After 4 years in the works, multiple name changes, and numerous launch delays, the U.S. Agency for International Development is finally unveiling the Global Development Lab, which it hopes will bring greater innovation to meeting the goal of ending extreme poverty and “take game-changing solutions to more than 200 million people.”
The event will take place in New York, with Hillary Clinton delivering the keynote address, following an internal launch and a USAID town hall discussion earlier this week in Washington, D.C.
The lab will initially focus on 6 thematic areas: food security and nutrition, maternal and child survival, energy access, sustainable water solutions, child literacy, and “connected technologies.” Devex first reported last August on plans to merge the USAID’s Office of Science and Technology with the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances to create a new platform for innovation, still referred to at that time as “The Institute.”
With the exception ofa few more details, USAID has kept its plans for the new initiative under tight wraps. The launch of the Global Development Lab — and the agency’s public outreach preceding it — answers some questions about what the new platform will actually do, while raising some others.
The lab launches with 32 “cornerstone partners” in place, including multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart; civil society organizations and foundations including Catholic Relief Services and the Skoll Foundation; The University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions of higher learning; and Sweden, the only other bilateral donor that has so far committed to supporting the initiative.
Signing on to be a “cornerstone partner” is “not a financial agreement, but instead an agreement to really work together to take transformative solutions to hundreds of millions of people,” Lona Stoll, senior advisor to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, told Devex.
In describing the “cornerstone partnership,” she explained, “we use the shorthand of: they will share knowledge, they will solve problems, and they will look to scale, together with the lab.”
USAID already has a team dedicated toassembling and signing “global MOUs” with corporations and other development actors, but Stoll added that the cornerstone agreement represents “the next iteration of what partnership can look like” for the agency.
The initial cornerstone partners represent “$30 billion in independent investments in emerging markets,” the official said. That’s money the partners are already investing on their own in emerging markets — not money for corporate social responsibility or specially designated development programming, but investments for their core business practices.
Stoll noted the partners are “bringing their full portfolios in these countries to the table” to find areas where their business operations can find win-win opportunities to forward USAID’s mission of partnering to end extreme poverty.
The lab itself, she added, “is an experiment in partnership.”
‘Lead’ missions for testing, scaling
Up to 20 USAID missions have been singled out as “lead missions” for testing and scaling innovations generated through lab partnerships and sourcing.
The lab will be structured around 5 different centers: data, analysis and research; development innovation; global solutions — which Stoll will direct; transformational partnerships; and mission engagement and innovations. It will also include 2 offices: evaluation and impact assessment — which will help the agency determine which innovations to support and take to scale — and engagement and communications.
A new program for research and innovation fellows will also be rolled out at the launch. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the program plans to send U.S. graduate students overseas to work with organizations on achieving development goals in the lab’s focus countries.
The lab’s acting executive director is Andrew Sisson, USAID’s current mission director for Indonesia, though a search for the permanent executive director is ongoing.
At Devex we will continue to stay out in front of this story to keep our community informed about how the idea of the Global Development Lab, discussed and modified for years, will actually impact the work of world’s largest bilateral donor — and its partners.
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Michael Igoe is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.