Innovation in development can revolutionize the way aid works

October 26, 2010 By Jane Kaminski

New ideas in development are coming not just from governments, but from the private sector as well.  The humanitarian ventures of a diverse group of entrepreneurs who are committing their time to improving communities in the developing world are rooted in the commonalities shared with U.S. government aid programs: they recognize a problem and apply the resources available to solve it.

According to Nicholas Kristof, who wrote about these passionate individuals in an article published in the New York Times Magazine over the weekend, development entrepreneurs – and especially women – have been the unlikely source of many innovative approaches to job creation, education, and sustainable economic development-based solutions.

Of course, Kristof finds that innovations in development aren’t without setbacks, regardless of their origins.  For example, Elizabeth Scharpf found that girls in Rwanda miss several days of school a month because sanitary napkins are too expensive, so they stay home when they are menstruating.  This is an all too common problem in the developing world.  As a result, she sought to build a factory in Rwanda that produces significantly cheaper pads.  The factory will begin production early next year, and, if successful, her business will create jobs for the factory workers and a stronger human capacity in the long run with better educated women.

But it turns out that development is complicated, even for entrepreneurs.  Kristof notes that entrepreneurs often underestimate the need to listen to the local populations and overestimate the odds of success.  The best case result for Scharpf, when women and girls miss fewer days of school and work, will be, in his words, “only an incremental improvement.”

Yet the stories in the article highlight the value of ingenuity in the development community as a whole.  Entrepreneurs in development have the flexibility to innovate and experiment, which can revolutionize aid and make it more effective.  USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has called for a new generation of development entrepreneurs and spoken highly of the value of these ventures and the need to incorporate successful models into the strategy of U.S. government initiatives.

As Dr. Shah said on October 8, “We need to try new approaches and take more risks, and commit to rigorous measurement and evaluation at every turn, so that we can discover what is truly effective and replicate it.”