Ann Mei Chang's vision for USAID's Global Development Lab

Ann Mei Chang will head USAID’s Global Development Lab. Photo by: C. Pha / ITU / CC BY

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab has some high-level champions, among them former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the lab is considered a key legacy achievement for USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

Now the U.S. government’s development solutions incubator has an executive director.

Ann Mei Chang —  who previously served as chief innovation officer at Mercy Corps, senior adviser for women and technology at the U.S. Department of State and senior engineering director at Google — will lead the lab, sometimes described as the U.S. aid enterprise’s version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, beginning Dec. 15.

Devex spoke with Chang in Washington, D.C. to learn more about the vision she is bringing to a USAID initiative that is supposed to produce “transformative development solutions,” but within the confines of a government bureaucracy that is not always considered the most innovative or risk-tolerant.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation with the incoming chief of USAID’s Global Development Lab.

You’re coming to this position with experience in the private sector and the fast-paced, cutting-edge world of Google. Government agencies are not exactly known for creating that kind of space for innovation and agility. How will the Global Development Lab avoid getting bogged down in bureaucracy and politics as it looks for innovative solutions under your vision and leadership?

I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, certainly. Government is not known for innovation, but I don’t think government and innovation are an oxymoron. I really believe that it’s possible, and it’s about us really having the right people and the right culture that we set to really shift the way that we look at how we do our work. Everyone looks to the huge successes that we’ve seen out of Silicon Valley over the last couple decades as an aspiration for where we want to be, and I think there’s a growing momentum in the U.S. government to take advantage of the successes there and apply them to the really important work we’re doing in government.

That parallel to Silicon Valley is one that comes up a lot. It may be the appropriate aspiration, but it seems to me that for those transformative innovations to occur, even in Silicon Valley where organizations may be sort of conditioned to produce them, there’s a certain failure rate that also has to take place. Do you think U.S. taxpayers — and Congress — have the stomach for the failure rate that typically accompanies discoveries of transformative solutions?

Certainly that’s not the norm that we’ve been approaching this with. Given what we’ve seen of the necessity for tolerance of failure to have successes I think the U.S. public is ready to start seeing that kind of shift. But I think we also have to be really responsible in making that shift.

Failure to me — or good failure — means identifying whether something works as quickly and as cheaply as possible. We need to be responsible for how we place those bets and for what bets we place.

But ultimately we need to be able to take some amount of risk. USAID has already started heading down that path … Development Innovation Ventures is trying to apply some of that Silicon Valley model to development where you can get a stage one grant from DIV that’s a relatively small amount of money to try out a great new idea that sounds promising. We expect many of those things will not become huge successes, but we also expect that some of them will, and what’s exciting about DIV is that we’re able to place those much smaller, more flexible bets and be able to look at evidence-based results of what is really working and what’s getting traction and then double down on those, sort of analogous to a next round of funding from a venture capitalist.

An initiative like DIV — is that currently funded at a scale that you think allows us to reasonably expect it to produce transformative innovations that people like [USAID Administrator] Raj Shah have talked about? And if so, how will we know a transformative solution when we see it?

DIV is still relatively small relative to the USAID portfolio. We’ve also seen further endorsement of this approach with the Global Innovation Fund that was just announced in September, where the U.K. government, the Omidyar Network, USAID and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency … came together to have a similar type of fund that is now global and bringing together more partners. So I think that DIV is, in itself, an innovation in the areas of funding mechanisms and is one that we’re seeing replicated with GIF, and I think that we’ll see more and more scale to that as we see more successes.

At the end of the day, to me, it’s not because it’s flashy. It’s not because it makes a sexy video. The way that we know if an innovation is successful is if it actually improves peoples’ lives. And what that improvement is is going to be different depending on the type of innovation. It could be saving lives. It could be improving peoples’ incomes.

What we really want to see is measurable results that we can point to as evidence that the innovation works and then scale to reach millions of people.

I think you’ve just pointed to two potential broad-level goals for this whole enterprise, and I wonder if you see them as coexisting or if you favor one over the other. Would you say the Global Development Lab’s mission, as you envision it, is to create “transformative” products to serve developing communities, or is it to transform USAID’s way of doing business?

I think it’s both. I think that we are both trying to identify new tools and techniques that really can dramatically improve the cost-effectiveness or the scale of the development efforts we have underway and so absolutely we’re looking at scientific breakthroughs and technology breakthroughs to be able to do that. But I think equally important is inculcating a culture of different way of approaching development, of taking more risks, of driving innovation, of really being evidence based, and I think both of those are important and not only within USAID and the U.S. government, but I think it’s very important to work with partners across the private sector, other governments, civil society, local actors and so forth … This isn’t just about what USAID itself can do.

