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.

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.

Summer Update

Blog posts have been fairly sparse lately. A couple major life events have taken place that (to say the least) are way more important than blogging.

First, I got married to the love of my life two weekends ago. It was a wonderful weekend filled with friends and family.

Second, I defended my MS Thesis and completed the requirements for my MS degree from the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University last week (presentation slides here). More posts on my thesis research will (undoubtably) be posted later.

So what is next?

For the next three(ish) months my wife and I will be living in Washington DC. I’ll be spending my time over at USAID in the U.S. Global Development Lab. Officially I’m a HESN Intern in partnership with the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation at Michigan State University. Specifically, I’m a Research Associate with the MERLIN Program (Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning Innovations) housed in the Office of Evaluation and Impact Assessment at USAID.

The MERLIN Program is a fairly new initiative within USAID. It’s task is to improve upon traditional approaches to monitoring and evaluation of development projects – specifically when outputs and outcomes of development projects are not easily identifiable prior to the start of the project. The particular focus of the MERLIN Program is on projects operating in highly complex environments, where the best approach to the development problem is not well recognized, and project managers must adapt the project design over the course of the project.

Many of you who know me will understand why I’m so excited for this opportunity over the next few months. My first “job” out of college was to implement an impact evaluation on a business training program in Western Kenya. The evaluation I helped design and run was adequate but clunky and time consuming. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about data collection, survey design methods, and econometrics. The world is complex and one of the most complex and puzzling problems of our time is poverty and underdevelopment amidst unbelievable technological innovation and economic growth. I think it is through efforts like the MERLIN Program – through adaptation in design and humility about what is known – that complex problems are ultimately solved.

Finally, after the summer months, my wife and I will move to the Twin Cities in Minnesota where I will begin a PhD in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. To fund this educational endeavor, I will work at the Minnesota Population Center (MPC) as a graduate research assistant. The MPC manages, disseminates, and harmonizes administrative and demographic data from both the United States and all over the world. For the nerdy data-savvy readers they are the home of the IPUMS, IDHS, NHGIS, and IHIS datasets.

Many exciting changes, hope to get back to blogging regularly soon!