Innovating, but for whose gain?

Innovation is helping to usher in a new era in global health and international development. We want to see tangible, big results for the money that’s invested. ‘Return on investment’ is the name of the game. What new, breakthrough technology will solve one of the world’s grand challenges? And then how can it be taken to scale?

This intense focus on innovation has no doubt taken hold. It’s obvious in the culture of Silicon Valley, where start-ups aggressively compete for the next big idea. But, a similar approach, competition-fueled innovation, is now also commonplace in international development. As an example, a quick snapshot using Google Trends shows a striking jump in searches related to global health, international development, and innovation since 2009, around the time when many international donors, including the US Government began to rethink its approach because of budget constraints.

innovation trendsBig donors now organize so-called ‘Grand Challenges’ to find and reward the most innovative solution to some of the world’s biggest problems.

But, at the end of the day, do they work? Do innovative approaches, whether product or process, actually make a difference in global health and development? Or, are we simply innovating for innovation’s sake? Is it better to come up with a solution that sounds good instead of one that actually demonstrates impact?

These were some of the questions raised in a recent article in The Economist about the 10-year old, $1 billion Grand Challenges in Global Health program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There is no doubt the program has supported a number of promising projects, which the article describes. Technologies to eradicate malaria and dengue fever, prevent cholera, and improve neonatal health are all important pieces to the complex puzzle of global health and international development.

But, is the insatiable drive for new technologies and applying them in low-resource settings simply creating more problems than they solve? In a widely popular article in the New Republic, Michael Hobbes, a former employee at several international NGOs, argues that innovation is an appealing short-term fix, which he describes using the example of a merry-go-round water pump. It sounded like a great idea. Kids are able to play while also pumping water. But, dropping a new technology into a community with little attention paid to analyzing its unintended consequences is short-sighted. After an initial period of fairly high usage, kids stopped using it. Women started to pay the children to use it, or would have to spin the pump themselves.

All of the intangibles, the culture, the system the technology is being introduced to, are unique and usually the driver of whether something succeeds or fails in international development, in the long-term. We (and I speak for myself as well as someone who has worked in both global health and international development) pay quite a bit of lip service to dispelling the “one-size-fits-all” approach. Every context is different. We continue to stress the need to better understand and work with communities to advance meaningful change. But, does our continued focus on innovation and technology bring us further away from these ideals?

As Hobbes concludes in his article, “maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.”

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