The day-long drumbeat was about the new era of development — echoed one final time by the United States government’s top development official.
“Hopefully we’re always in a new era,” said Gayle Smith, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s administrator, in the closing session of Devex World. But today’s landscape is characterized by a much richer menu of options for countries to pursue their development goals, a wider array of partners — necessarily so because of the government’s budgetary constraints — and, overall, more tools on hand to “do” development. All told, having a broader toolkit to pursue development makes what were previously considered agency-critical issues just a decade ago seem like a walk in the park today, said Smith.
Is the new landscape as profound for other donors, funders and development implementers? Just what does it mean to be in this new era? The industry is generally shifting toward a results-based ecosystem, Devex President Raj Kumar noted in the closing panel. That means fewer measurements based on money spent and more on measuring impact, metrics and results related to social change.
Pam Scott, the founder and chief executive of the Curious Company whose work focuses on a human centered design in development, put forward one novel way to measure progress towards social change: failure. Of course, the goal is for development innovations to render successful interventions. But the more innovations that fail at least mean that more models are being continuously tried and tested.
“I don’t want to fail in two years, I want to fail in two days — two weeks max,” said Scott. “Let’s get ideas out there more quickly, let’s reframe failure as part of the process, but earlier.”
The idea holds virtue, but in practice may still not sit entirely well with donors. Other closing session panelist from Pfizer, RTI and Innovation for Poverty Action admit that traditional donors still tiptoe around the concept of failed or unsuccessful investments. For a major shift in development to take hold, the question then, perhaps, falls on how to get donors, implementers and project stakeholders to fully embrace the high risks that necessarily come with the rewards of development innovations.
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