Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Innovation or reinventing the wheel

If I read one more call for proposals, nominations or general celebration of 'innovation' I may throw up. I know, I know, there must be something wrong with me if I think that innovation isn't necessary. I don't think innovation isn't necessary but I also don't think innovation is the silver bullet. And not just because that the logic of innovation being a silver bullet is a little mind blowing.

Of course, part of the reason for the rise of 'innovation' as the answer to aid is that a lot of people feel disillusioned with the way aid/development has been done in the past. After all, people are still poor. Maybe the problem is development overselling itself - NGOs/charities said giving money would stop people being poor but people are still poor. We really have to stop doing that. But really, it's a numbers problem. A billion people are poor and the number is just so far beyond human comprehension that individual donors and taxpayers can't get their heads around the fact that development might have succeeded in bringing many, many people out of abject poverty but there would still be many, many people who were poor. Not to mention the real dollar/person effect.

The fact that there are still poor people does not mean that development has failed. It is a reason to get more efficient and more targeted in spending. It suggests aid effectiveness concerns but it doesn't mean the tried and tested models should be abandoned. Baby, bathwater, etc. That would be a little like telling the entire construction industry or all financial managers that they should abandon what has been proven to work and put all their energies into finding innovative, new ways of doing things.

Innovation is important but surely, if you accept that some aid has been working for some people over the years, the focus should also be on finding and supporting those models that work. Innovation should always be at the edges of the industry. It is useful when it succeeds but it is, by definition, high-risk. It can't be the only thing anyone spends money on.

Evaluation, results, things that have been proven to work - the wheel - has to be in place. If some things work, there should be as much focus on identifying those things as on inventing new things. Innovation must, surely, be complementary to existing, proven ways of doing things. Anything else is basically abandoning "the poor" while we tinker in a workshop in a frantic attempt to invent what might already exist.

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