Abt Associates: ‘Innovation driven by evidence, experience and collaboration’

A Kyrgyz nurse checks on a mother and her newborn child. The Health System Reform in Central Asia project implemented by Abt Associates in five countries in the region from 1994 to 2009 has lowered infant mortality rates in Kyrgyzstan from 28.5 percent to 21 percent over a six-year period, saving thousands of infant lives. Photo by: Abt Associates

Abt Associates was selected as a Devex Top 40 Development Innovator based on a poll of thousands of global development professionals who are part of Devex, the largest network of aid and relief workers in the world.

Announced on April 18, Devex Top 40 Development Innovators is an impressive listing of the world’s leading donor agencies & foundations, development consulting companies, implementing NGOs, and advocacy groups.

We asked each of the Innovators four questions to learn how they stay ahead to the curve and tackle old development challenges in new ways. Mary F. Maguire, Abt Associates senior vice president for strategic communications, responded:

‘At Abt Associates, innovation is driven by evidence, experience, and collaboration – all of which leads to bold thinking’

If you had to condense it to just one or two sentences, overall, what is it that makes your organization innovative?

Our mission is to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of people worldwide, and as a result, Abt Associates attracts very talented staff who thrive on solving complex problems. We go beyond what’s expected because we focus on impact, employ rigor in both research and program implementation, and have a collaborative culture that encourages new ideas.

Can you provide a specific example of something your organization has done that is particularly innovative?

People at all levels of society – from policymakers to poor rural farmers – must change the way they work, communicate and participate in a market-driven economy to further development goals such as food security, sustainable economic growth, and environmental protection. To address barriers to change and develop creative incentives for action, Abt Associates has drawn from our decades of experience in applied behavior change practices in the health sector to develop Agricultural Behavior Change.

Abt developed a comprehensive, systematic approach that identifies and addresses barriers, incentives and other dynamics to promote sustainable agricultural development. AgBC uses audience and market segmentation; pre-tested messages and materials; and various mass media, information communication technology, and interpersonal channels to address the factors underlying the adoption of behaviors that encourage sustainable agricultural development.

Recently, we successfully applied the AgBC approach to the poultry value chain in Laos by working with market owners and vendors to create “model markets” that eliminate practices that foster the spread of avian influenza.

Looking ahead 10 years, what are some of the innovations in international development that your organization wants to be a part of?

We see several areas where we can make an important contribution, including increasing the engagement of the private sector in health systems strengthening and improved health service delivery. Our comprehensive knowledge of health systems and service delivery — coupled with technical experience in private-public partnerships, regulatory reform, and capacity development — enables us to design and implement innovative programs that expand access to care and improve the quality of health services.

Improving food security in the face of climate change, which will disproportionately affect small-scale agriculture, is another important issue that we are involved in. Our work in food security combines deep knowledge of agriculture systems with expertise in climate-smart development.

One factor in driving innovation at any organization is the talent you hire and the partnerships you make. How does your organization take into account innovation when it comes to cultivating talent and partners?

The breadth of disciplines and methods at Abt has created a de facto innovation incubator. We bring together economists and statisticians with technical experts in health financing or private sector development, for example, and these diverse perspectives generate new ideas that fuel innovation. The Abt Fellows Program and support for presenting and publishing are among the other ways that we encourage innovative thinking.

With regard to our partners, the challenges we’re asked to address require finding partners who share our rigorous, collaborative approach to development.

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