How development innovators can navigate politics

Every bold claim about eradicating poverty comes with an accompanying ‘next big thing’. Right now it’s innovation – fuelled by technology, data and connectivity.

Nesta has just released a fairly comprehensive stock take on the potential, pathways and pitfalls for innovation for development. The thinking resonates with our recent research at ODI, in which we argue that politics presents a crucial set of pitfalls for innovation but can also be key to transformative impact. We looked specifically at politics around innovation in support of universal access to basic services – a lynchpin of the Sustainable Development Goals and, for many, a prerequisite to poverty reduction.

We started with a simple logic: if innovation is about change, it will produce new winners and losers and affect relationships and power dynamics in society, markets and the home. Those who stand to lose out from innovation may resist or block outcomes.

But if innovation is a slippery concept, politics is even more so. People (and their interests) are not predictable. So what might politically smart innovation look like?

In some cases, blockers may need to be bypassed. In Sierra Leone’s education sector, UNICEF’s U-Report system harnessed text messages to expose a ‘sex 4 grades’ scandal in schools, by surveying pupils about whether they had experienced sexual exploitation by their teachers.

By reaching out to students directly via their phones, U-Report evaded problems of teacher intimidation and classroom stigma. 13,000 responses were collected in 24 hours, with 86% identifying sex for grades as a problem in their school.

In other cases, potential blockers need to be brought on side as part of the solution.

In Uganda’s health sector another text-based system, mTrac, accelerated the flow of community and health facility data up to national level. Top tiers of government could now get live information on medicine stocks and disease cases.

However, reports were initially submitted directly from the frontline to the national ministry, bypassing district officials. Because this level of government held much of the power to actually do something with the monitoring data, the system needed to be adjusted to include them in the information and accountability flow.

Examples like these show that innovators can anticipate issues of power, interests and values – who might win and who might lose. Yet unpredictability and differing circumstances mean that good examples only get us so far. In our papers, we tried to frame some basic questions that can support innovators both to tackle, and work around, challenging politics across a range of contexts:

  • Tackling challenging politics directly means taking a problem-driven approach. First, what’s the core political problem impeding service provision (e.g. do service providers have incentives to extend access to poor consumers? Can poor people collectively mobilise to demand improvements?). Next, what types of innovation might help overcome that problem?
  • Working around politics involves thinking through possible unintended consequences or potential sources of resistance for a given innovation – a more ‘solution-driven’ approach where you already have an innovation in hand. Will it change the power of managers to ensure service provider performance at the front-line? Will it alter the advantages and opportunities enjoyed by market incumbents and elites? Then, think about what adaptations or support might be needed to navigate the sources of resistance or avoid adverse impacts.

We know that we are scratching the surface. At an ODI roundtable a few weeks back, we had plenty of suggestions for where we need to better understand the relationship between innovation and politics in practical terms: such as whether government should get out of the way of private-sector led innovation, or take a firm lead, and capture the benefits.

Even if we’re just starting out, asking politically smart questions could be a first step for anyone who wants innovation to do more than produce hot air for the many and gains for the few.


Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons by Kenneth Lu


Nathaniel Mason

Nathaniel is a Research Fellow at ODI, focusing on water, sanitation and climate change issues. His interests span specialist fields including service delivery, financing, and data. Hi…