Redefining ‘innovation’ in the global development sector

September 30, 2014 · 0 comments

In a blog from Oxfam America, Jennifer Lentfer argues for a new interpretation of ‘innovation’ within global development and examines what we can learn from grassroots organisations.

Innovation is not a result of dictating or choosing from what is, but expanding options.” Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute of Social Change

Let’s face it. Some days, most days, development work is far from sexy. What’s most needed to bring about changes in ordinary people’s lives is citizens demanding fundamental services, community organising and coalition building, governments and agencies managing their budgets – i.e. the day-to-day grind of making institutions function.

So why then is the development sector so obsessed with being ‘innovative’?

It may be because we are often working in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, within the risk-averse policies and procedures of aid agencies suffering from bureaucratic inertia. We long for a new ways of thinking and working, and new ideas are way more fun and much less political.

Nonetheless, I am often concerned that the term ‘innovation’ gets over-used and misinterpreted in the humanitarian and development sector.

Rather than the usual ‘latest and greatest idea or fad’ and ‘get-to-scale’ mentality associated with innovation, I wonder if innovation can be re-defined to identify innovation first from the ground up? In other words, can more localised, grounded means of problem-solving generate the most effective ideas, products or processes to be labelled as ‘innovative’?

This is where the DIY Toolkit can help ‘bring ideas to life’ across various sectors and settings. Throughout my experience in aid and philanthropy, I have found that local organisations are doing some of the most innovative, yet under-valued work in the development sector. Solome Lemma, Co-founder and Executive Director of Africans in the Diaspora (AiD), explains: 

“It’s often easy to forget the great amount of innovation that indigenous, grassroots organisations employ. Even more so because they often don’t frame their work within the language we understand or associate with innovation. You must listen, dig, ask questions, and reframe in your head to see that within what they describe as a regular part of their work lies ingenuity.”

Doesn’t it just make good sense to support more opportunities for ‘innovation’ closer to where the problems are occurring? Aren’t the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation lie? And from small initiatives, is there not the potential to pilot and learn for application in larger programs? Ultimately, where we are looking for innovation and who defines innovation is vital.

One of the most important roles of us as development practitionersis to encourage, coach, and uphold processes of individual and collective reflection to identify and overcome obstacles, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work. If you are a development practitioner supporting community- or country-led initiatives, the DIY Toolkit is a useful tool to enhance your support of development partners to think creatively about their programs and practices at all levels. Supporting people and leaders in the developing world to enhance their own efforts with openness and confidence is what gives birth to lasting innovation.

So perhaps it’s time to re-conceptualise ‘innovation’ for global development. What if the thing really makes something innovative is not the idea itself, but the learning that made it possible?

Jennifer Lentfer is the creator of the blog, which focuses on how the international aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise sectors can be more genuinely responsive to local needs. One of Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 women to follow on Twitter, she has worked with over 300 grassroots organisations in east and southern Africa over the past decade, as well as various international organisations in Africa and the US, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and Firelight Foundation, where in her career she has focused on organisational learning.

Lentfer is currently Senior Writer on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness team and editor of the organisation’s Politics of Poverty blog. She is also a lecturer in Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication

This piece is cross-posted from Oxfam America’s Politics of Poverty blog

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