United States Agency for International Development Launches Department of Innovation

The introduction of the DIV marks a new turn for USAID and the global aid industry.

Japanese lightbulb

The global aid industry got a shake-up last week, with the announcement from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that a department of innovation—"Development Innovation Ventures"—has been officially launched. The announcement was made at the Columbia Business School Social Enterprise Conference by USAID Director, Dr. Rajiv Shah, and cemented President Obama's much-anticipated and long-awaited commitments to investing in social innovation.

The new department is operating out of Washington and being led by Harvard Economist, Michael Kremer, and Chief Innovation Officer, Maura O'Neill. The stated goal of the DIV is to identify and invest in "high-risk, high-return projects" with scalable social outcomes and in that light the DIV has already chosen eight new investees from across the U.S., all of which contribute to sustainable social outcomes in international development.

The investees include a rapid pre-eclampsia diagnosis test for Nepal developed at Johns Hopkins, a mobile reporting platform for Afghanistan, and a solar lighting framework for Uganda. Each investee receives between $99,000-$230,000.

USAID's 2011 budget is $21 billion, $600 million of which goes to health commodities alone.

"Even with these existing, surprising capabilities, USAID is still in need of reform. That’s why, since assuming leadership of the Agency, I’ve made it my top priority to embrace a spirit of innovation," said Shah in his speech.

"Those of you who know our history, know that USAID used to be the world’s leader in applying science and technology to the issues of development. We helped develop the innovations that produced the Green Revolution and pioneered Oral Rehydration Therapy in Bangladesh. By the time I took office, that science and technology capacity had almost completely eroded. We are currently working hard to rebuild that tradition, establishing a science and technology policy division and hiring more scientists and engineers."

The move by USAID has been understated in global media; USAID, being a large, development-focused, but bureaucratic agency, is embarking on a path already charted in the NGO, academic, and to some extent corporate worlds, but rarely taken on by governments. Whereas an institution like MIT can freely choose innovations to invest in—dictated only by private donors and academic overseers—the investment choices of the DIV are representative of the United States government and utilize United States taxpayer dollars.

[Image: flickr user Elliott Burke]

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