New USAID 'Institute' would seek development breakthroughs

There are plans to merge two offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development: The Office of Science and Technology and the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances. Photo by: Eliza Villarino / Devex

Plans are taking shape to merge two offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development and create the “Institute,” a platform for identifying, testing and scaling up technologies and innovations to spark major development breakthroughs.

In what some Washington insiders describe as a “legacy project” for USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, the Office of Science and Technology would be combined with the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances if USAID officials can figure out how to reallocate funding and personnel from other departments and secure approval from Congress.

Observers have wondered for some time how the two offices, both tapped to play more central roles in the agency’s strategic development, will work together in the future, since they pursue similar objectives.

IDEA — just over two years old — recently saw the departure of its inaugural leader Maura O’Neill, chief innovation officer and one of Shah’s senior counselors. Devex spoke with O’Neill prior to her departure about the future of IDEA and what it can teach the rest of USAID.

Development challenges, outcomes

The imagined platform — currently referred to as the Institute — is expected to focus on a handful of development challenges over the next decade, much in the way the current “Grand Challenges” program — an Office of Science and Technology initiative — seeks to focus attention on specific development outcomes by defining problems and holding contests to identify promising solutions.

The Institute would coordinate U.S. government support, public-private partnerships and research to match new technologies and distribution methods with seed funding and rigorous evaluation. USAID officials hope they can reduce prices for innovative products and amplify their impact by focusing governmental resources and leveraged private funding on the most promising solutions.

According to government documents, the initiative is expected to convene scientists, experts and university departments to support directed research efforts to identify the barriers and opportunities for overcoming intractable development problems, like how DARPA commissions advanced research for the Department of Defense.

Initial plans hint at renewable energy, anti-diarrheal treatments and mobile technology as three potential early focal points.

A USAID spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny plans for the Institute, saying: “Bolstering the roles of science, technology, innovation and partnership are key priorities at USAID because we believe that innovations in science and technology can truly bend the curve of development, create live saving results and do so with greater efficiency. We are continually working to strengthen the role of innovation and partnership in all the work that we do.”

Speed up transformation of U.S. aid

In addition to driving progress on specific development goals, agency officials hope the creation of the Institute would hasten the transformation of U.S. foreign aid in general.

The USAID Forward reform package championed by Shah under the direction of President Barack Obama’s global development policy envisions the agency as more flexible in its use of resources, better organized to leverage science and technology and more committed to building partnerships with the private sector, whose investment in the developing world dwarfs official development assistance.

The Office of Science and Technology and IDEA are both seen as examples of these commitments. Combining them is meant to create a centralized agency hub for coordinating efforts at missions and bureaus to utilize alternative procurement mechanisms — like the Development Innovation Ventures open competition — and to field test promising new technologies and distribution methods.

The creation of the Institute is expected to be announced later this year.

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About the author

  • 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.