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Aid + innovation

Ann Mei Chang’s innovation playbook for the development sector

From Silicon Valley to global development, she's on a mission to make the sector take more risks, experiment boldly, and innovate smartly.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

We talk a lot on this show about how financial incentives structure the way global development works. Few people have tried to more systematically change that than Ann Mei Chang, a former Silicon Valley executive who launched USAID’s first-ever innovation hub, the Global Development Lab, leading a push to transform America’s approach to foreign aid through science, technology, innovation, and powerful partnerships.

Chang, the author of the forthcoming book Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, has been innovating since she was a freshman in college when she joined a working group to define what Stanford’s first-ever computer science major would mean. She had a blockbuster career in Silicon Valley, serving as a Senior Engineering Director at Google for eight years.

In 2011, she left the private sector to join the State Department as a senior advisor for women and technology, consulting on how technology could improve the lives of women and girls around the world. That’s where she conceived and launched the Alliance for Affordable Internet, a public-private partnership with over 80 members working on expanding internet access in the developing world.

Coming from a background in Silicon Valley, “where it was very creative, people were thinking really big, very experimental, we took risks all the time,” when Chang started working in global development, she was disheartened by how risk-averse large non-governmental organizations could be.

Ann Mei Chang, former USAID chief innovation officer & executive director of the Global Development Lab

“For a lot of the big grants for global development work, you have to come up with a grand master plan,” Chang tells Grant and Ravi today on Displaced. “You spend months or years figuring out exactly what we’re going to do, put together a plan, and then go execute on that plan for three or five years. In this world where things are so dynamic, both in the conditions we work in, as well as the technologies, that’s just not a realistic way to get things done.”

Chang wants the global development sector to change its mindset about innovation. In addition to carving out grant funding for monitoring and evaluations, she advocates that NGOs set aside 5% of funding for innovation. And NGOs should iterate constantly to refine innovations, like the best-performing tech firms. Too often we imagine innovation is a bolt of enlightenment, but the “blood, sweat and tears” of innovation is the hundreds of experiments going on behind the scenes.

Most importantly, she argues that the annual $2.5 trillion aid funding gap means that aid needs to be catalytic instead of responsive. “Part of the responsibility of innovation is to figure out how to actually solve the problem, so we’re not just putting band-aids on the one percent of people who need them,” she says.

It’s important to be very thoughtful and careful about experimenting. But we shouldn’t underestimate the downside of not experimenting, that we’re giving people subpar solutions, subpar interventions because we haven’t tried to do better.

This is a great conversation to understand the changing innovation landscape in global development and the mechanisms donors are using to incentivize experimentation and risk-taking.

Related resources

Lean Impact: Amplifying Social Good Using Lean Startup – Ann Mei Chang speaks at Lean Startup Week 2017

Innovation for Development: Why Are We Not Getting to Scale? – Center for Global Development panel with Ann Mei Chang, Michael Faye, Sonal Shah and Charles Kenny

The Race to Solar-Power Africa – The New Yorker, Bill McKibben

BRAC in business – The Economist

Swipe Right to Save a Life – Digg, Andrew Hankinson

Conditional Cash Transfers, Civil Conflict, and Insurgent Influence – Journal of Development Economics, Benjamin Crost, Joseph Felter and Patrick B. Johnson

USAID suspends new applications for DIV innovation program – Devex, Adva Saldinger and Catherine Cheney

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.