David Ferguson, from USAID-based "The Lab", is working on innovations in development cooperation and partnership between Sida and USAID.
"The Lab" focuses on innovations
An accelerating smarter aid. Innovative solutions. The words about the partnership with USAID reflects a trend. But what does it all mean, and what drives USAID to want to work with Sida?
David is in Sweden for a meeting on one of the partnership’s flagship projects, Making All Voices Count, but also to follow up planned actions within the collaboration between Sida and USAID. When asked why he sees Sida as a good partner, David Ferguson answers that our agency has extensive experience and knowledge in areas that USAID can benefit from.
- Actually, he says, the Americans want to have a partnership with the Swedes firstly because you have great knowledge about ICT and gender and democracy. Secondly, you are flexible and open to new approaches, and thirdly, there is a good relationship to build on.
Ferguson refers especially to the previous collaborations, for example in Bosnia Herzegovina to guarantee credits to farmers and small and medium enterprises. Following that, Sida seconded Roger Garman, now in the Department for Partnerships and Innovations, to USAID which made it possible to shape the pilot project Powering Agriculture.
- The fact that Roger Garman worked with us gave us a chance to test new ideas. Together we were able to identify common areas for the partnership and the first joint project.
And so, The U.S. Global Development Lab was formed, where David Ferguson today is one of its Directors. The brand new department was opened in April 2014 with about 100 people who are handpicked from other parts of USAID.
The Lab will take care of ideas, shape actions, test products or models and find new partners such as philanthropists or willing impact investors. David Ferguson, who has worked 25 years in the telecommunications industry, emphasizes that technology can support research and vice versa. The mobile phone's importance in developing countries has clearly shown that.
But it doesn’t always need to be new products or models. Existing projects may also be picked up by the Lab – as long as they are deemed scalable.
-We have for example a relatively simple solution to purify water – by adding chlorine. What’s new is that we have tested where it is best utilized. We did that by placing it in people's homes, in stores/retail establishments, or near their water source.
The conclusion was that chlorine works best as a water purifier when, together with clear instructions, added at the source where people collect their water. Now he hopes it can get support to be scaled up in African countries.
But can one product make such a difference?
- A product or model should not be seen in isolation. This is just the beginning; we need to start from somewhere. But you always have to connect to a system. For example, to scale up the chlorine solution, the local authority would need to come along together with other relevant stakeholders working on water and health, he answers.
But what is new? Have we not seen similar solutions before? David Fergusson believes that the partnership is more careful to prove what works, and this is why doing research and test different ideas is so important.
-It will take time, he says - but in the long term, we will gain more. I would also say that what’s new is the humility in our approach - to dare to rigorously test to reduce the risk of failure, but to be aware it may still not work, and that we can’t do it on our own.
The fact that he previously worked in the private sector makes him believe that we must learn from the business world.
- A company can’t afford to go ahead without having evidence that the venture may have long-term results.
But you seem to want to invest in a big way. A common expression says: "If you want to be successful, you need to focus on fewer things"
- Well, yes and no. But we have to find out what to focus on, so we need to think and act widely at first. Invite hundreds of partners, open up several Challenge Funds, map out what we have. But then; out of 1000’s of ideas only a few will be successful.
David Fergusson tells us that there are many internal challenges, including the fact that it requires lots of time to coordinate partners. Leaders must give time and room for the transformatic change, like being more active in designing projects in collaboration with other partners.
Have we done wrong before?
- No, absolutely not. And we will continue to do what we do today, in parallel to this. But one thing is certain: We can’t solve the big problems with poverty as individual players. We must work together as aid organizations and engage innovators and financial partners who increasingly take place on the global stage. We need to find ways to reach out to many more people living in poverty.
ABOUT THE PARTNERSHIP
In November 2013 a written MOU, Memorandum of Understanding, signed by the Swedish Minister of International Development Cooperation, Hillevi Engström, and The Administrator of USAID, Rajiv Shah, formed the beginning of a new partnership with a focus on science, technology, innovation and partnerships. The goal is to meet the needs in developing countries through scientifically tested solutions. There may be products or models that we want to get out on a wider market to reach millions of people living in poverty.
Four Grand Challenges are underway within the partnership: