New innovation lab backed by USAID points to growing focus on resilience

A farmer at work in Siranga, Western Kenya. Photo by: USAID in Africa

DAVIS, Calif. — A new lab at the University of California, Davis will build and test ways to overcome the risks of disasters that keep rural families poor.

The U.S. Agency for International Development selected UC Davis to lead the latest innovation lab funded by Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

With a five year grant of up to $30 million, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience, or MRR Innovation Lab, will manage a portfolio of projects testing ways to help people mitigate, adapt to, and recover from shocks such as drought, flood, or conflict. This research could inform USAID’s work to ensure that its investments can have a lasting impact even in the face of risks that can hold back progress on ending extreme poverty.

“Our job is to take risks,” Michael Carter, director of the MRR Innovation Lab and professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, told Devex. “If we’re going to change the conversation, we can’t just keep doing the same old thing.”

The investment reflects growing recognition by USAID of the role that resilience must play in agricultural development, so that people who face recurring crisis can escape and stay out of poverty.

“The concept of resilience has allowed us to flip how we think about the problem and solutions.”

— Greg Collins, deputy assistant administrator, USAID Bureau for Food Security

Assets, ability, and agency

Greg Collins, deputy assistant administrator at the USAID Bureau for Food Security, told Devex the elevation of resilience at USAID changes the way the agency perceives the problem and thinks about the solutions.

Sustainable food and the behavior change challenge

Speakers at the 2019 Crawford Fund Annual Conference were optimistic about new technology and science for sustainable food production — but politics and consumerism were seen as the biggest risks.

"I spent a good portion of my career as a vulnerability analyst focused on deficits and structural constraints and what was missing. The concept of resilience has allowed us to flip how we think about the problem and solutions. We think about it in terms of assets and abilities and agency,” Collins told Devex. “It may seem like wordplay, but it has fundamentally changed how we think."

Collins was based in Kenya during the 2011 drought emergency, when the Horn of Africa had its worst drought in 60 years, an experience that influenced his perspective as the agency’s resilience coordinator.

"We can’t approach this as a sectoral problem," he said. "Sources of resilience not only cut across different sectors — agriculture, access to finance, health care, education — they transcend sectors: women's empowerment, social capital, aspiration."

The drought emergencies in the Horn of Africa and Sahel in 2011 and 2012 gave rise to efforts within USAID to build resilience into programming.

A 2016 report from USAID highlights ways the agency has made resilience a focus — and Feed the Future is set to become the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security under USAID’s reform.

"It has gone from a recognition that risk was important in the early days to a much greater focus on these areas of repeat and large scale humanitarian crises,” Collins said. “There was a collective recognition not just by USAID but by other donors and partner country governments that they could not continue to treat these as anomalies, but needed to treat them as truly development challenges.”

Changing the conversation

The MMR Innovation Lab is the latest addition to a network of over 20 Feed the Future Innovation Labs funded by USAID.

UC Davis, a university that tops worldwide university rankings for agriculture, is home to four of these labs, which also include an innovation lab for climate resilient chickpea, an innovation lab for horticulture, and an innovation lab for genomics to improve poultry.

Carter, director of the MMR Innovation Lab, also directed the Feed the Future Lab for Assets and Market Access, or AMA Innovation Lab, which concluded in 2018.

Meeting with Devex at his offices in Davis, California, Carter explained that he will put out competitive requests for proposals for funding. While many U.S. universities work in collaboration with host country institutions, the MMR Innovation Lab will create funding opportunities for researchers based in host countries, allowing them to take the lead in projects based on local needs and priorities, he said.

The MMR Innovation Lab, like its predecessor, will partner with the BOMA Project, a nonprofit organization that works with ultra-poor women to graduate from extreme poverty in Northern Kenya. In these arid stretches, men are often gone for 10 months of the year to graze their livestock, said Wendy Chamberlin, director of expansion and innovation at the BOMA Project. And when a shock such as a drought or a flash flood negatively impacts the livestock herd, families can lose their entire savings.

“This is the role donors can play — governments like the government of Kenya can't afford to test and fail innovations. We have the ability to do that.”

— Greg Collins, deputy assistant administrator, USAID Bureau for Food Security

“Traditional philanthropy is very sectorally siloed both from an operational and even a strategic lens,” Chamberlin said.

Previously, she spent 12 years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working on the financial services for the poor team alongside teams focused on agriculture, gender, and nutrition, to name a few.

“You may have a programmatic, overarching strategy, on ending poverty,” she said. “But what you don’t have is an overarching results framework whereby those different programmatic areas could all point to and feed into more of an outcomes-based approach.”

Chamberlin applauded USAID for its support of resilience in agriculture development.

“They’re also quick to recognize if we overuse the word resilience, it means everything and nothing at the same time. They’re willing to put some money on the table and say, ‘Okay, let’s see what this looks like.’ They’re taking an outcomes based approach,” she said.

Research influencing policy

While USAID sought concept notes from U.S. universities for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience, UC Davis was a strong candidate, due in part to the success of the prior innovation lab Carter led.

The flagship project of the AMA Innovation Lab was the Index-based Livestock Insurance project in East Africa.

Building on the insights this lab generated, the Kenyan government launched a hunger safety net program and livestock insurance program.

"This is the role donors can play — governments like the government of Kenya can't afford to test and fail innovations. We have the ability to do that through our innovation labs. And once we show something works, they can pick it up scale it up and have instant payout,” Collins said.

He pointed to the Ending Drought Emergencies initiative in Kenya as a way that Feed the Future Innovation Labs can have a direct impact on policy.

While the MMR Innovation Lab may generate valuable insights on effective approaches to build resilience, what remains to be seen is how USAID and other donors and governments will operationalize those findings.

"The challenge is getting out of sectoral stovepipes and really working — for us, as a whole of agency, for partner governments, in a whole of government approach — and really building the capacity of households and communities to not only weather shock events and get back to status quo but continually improve well-being over time and not be derailed by the next shock event,” Collins said.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.