Not Your Father’s Aid Agency – “The Lab” [Part 1]

I’ve been spending this summer at USAID in their newest bureau the U.S. Global Development Lab. It has been an interesting, enlightening, and inspiring experience so far; and so, I’ll be sharing a little bit about “The Lab” over the next week or so in a series of posts.

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This first post highlights the Lab’s commitment to innovation and willingness to fail. Critics of foreign aid often (at some point) suggest that aid is not innovative and that aid agencies have been simply funding the same old programs for years and years. Although this critique fits nicely into a political philosophy where government is always inept and inefficient, it simply is not always true at USAID – and that is largely due to the existence of the Global Development Lab.

One part of the Lab’s mission is to “produce breakthrough development innovations”. This is (currently) being done in a number of ways, I’ll mention two:

First, the Lab has an open innovation fund, called Development Innovation Ventures (DIV). This program funds new development ideas (by anybody and at anytime) that are (1) evidence-based, (2) cost-effective, and (3) have potential for scale and sustainability. So far DIV has funded over 150 innovations in countries across the developing world. One example of a DIV grantee is Off-Grid Electric a private electrical company in Tanzania. Here is a bit about how USAID funded Off-Grid Electric and gather more evidence of rigorous impact and cost-effectiveness:

Off-Grid Electric provides solar energy to people with limited or no access to the grid in Tanzania, one of the least electrified countries in Africa. DIV took a calculated risk on Off-Grid at an early stage and continued to provide funding as they expanded and gathered more evidence. The increase in venture funding from DIV helped demonstrate the economic viability and scalability of Off-Grid’s approach, allowing the company to access additional financing and expand its coverage, accelerating its progress toward the goal of reaching 1,000,000 households by 2017. By early 2016, Off-Grid’s service had reached 100,000 households and was available in 14 regions throughout the country. They continue to add 10,000 new homes a month. Leveraging the contributions from DIV, they have raised $95 million in commercial capital.

Second, the Lab has an open innovation challenge contest, called Grand Challenges for Development. This program focuses attention and incentivizes innovation in an area with specific need. This program taps ideas from “non-traditional” actors within the aid industry and capitalizes on new ideas and perspectives. Grand Challenges include: combating Zika, fighting ebola, saving lives at birth, all children reading, powering agriculture, and many more.

At the Lab, a lot of inspiration is garnered from JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech. At USAID, we choose to end poverty, not because it is easy but because it is hard… And to complete this goal we need inventions that have not been invented yet…


A necessary aspect of producing innovations is being willing to fail. Not every good idea will end up being supported by rigorous evidence, and will be cost-effective, and will be able to be sustainably scaled. This attitude is a huge step for an aid agency, in particular, and a government agency, in general as there is practical tension between being willing to fail and recognizing that failure can result in loss of life.

I was sitting in an orientation to the Lab and the core value of willingness to fail was proudly presented as, “when lives are not on the line, we are willing to fail and learn from failure.” I asked, “In the USAID context, when are lives not on the line?” In international development work, if we think our work actually works, then it influences livelihoods. Thus, failure necessarily means that lives are on the line.

It is important to note, however, that global poverty is an unsolved problem. We currently don’t know how to solve it or end it. Thus, failure is inevitable. In this situation, the attitude of recognizing this reality and learning from failure is absolutely necessary. This all may sound quite difficult, but it really is just plain old humility; and I think humility is really cool.

The next post will focus on the Lab’s commitment to impact and evidence.

2 responses to “Not Your Father’s Aid Agency – “The Lab” [Part 1]”

  1. […] This is the second in a series of posts about my experience at the U.S. Global Development Lab. Read part 1 here. […]

  2. […] third, and final, post in a series about my experience working in the Global Development Lab. Read part 1 and part […]

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