Teachers at a science training workshop program at the Developments in Literacy center in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo by: Kristian Buus/STARS / CC BY-NC-ND

The foreign aid community has a unique window of opportunity to capitalize on the scale and pace of global innovation in a way that advances development goals, including gender equality.

The question is how to leverage the innovations happening from the bottom up and the top down in such a way that they empower women, improve their social and economic well-being, help them realize their potential, and transform their lives.

Here is an overview of some of the most surprising ways #SheBuilds innovations, with a look to how the international community can most effectively mobilize support around these innovations to advance the lives of women and girls worldwide.

1. Bringing in outside perspectives and bridging divides

In order to ensure that development policies deliver outcomes for 100 percent of their intended audience, it is essential to bring different players together, from government to civil society to the private sector. Innovations to advance the lives of women and girls are most likely to succeed when different players come together and pursue solutions from the top down and bottom up.

For example, the Millennium Challenge Corp. joined forces with Arizona State University and the New American Foundation on the Science & Technology Fellowship, which places innovative thinkers in MCC operations to apply their technical expertise toward MCC operations.

Fellows bring new ideas to address a wide range of challenges holding back women and girls, such as the fact that they suffer disproportionately from a lack of access to water and sanitation worldwide.

With the involvement of outside perspectives, international development efforts like a recently announced $10 million dollar grant to improve water and sanitation systems in Lusaka, Zambia, are more likely to succeed.

While government spending is funding this grant, MCC is soliciting proposals from the private sector, seeking out the best solutions to improve clean water, sanitation and drainage, no matter their source. And sometimes the best solutions come from beyond the foreign aid world as it is traditionally perceived; actor and activist Matt Damon, for instance, is among the innovators developing counterintuitive means of improving water access.

Innovation cannot survive without political will and the commitment of governments. Innovation cannot thrive if there is not grassroots support for designing, adopting, and spreading innovations. But innovation cannot occur in the first place without bringing in new perspectives and bridging divides between the insiders and the outsiders, the decision makers and the beneficiaries.

2. Reinventing workforce participation

One of the more powerful results of bringing in outside perspectives and bridging divides is the wide array of new solutions for women to achieve equality through innovative workforce participation models.

An example of empowerment through entrepreneurship in one of the most conservative societies in the world is Vodafone Qatar’s Al Johara program, which has created a network of female sales agents who sell mobile products to other women. The program grew not out of a desire to provide Qatari women with new ways to join the workforce, but rather out of the desire Vodafone had to reach the female market in this country. In Qatar, society dictates that females only communicate with males within their own family, and given that men operate phone retail outlets, women could not have phones of their own unless their husbands allowed them to, and retrieved the devices for them.

Because innovation often comes into conflict with custom, the initiative was designed to suit the culture of Qatari women, with Vodafone even approaching the male heads of household to ensure them that while their wives and daughters on the Al Johara Mobile Entrepreneurs Sales Team would be learning new skills and building self-confidence, the work would be culturally appropriate.

Family support can be the number one impetus, and the number one deterrent, for women to enter and remain in the workforce, so innovators looking to disrupt the space need to do so with care.

Chemonics is doing impactful work in Pakistan, for example, to help girls negotiate with their families their desires to leave the home and enter the workforce. Through its work with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Chemonics was part of the motivation for new partnerships forming between universities, youth groups and chambers of commerce to provide training, mentorship and internships.

Samasource has found an innovative model to help U.S. companies outsource data services projects in a socially responsible, and socially impactful, way by breaking down complex projects into small tasks. Through a microwork model designed to harness the untapped potential of poor women and youth, the organization connects women in poverty to dignified work in the digital space.

Leila Janah, the founder and CEO of Samasource, has said she draws on the inspiration of industries outside of the traditional international development space, such as the tech and business world, as she works to scale the innovative solution her company presents to the challenge of women not being able to find work that uses their skills, fits their lifestyle and the challenges that come with it, and allows them to provide for their families and participate in their communities.

Of course, tension exists when innovations adhere to what outsiders would view as the unreasonable demands of an oppressive environment, such as providing women with new opportunities that are confined to the home. Still, whether these work models are from the kitchen or from the field, they are providing women and girls with new opportunities for income, achievement and growth, while also allowing women to see their own potential.

3. Growing innovation organically

In a talk at South by Southwest Interactive, an annual conference and festival on all that is new and next held in Austin, Texas, Carla Echevarria, the creative lead at Facebook, talked this year about the need to hack existing technology, established behaviors and current cultures when it comes to making innovation work for women and girls. She quoted Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, displaying up on the screen these words: “Innovation has to be based in an intact tradition. It has to be grown organically from within.”

One powerful example she provided was a project in Cambodia that provides women with pink phones, capitalizing on the cultural stereotype that pink is a girly color so that men in the village would not use the phones. Most women in the Baray district in central Cambodia do not have their own phones, as they are shared by the family or owned by their husbands, and this inability to communicate independently holds them back from being agents of change in their communities through programs like those offered by Oxfam and Women for Prosperity. Now, these women are able to meet their own needs while also responding to the needs of other women with their pink phones, whether it is responding to domestic violence or helping to deliver babies or discussing everything from the weather to market prices via text message.

