Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The U.S. Global Development Lab: Leveraging Energy, Passion and Ideas

Post by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA, CEO

I don't have all the statistics to back this up, but it seems to me that young Americans’ interest in becoming engaged with some aspect of international development has never been higher. A record number of US universities today have some form of global development studies program.

This is great news. All this energy and passion helps keep development thinking and practice vital and dynamic. And in many ways, there has never been a better time to be in the development field. There are many new (and very different) entrants, causing great disruptions in the development field (see, for example a recent paper by FSG analyzing the shifting landscape, Ahead of the Curve). While this can be concerning if you are a traditional player in the field, it also opens up huge opportunities.

As a result, we are seeing a lot of transformation with INGOs moving beyond "old" service delivery models and investing in local capacity building and ownership. Corporates have moved well beyond philanthropy and into value chain partnerships. Universities are pushing boundaries of applied research and stretching our views on everything: from how we measure and evaluate success to how we think about appropriate technology. And the list goes on.

USAID is now seeking to leverage all this ferment with its Global Development Lab initiative, launched yesterday. Plan International USA is very proud to be a Cornerstone Partner in the US Global Development Lab initiative. The objective of this initiative is officially to establish "....a new way of working, bringing on board the best and brightest staff and new partners, all working in concert to help end extreme poverty."

It is to be a bold move designed to break away from the usual type of "partnership" - in which a donor puts out a request for a proposal and organizations compete for resources so they can implement the donor's vision - in order to apply and scale new ideas and technologies that can help transform communities and bring them out of poverty faster.

The U.S. Global Development Lab also recognizes that ideas do not only come from a few developed countries; they come from everywhere. And while competition is good, it needs to be directed. As Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, the Director General for the Swedish aid agency SIDA (a partner in this initiative) so articulately put it at the launch, the Lab is not about competition among partners for resources, instead it is about encouraging more and better "competition for solutions." The Lab will seek to create a community of partners, from a broad range of perspectives, working together to innovate, test, and scale.

All of this is very promising. But the hard work starts now as the Lab moves to execution. As we do so, it is worth remembering that: (a) There are no silver bullets: for every “solution” that works there have been many that haven't, and we will not succeed until and unless we also acknowledge that failure is not just an option but very useful; (b) It is not just about technology but changing behaviors and building local capacity and ownership: the Lab’s technology solutions will have a better chance of succeeding when they take this broader community and human angle into account from the beginning.

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