This is my contribution to the 2015 UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report, Reimagine the Future, which this year focuses on ‘innovation for every child’. You can download the Exec Summary here and explore the digital essay library here. I was also on the Advisory Board for the Report. (For my previous posts on innovation, click here.)

Innovation should not stop at adjusting existing procedures and business models: We need disruptive innovation that transforms the relationship between aid agencies and those they seek to serve.

Innovation is popular in development and humanitarian work, thanks to pioneering efforts of a global network of inspiring organizations and individuals, a number of whom are contributing to this year’s State of the World’s Children report. But is innovation being done as well as it could be? Cynics see innovation as little more than branding and hype, while optimists see it as the route to fundamental transformations in international cooperation. The answer, as ever, is probably somewhere in the middle. However, I am convinced that by changing how we think about innovation in development and humanitarian efforts, we can ensure that it is more able to realize its transformative potential.

If development and humanitarian innovation is to realize its most radical ambitions, international organizations need to take a leaf out of the work of leading innovation thinkers and practitioners in the private sector. Instead of using innovation to make incremental improvements within existing ‘standard operating procedures’ and business models, we should be seeking to maximize its disruptive potential.

Key to these disruptive innovations is how they open the door to entire populations of new users who were previously locked out of a given market.”

Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School is among the most influential global business thinkers of the past decade. His concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ describes how a product or service takes root through simple, low-cost applications at the bottom end of a market and then moves to displace established competitors. Key to these disruptive innovations is how they open the door to entire populations of new users who were previously locked out of a given market. Well-known and widely cited examples include the growth of the automobile across America in the early 20th century, the rise of personal computers from the original mainframes of the 1950s, and the more recent and remarkable spread of mobile phones around the world. These disruptive innovations worked faster, easier and cheaper than their predecessors, giving more consumers more access to more products or services, thereby transforming entire industries.

A brief look at just three of the inspiring stories shared by my fellow authors in this year’s State of the World’s Children illustrates the power of such disruptive innovation in international cooperation.

Steve Collins of VALID Nutrition writes about how community-based management of ready-to-use foods has revolutionized the treatment of acute malnutrition. The key was enabling parents to care for their own children as outpatients, instead of relying on the dominant model of the in-patient therapeutic feeding tent, which proved costly, exclusive and high risk in many settings. Ready-to-use foods have proved cheaper, and more effective, and more empowering in many settings.

Giving poor people cash instead of giving them goods and services is another great example of a disruptive innovation. At the heart of cash transfers is this same notion of enabling poor families and communities to lead their own development, by trusting them to make responsible and informed decisions about their lives. As Karen Macours of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab shows, properly designed conditional cash transfers can have long-lasting benefits for families where children were initially at high risk of dropping out of school. Rigorous evaluation shows sustained benefits in terms of cognitive development, educational performance and learning outcomes.

Last, but not least, the remarkable Children’s Development Khazana (CDK) – a unique saving and credit union scheme that brings banking and cooperative principles to children between the ages of 9 and 18. The foundation of CDK, which started in India in 2001, is making these services available to rural poor, urban or street and working children. CDK is all about empowerment and participation: Children manage and promote the groups, vote, work together and build invaluable life skills. CDK now operates 149 branches across six countries.

These are the innovations that I believe are most worthy of the term. They are all disruptive, they all involve transforming relationships and they all achieve significant outcomes. And they carry some important common messages for development and humanitarian organizations seeking to innovate.

First, incremental innovations designed in top-down ways may be useful for sustaining existing business models and bringing about gradual improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. In many settings, such improvements are essential. But we also need to keep our eyes and minds open to more challenging innovations that emerge at the grassroots level, and find ways of making them more mainstream.

Second, while we have long paid lip service to ideas of participation, few international organizations genuinely and consistently adhere to its principles. Participation has become a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’. A central goal of ‘Innovating for Children’ should be to remind the weary and cynical among us that notions such as participation and empowerment are not mere niceties. Done right, participation can inform not just what we do, but transform how we do it, and do so in ways that bring considerable benefits to those we seek to serve.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when we look at disruptive innovations like the ones above, it becomes clear that innovation is far more than hype or branding, to be dismissed as the ‘latest development fad’. At its most effective, at its most challenging and at its most disruptive, innovation can be the source of positive, transformative change in lives and livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people.

Done right, innovation is at the very heart of development.

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Economics, Evolution, Facilitation, Influence, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership