Not Your Father’s Aid Agency – “The Lab” [Part 3]

This is the third, and final, post in a series about my experience working in the Global Development Lab. Read part 1 and part 2 here.

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This final post will highlight the Lab’s organizational structure and their commitment to collaboration. USAID is, plain and simple, part of a bureaucracy. This is due to a lot of valid reasons (i.e. it is funded by taxpayers, it is nestled under the Department of State, it is part one of the most influential governments in the world), but being a part of bureaucracy has its consequences. In a bureaucracy, the decision making process is slow, the status quo bias is large and seemingly always present, and therefore change is painful. (Like pulling a wiggly tooth from the mouth of a first grader, painful.)

The Global Development Lab tries its best to (as they say) “hack the bureaucracy” and find new – and “better, faster, cheaper” – ways to achieve the mission of USAID. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Lab is focused on driving innovations and experimenting with new ideas (even new ideas about how to learn about new ideas).

This attitude permeates even the way the Lab is organized. Rather than have a vertical hierarchy, which would require the person at the top of the chain to “sign off” on every decision, the Lab is organized in a super-horizontal manor. Each team reports to their office’s director who reports to the Lab’s Executive Director, who reports to the Administrator of USAID. (Then, for what it is worth, the Secretary of State and then the President.) That’s it. That’s the organizational structure.

The Executive Directer, Ann Mei Chang, is the former Chief Engineer at Google, and the Lab is organized in a very Google-like manner. Minus the ball-pit, the Lab resembles a Google office building. Very few people sit in offices and there is lots of space for open conversations and collaboration. Although, collaboration always presents challenges, the Lab highly values new and different perspectives from anyone anywhere in the world. This means new individuals are always spending short amounts of time in the Lab. I am an example of this, as I was spending time in the Lab as an intern through the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). Also during the past couple months a cohort of foreign service nationals (individuals who work for USAID but are citizens of the host country) spent 6-8 weeks in the Lab. Both them and I were included as short-term members of our respective teams and were empowered to share our perspectives and thoughts.

This commitment to collaboration also means that the recipients of the Lab’s funds are typically not the “usual suspects” in the development community (i.e. Chemonics, Social Impact, Save the Children, etc.) but entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers who often live in the actual communities in which the ideas will be implemented. As Ann Mei says when she speaks about the Lab, “we want to turn development upside down”.

A lot of the public dialogue about foreign aid and development spending paints a picture in which there is one, singular model of aid. This model is often described as paternalistic and dehumanizing. Perhaps this was the way aid used to work. Perhaps this is still the way some aid projects operate. But this is not always the case anymore. There are many models of aid. Some work better and more effectively than others, it is part of the Lab’s job to find these models. Even within the the biggest and most bureaucratic of all aid agencies in the world (USAID), there are teams of people whose job it is to experiment with new procurement mechanisms, test new models for financial support, rigorously evaluate the cost-effectiveness of aid programs, and expand new methods of M&E.

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