And while we're talking about "innovation"?

From yesterday's “But will this be sustainable?” also comes...

“This project will be innovative.” 

The development aid sector is not lacking in ideas or methods and it's hardly appropriate to declare one's self "innovative," right?

Last year when I found the one-page piece I wrote about a local implementing partner's monitoring activity for kids in 2004 still being showcased as an "innovative best practice" by a former large aid agency for I used to work (of course by now with someone else's name on it), I questioned whether or not innovation is even possible in these big ships that are hard to steer.

I don't want to set the bar low, but maybe, just maybe, doing your work well and making any progress at all in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, (let alone bureaucracies), should be considered innovative in and of itself. Maybe we should look for evidence of innovation not in the latest idea or product as in the private sector, but in the fact that individual and collective reflection processes to identify and overcome obstacles occur, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work.

Moreover, aren't the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out, more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation lie? In the scope of action by smaller grassroots groups focused on family and community structures, is there not the potential to draw upon "innovations" for larger programs? Ultimately, where we are looking for innovation and who defines innovation is most important.

What if we can re-conceptualize "innovation" for aid? What if the thing really makes something innovative is not the idea itself, but the learning that made it possible?


Why does jargon matter to people? Perhaps it's because these words remind us that we're involved in what @Semhar Araia describes as "intellectual debates over real people's lives."

And maybe that's not such a comfortable place.

I recommend checking out last month's issue of InterAction's Monthly Developments, "Frustrated by NGO Jargon?" now online. Among some other really great articles, my piece, "It's Not YOUR Project: Why possessive adjectives are the most detrimental aid jargon we use" is included on page 16.


This post originally appeared at: 


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Tags: Araia, InterAction, NGO, Semhar, aid, development, international, jargon


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Comment by William TARPAI on April 19, 2012 at 10:46am

Timely question, and indeed a good questions as the world tries to grapple with how to make aid more effective.  Certainly societal COMPLEXITY enters into the equation when speaking about the need to be innovative.  

It is worth noting that the Rockefeller Foundation is seeking "...the knowledge and innovative ideas that will solve problems for the next 100 years.  In the face of these 21st century realities, achieving the Foundation's overall goal to build resilience and more equitable growth, especially for poor or vulnerable people, relies in part on our commitment to a continuing search for, and openness to, new ideas and new ways of building solutions to these complex crises."   Check out

Comment by Roselyn Mungai on April 19, 2012 at 10:16am

Innovation that leads to sustainability could also simply mean including previously excluded people:)

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