The U.N. Office for Project Services, an operational arm of the United Nations, while seeking to mainstream gender in the peace building, humanitarian and development projects it supports, considers local customs as well as what will be sustainable when it works to innovate at the ground level. For example, when it comes to designing schools, something as simple as bathrooms can determine how likely girls are to show up in the morning. In many cultures, girls will not attend school if it means sharing a toilet with boys or if it means boys will see them entering the toilet. So UNOPS’s team, which consistently includes women, will speak with the community members to devise a solution, such as toilet screens.

4. Fostering solutions on the village level

It’s important to support innovation at the village level, with individuals developing technologies by themselves for their own problems, on top of outside intervention that leads to creative solutions on the ground.

Giselle Aris, senior technical advisor for enterprise development and technology at Land O'Lakes, sees innovation in action everyday, from a new machine that extracts 20 liters of palm oil in 30 minutes rather than four hours to a peanut sheller that can shell up to 20 kilograms of peanuts in five minutes versus an entire day.

The Innovations in Gender Equality to Promote Household Food Security program, implemented in close coordination with Feed the Future, one of the Obama administration’s flagship global development initiatives, was the spark for this innovative fire throughout the southern agriculture corridor of Tanzania, but in a unique model that brings men and women together in teams, these design groups then develop their own improvements to their standard way of life.

Aris recalled something a farmer once told her that demonstrated to her the power of this work.

“When you’re a farmer, you think of yourself as a farmer and you certainly don’t think of yourself as an inventor,” she said. “So it was by being exposed to this kind of thinking that we came to realize we don’t just have to be farmers. We have to be inventors for agricultural issues.”

Most of the trainees involved in this community-centered design training, a partnership between Land O’ Lakes International Development, USAID and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Development Lab, are women, and they develop prototypes in group settings where they receive coaching and training while developing confidence in their own abilities to innovate.

The Jitegeme palm oil technology design group and the Ukombozi peanut sheller group demonstrate that what is impossible for an individual becomes possible in a group setting, particularly with women and men working together and husbands supporting their wives as equal partners. And the innovations they yield mean that time and labor burdens are reduced so that women are freed up for anything from pursuing other sources of income to cooking healthier meals to taking on leadership roles in their communities.

“Some of the emerging trends are on the right path but we need to think more creatively about how these can benefit women,” Aris said, explaining that commercialization doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all and that it’s important to expand on the power of “creating cultures of innovation and invention in villages where men and women can work together.”

5. Not overlooking simple solutions

It may seem counterintuitive for innovators to focus on simplicity, but sometimes the most impactful solutions come not from new technology but rather from inventive thinking working with what you already have.

“When people try to come up with innovation just for the sake of innovation focusing on women, it usually fizzles out at some point,” said Sanitha Pathiyanthara, project manager in UNOPS’s Sustainable Project Management Practice Group.

Rather, no matter the activity, it is important that it be done in an inclusive way, and then naturally there will be a benefit for women as well as men, she said, emphasizing that even beyond innovations for women and girls, broader gender-sensitive development interventions in health, education, infrastructure, water and sanitation can yield gender equality benefits.

More money spent in a gender-sensitive way on education will narrow the gender gap in literacy and more money spent on health will reduce maternal mortality – so innovations targeting women are all well and good, but funding for basic development needs must be carried out in an inclusive way and both men and women will see the benefit.

Seems obvious, right? But sometimes the solutions lie right before you, without the need for outside intervention.

For example, UNOPS was building 14 schools in South Sudan, where it observed low attendance and high dropout rates among girls in particular. This was due to a number of complicated factors from early marriage to instability, but another very simple reason was the lack of sanitary pads, causing many girls to miss one week of school a month, and leading to a spiraling effect of poor performance.

“We thought: Why don’t we teach them how to make sanitary pads?” Pathiyanthara said. Several mothers of female students volunteered and picked it up swiftly. “This was not only sustainable because they were learning new skills but they could continue it even after the projects closed. Mothers that were trained started training other mothers and it became a community initiative.”

The role of the foreign aid community

Development experts from UNOPS, MCC, DfID and other organizations innovating to advance the lives of women and girls around the world say without hesitation that an emphasis on gender equality at the funding level is essential.

Women and girls must be included from project design to project implementation, and when it comes to tracking the effectiveness of innovations for women and development, it is important to look at outcomes, not just inputs.

Beyond design and dollars, innovation in international development requires more to thrive, from media attention to policy change, from individual action to societal acceptance. Want to explore some of the solutions happening on the ground and support them yourself? Consider exploring and funding projects through Catapult, one innovative solution that connects you directly with women making change. And stay tuned to #SheBuilds.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. She helped to build NationSwell, a media company and membership network. She reported on foreign affairs for World Politics Review and built the social media presence for a Middle East news site. A graduate of Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science and distinction as a Yale Journalism Scholar. Catherine has also worked for POLITICO and The Washington Post. She is an ambassador for the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.