A friend of mine – let’s call him Bobby – recently asked me for help on a bid he was writing which needed to include “innovative approaches”. Bobby expressed a clear dislike for the Developmentspeak term “innovation”. For Bobby, the term is just a fad.
So do I agree with Bobby?
The term “innovation” has become a popular buzzword in the development sector. There are plenty of examples, from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures, to UNICEF’s Innovation Unit. The Guardian featured “12 days of innovations” over Christmas in 2013, profiling “eye-catching innovations in development”.
I do see some advantages to an emphasis on innovation. Calling for programmes to be more “innovative” encourages them to experiment more and try different solutions. This could generate unique ideas and new ways of approaching problems – just take a look at TechChange, Commcare, or FrontlineSMS.
However, many ‘innovations’ don’t actually contribute anything new, or do anything different. For example, I don’t see how telemedicine – using telecommunication and ICT to provide care at a distance – can today be seen as an innovation. Allowing patients to speak to health professionals over the phone came about in the UK in 1998 with NHS Direct!
Furthermore, there is a proliferation of pilots across the globe that are not being scaled up. A good example is mHealth, using mobile technology to help improve health. In 2008 and 2009 Uganda had 23 mHealth initiatives that did not scale up after they were piloted because the initial funding had dried up (see image below). It has reached the extent that some criticise the situation as a “pilotitis; a term used to describe a scenario where many NGOs are funded for relatively similar, but isolated, pilot projects, resulting in no resources left for scaling them up.
The problem with “pilotitus” is that a lot of money is being wasted on these projects and the government has no idea what’s going on. In Uganda, it led to a moratorium on all mHealth projects being issued by the government.
What’s more, mHealth “innovations” have rarely been well monitored and rigorously evaluated. We need to ensure that monitoring and evaluation is taking place so that we know what’s going on and what works. This will (hopefully) mean that we can learn for future projects and reduce the risk of re-inventing the wheel.
So I ask myself again, do I agree with Bobby’s scepticism about innovation?
Encouraging innovations has led to great advancements and saved lives. I believe we should still encourage it, but always ensure that frameworks are in place to effectively monitor and evaluate these programmes’ progress. What do you think? Are innovations in the aid sector worth it?