USAID's grand challenges — a model for speeding up the pipeline in global crises

A patient is admitted to the USAID-supported Ebola treatment unit in Sierra Leone. The U.S. aid agency announced on Dec. 12 the five final nominees for its Fighting Ebola: Grand Challenge for Development. Photo by: International Medical Corps / USAID / CC BY-NC

The U.S. Agency for International Development unveiled Friday its five final nominees for the agency’s Grand Challenge for Development, an initiative to find innovative solutions to combat Ebola in West Africa — a model that could become part of USAID’s long-term strategy for tackling global emergencies.

Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development” seeks to outfit health workers battling the Ebola epidemic with a range of new defenses, like cooling mechanisms inside PPT suits to prevent heatstroke, colored foam to ease sanitation or a rub-on electrostatic force field, or fabric with a cooling function that targets specific points on the body to keep down overall temperature.

The five finalists brought ideas from a range of backgrounds — from military to academia to sportswear manufacturing — with the goal of finding new ways to support health care workers. This is one of the first ideas to emerge from USAID’s Global Development Lab, which issued issued a call in October and received more than 1,500 ideas from all around the world.

One of the finalists noted how the initiative can help speed of the pipeline of the response to such a crisis.

“It was so fast,” Colette Cozean, CEO of Innovative BioDefense Inc., the firm that produces the long-lasting antiseptic lotion Xylast XP, told Devex. “It’s so encouraging that there could be, in the long term, this fast-moving pipeline toward those crises that don’t always immediately get the [U.S.] public’s attention.”

USAID also believes these challenges could be scaled up in the future.

“This challenge has generated an incredible global response,” Wendy Taylor, director of the agency’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, said in an email to Devex. “We've unearthed important off-the-shelf solutions that can have an immediate impact on the front lines of the epidemic.”

An Ebola grand shortcut

The U.S. aid agency’s grand challenges approach represent organizationwide and lately even governmentwide efforts to institutionalize innovation, part of what USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah called in a statement on Friday a “new model of development — bringing together the world's brightest minds to solve our biggest global challenges.”

The grand model, a form of intellectual open sourcing that has been used by universities and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for more than a decade, is proving quite popular within the U.S. government. One of the of the few foreign aid boosts in the U.S. budget currently being debated in the Senate can be found in USAID’s operational funding, as Congress seems to be telling the agency to keep up the good work in the Global Development Lab.

In the long run, according to Cozean, the challenge model could help bring down obstacles to innovation in crisis situations. Where regulation and bureaucracy usually stand in the way of a great new idea, winning a grand challenge means an automatic shortcut.

“We’ve had this product, and we knew it worked against Ebola,” she said. “But when we asked the CDC if we could test it on the current strain [of Ebola], they said no. It’s a long wait for things like that. But when we made it to the semifinalist level in the grand challenge, it happened right away.”

In crises like Ebola, Cozean noted a fast track through regulatory bureaucracy could make all the difference in saving lives.

But outside of the quick turnaround offered to grand challenge finalists, USAID’s average procurement cycle lasts more than 500 days. The semifinalists and thousands of others who didn’t make the cut are left tangled in red tape.

The enthusiastic response to the Ebola grand challenge and USAID’s embrace of its finalists leaves many wondering whether the agency can marshal the same kind of agile and efficient problem-solving for crises that don’t make the headlines.

Which Grand Challenge winner is your favorite? What’s your big idea for fighting Ebola and supporting health workers in West Africa? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.