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.

Learning About Learning

“Adults are obsolete children,” is an oft quoted saying of Dr. Seuss. One of the major characteristics that differentiates adults and children is adults actively try NOT to make mistakes. I don’t think this is wrong, I just don’t think it is right. Mistakes are how we learn as children and the amount of mistakes children make are precisely why we learn fastest when we are a child.

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Pedagogy for the Powerful

Methodology, reflexivity, agency and making a difference, and power and relationships converge and overlap, and together with parts of my life experience point to the need for a pedagogy for the powerful or (with apologies to Paulo Freire, through I hope he would have approved) for the oppressors, or more tactfully, the non-oppressed. My power, ignorance and ignorance of ignorance as a district officer led me to do harm when I meant to do good and thought I was doing good. In the history of development there are many good things, but the avoidable errors are appalling. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of poor people were deprived, suffered and often died as a result of policies of structural adjustment alone. We need better ways, procedures, methodologies and experiences to enable those who make and influence policy, and ourselves in development studies, to be more aware, to get it right, and to do better. The big priority now is realism, to bridge and close the chasm, which has opened even wider between the incestuous love-hate relationships of lenders, donors and policy-makers in their capital city and five-star hotel meetings and workshops, and the poor people for whose benefit our development industry is said to exit. Recognizing their power in development studies, we can ask too whether we need a pedagogy for funders.

– Robert Chambers in his excellent (and short!) new book Into the Unknown: Explorations in Development practice