You just mentioned culture — does the Global Development Lab add more value to U.S. development by integrating closely with USAID, or by remaining culturally and authoritatively distinct from the rest of the agency?

There needs to be a balance, absolutely. I think if we are too far removed from the rest of USAID, the scope of our impact is going to be much smaller. The lab is really a small part of USAID. We really need to work through the rest of the agency and not only USAID but work through our vast array of partners to be able to have the scale that we want. That said, one of the reasons that we have formed the lab as a somewhat independent entity is that we also think it is important to have a little bit of space to incubate new ideas and to have a little bit more flexibility to try things out, outside the mainstream of some of the development efforts that are already underway.

Do you think USAID’s leadership, not necessarily just at the very top but throughout the agency, has really bought into the idea of being “disrupted” by a new office that could become an advocate for very different ways of doing things?

You’ll have to ask me that question after I’ve started. I haven’t gotten a great feel for the level of support across the agency. Certainly, there’s been very, very strong support from the top. I think that Administrator Shah has really seen this as one of the big impacts that he’s made on USAID and the trajectory, and I know there’s very strong support across the agency. And how deep that goes, I think I’ll be learning when I get there.

You’ve also touched on the notion that for the lab to be successful it has to approach collaboration not just within the agency but across a wide variety of partners. Based on the experience that you’re bringing to this position, what does the U.S. government need to do to build higher-quality partnerships with the private sector?

The private sector is essential in terms of how we are able to scale development efforts. While development aid used to be the predominant way that we engaged with developing countries, today the private sector is in the driver’s seat in terms of the investments they’re making in these countries … I think it’s essential that we engage with the private sector and … not only for the financial resources that the private sector brings … but also for both the talent that exists in the private sector, the know-how, the infrastructure the private sector has, and their ability to really scale things. When you have these financially sustainable models you’re able to reach many, many more people than you are with a pure grant-based model. We want to take all the different attributes that the private sector can bring to the table and look at where we have common goals and look at where we can partner together to reach those goals.

Do you see the Global Development Lab more as that convener of partners who might have mutual interests that they can identify, or is this really an institution that will be capable of doing its own basic research into the science and technology behind new development solutions? It seems to me there’s sort of a difference in identity there, and I’m not certain which way the lab is going.

I see the lab much more as a catalyst and convener to bring together partners, not only from the private sector, but from the nonprofit sector, from other governments, from local actors, and to help identify the best innovations that are out there, and really bring together the network of players necessary to really help them succeed and scale. We are not going to invent everything in the lab itself. In fact, I expect we’ll invent a small percentage of things we eventually get behind, but what we can do is that we have the reach to bring players together.

I think a good example of this is the recent Ebola Grand Challenge, where we put out a call for solutions to help slow down the spread of Ebola, whether that be around better protective gear or around faster diagnosis. These are things that we’re not going to come up with all ourselves, but we put out a broad call both through an open platform … as well as through a grant mechanism, and we’ve received more responses to this than any of the other Grand Challenges we’ve had so far. What’s exciting about it is that we’re able to tap into a much, much broader set of talent and ideas than we would by just sort of holing up in our own little offices.

Do you still see a strong role for science and technology within the agency and within the lab? Is that there, or is that something that’s sort of moved on to this realm of partnerships?

In order for us to be effective partners, we need to really be able to understand things at a pretty deep level so that we know how to place those smarts bets, that we know where to look, and that we know how to tell if something’s really working … and really be part of that community. I think it’s essential that we have strong talent in our team as well that is really in a position to fully partner with the range of partners that we’ll be working with.

Forgive the hypothetical, but I was curious to know — if someone approached you during your time at Google with an idea for something resembling the Global Development Lab, what concerns would you have raised?

The same one that you talked about earlier. The government is not known for innovation. It is realistically going to be a challenge to shift that culture. The good news is that since I was at Google that culture has already been shifting and we’re seeing signs of that with lots of things that are happening in the lab itself as well as things we’re seeing across the U.S. government, such as the U.S. digital service. The work that we’re doing to modernize the way that we do our work in the government and the realization that technology and innovation is essential for us to be able to do our jobs better.

And are there any remaining gaps that you’ve identified as hurdles to really build the governmentwide culture around the lab that will enable it to be successful? Is there anything that you’ve identified as a challenge that you’ll need to advocate for on behalf of this organization that you’re leading?

That I may also have to defer until after I start and get a better sense of where the hurdles lie … I’m sure there will be many.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.