Is innovation essential for development work?
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Innovation has become central to the way development organisations go about their work. In November 2011, Bill Gates told the G20 that innovation was the key to development. Donors increasingly stress innovation as a key condition for funding, and many civil society organisations emphasise that innovation is central to the work they do.
Development innovations may involve devising technology (such as a nanotech water treatment kit), creating a new approach (such as microfinance), finding a better way of delivering public services (such as one-stop egovernment service centres), identifying ways of working with communities (such as participation), or generating a management technique (such as organisation learning). The idea of policy innovation has become commonplace in most areas of policy-making.
Any approach that emphasises continual problem-solving is important and worthwhile. But there may be a downside to all this innovation. Not all development problems require new solutions. For example, the basic technologies needed for improving water and sanitation in high-density urban areas – treated water piped directly into people’s homes, sewers to take away waste, and drains to cope with surface water – have changed little in a hundred years. Earlier moments of innovation around community-managed sewers that reduced unit costs, such as that by Pakistan NGO the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute, or the community-led design of public toilets, have effectively signposted the way forward. Today, it is funds and capacities that are needed if we are secure universal provision, not innovation.
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