations, and deploy billions of dollars in an effort to solve the most pressing challenges of our time.

    Yet despite this vast commitment form local and international organizations there remains an estimated $60 billion funding gap required to address the peace consolidation process and billions more for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals) – the most comprehensive, cohesive and coherent description of these wicked problems to date.

    We believe that the existing approach to a sustainable peace process or any other development challenges presumes that a multitude of entities addressing some part of the greater challenge will, without appropriate incentives and mechanisms, self-organise themselves into effective, efficient, and scalable solutions. This is dangerously and wilfully naive. The same can be said about the situation in Colombia, from the Peace Consolidation process, to the refugee crisis, reparation to more than 8 million victims, and mitigating some of the global highest level of inequality.

    The bottom line is depressingly simple – there is no single entity with either the cash or the capacity to invest or deploy the requisite capital to achieve one, let alone all, of the Global Goals and the cost associated with the peace consolidation process. And there are currently no incentives rewarding outcome over effort, or mechanisms for collaboration at the scale necessary to actually solve these challenges.

    The sector use the patronising language of ‘beneficiary’, or the mercenary language of ‘customer’ to define the human individual that they are seeking to serve. An obvious failure to acknowledge that every human person is a citizen of the world – saturated with fundamental sovereignty and agency – we perpetuate the Industrial age metaphors, models and missions that got us into this mess in the first place.

    Further, we believe that the primary impediment to their resolution is rooted not solely in resources, technology, or intent, but primarily in a combination of ineffective systems design, and intransigent human behaviour driven by short-termism, fragmentation, and counterproductive incentives.

    We are working in partnership with a number of organisations who agree that systems change, underwritten by a digital and financial infrastructure, is the missing element necessary for not only the resolution of the Global Goals, but for each successive wave of global issues that Colombians will continue to face as we continue to evolve.

    Keep up the good work ….lets hope the sector unites!

    1. Nathaniel Heller June 28, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

      +1,000 to this: “a multitude of entities addressing some part of the greater challenge will, without appropriate incentives and mechanisms, self-organise themselves into effective, efficient, and scalable solutions. This is dangerously and wilfully naive.” Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments. – Nathaniel


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