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I recently attended a Technology Salon during which we spoke about the meaning of innovation.  The salon brought about 30 people, with backgrounds ranging from university educators to NGO staff and founders to USAID personnel, all asking what is innovation?  Innovation is creativity, it is bringing new solutions to old problems, it is a reworking of entire departments in otherwise bureaucratic institutions. 

The salon got me thinking about how innovation is central to international development.  There is a host of mostly smaller organizations whose very makeup is innovative and then there are the bigger and more established organizations, some of which more or less turn their heads to new ideas, or have until now.

Photo credit: TakingITGlobal via Wikimedia Commons.

Take the Acumen Fund as an example of the former case – their whole model focuses around investing in social entrepreneurs across India, Pakistan, West Africa, and East Africa.  This is a perfect example of driving innovation.  Meanwhile, some of the bigger players and many funders are just recently putting together innovation teams of their own.  Now seems like a crucial time for new ideas.

In my own traveling – to West Africa, for example – I find that people are incredibly innovative.  Riding in ndiaga ndayes (local buses) along the coast of Senegal, you see entire families on a single bicycle, crowds of women carrying water on their heads for miles, and people all over being creative to make the best of what they have.  This is to say, there is an obvious creativity present in many of the regions in which we work and in the pulse of the people with whom we work.  This creativity must be harnessed together, from both the donor end and, in turn, the beneficiaries, with minds tilted towards innovation.  For Akvo, this means working closely with innovative teams to help bring efficiency and transparency to the development sector at large.  It also means partnering with more grassroots organizations, where projects are initiated and even driven by the beneficiaries themselves.

If you are interested in more background on the session, Linda Raftree has posted a detailed recap on her Wait… What? blog.

Kendra Terry is a project manager for Akvo Foundation USA. She is based in New York City.