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The World's Top 40 Development Innovators : Local, Tech Savvy May Be Key to Improving Aid Devex Top 40 Development Innovators Merge Local Partnerships, New Technology to Fight Old Intractable Problems

Thousands of aid workers and development professionals picked the 40 most innovative groups in their field. See who they left out.


It's not easy solving poverty, reducing global child mortality or achieving pretty much any of work international aid workers take on every day. Look at our lagging progress with the Millennium Development Goals for evidence of how much work lay ahead.

So what's to be done? Who's getting it right? Where's hope to be found?


Today we get a little evidence on what is working from the perspective of the people on the ground, involved day-to-day in fighting poverty around the world. Devex, the professional network of over 500,000 international development and aid workers asked members to vote for the Devex Top 40 Development Innovators who are doing the best job at taking on our planet's more pressing needs. GOOD is a media sponsor of the effort.

"To reach the Millennium Development Goals, we can’t be satisfied with doing things the way they used to be done," says Raj Kumar, President of Devex. "The mobile phone alone gives us the opportunity to reinvent the way education and health services are provided, especially in the most challenging environments like Haiti." The point of the Top 40 list, he says, is to push the culture in these global development organizations more towards real innovation.

More than two-thousands members responded to the survey, creating a list of winners that reads like a who's who of large development organizations. So it was all the more noticeable for the few major players that were left out, including the World Bank and regional development banks along with the U.S. Agency for International Development—USAID's counterparts in Australia and the U.K. both made the cut however.

The survey only included larger organizations, so it's not meant to find the tiny sparks of change that may come to disrupt the whole aid industry (more on overhauling aid for a new era coming in a guest post later this week from Raj Kumar the head of Devex).

Still, looking at the 40 peer-chosen picks, a pair of attributes leap forward as important for development innovation: a nimble incorporation of new technology, and respect for local partnerships!

On the tech front, several of the winners like International Rescue Committee are building platforms that other NGOs can also use to up their efficiency, like the Emergency Market Mapping Analysis (PDF). EMMA lets humanitarian staff track and use local market systems even during emergencies so that aid agencies’ emergency responses can meet immediate survival needs and also plan for economic viability down the road.

The survey doesn't say why a given group was voted up the list, but with Human Rights Watch it's easy to imagine it had something to do with the group's savvy adoption of new media in spotlighting rights abuses around the world, including a Webby-award winning video companion to the more traditional NGO report on maternal death. All together it helped persuade Indian officials in Utter Pradesh state to enact health-care reforms that HRW says save countless women's lives. You can expect them to tap into all kinds of mobile media to monitor human rights abuses as well as disseminate the findings.

Lack of local insight might be the single biggest historical cause of failed or misguided development efforts, so it's not surprising to see the groups on this Top 40 list consistently tout, and achieve, productive local partnerships. As CARE puts it, "The best innovations come from the women and men in the communities we work with. They trust our staff and partners—and together they find innovative ways to eradicate poverty." Ninety-seven percent of CARE's employees are citizens of the country where they work. No parachuting in with unfounded ideas from afar for CARE.

Another winner, Oxfam—it also helped build EMMA with the IRC—paired with local partners in Cambodia to build a new kind of mechanical weeder for rice cultivation. Then they combined that with the innovative System of Rice Intensification farming techniques to increase crop yields by more than 100 percent. This locally driven innovation let's farmers earn more money while using less water and fewer chemicals, good for the bottom line and the environment.

Find more stories like these, read the "innovation statements" along with the full list of the Top 40 Innovators at the Devex Facebook page. For background head to the Devex Innovators Blog.

Image: (cc) by Flickr user alancleaver_2000.

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