INNOVATION FALLACY: Force-feeding ill-conceived technology in developing countries.

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Takudzwa Noel Mushamba

Takudzwa Noel Mushamba

WASH Delegate at Swedish Red Cross

It is common to hear words like game-changing or disruptive technology in the development sector nowadays. Innovation has become a cliché globally but the effects of ill conceived technological innovation are particularly evident in developing countries. When Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were launched at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 innovation became an instant hit and buzzword. Since then every strategy, programme, job description and report contains the term innovation or one of its synonyms.

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Do not get me wrong, I support innovation but, appropriate and well thought innovation. In the same vein I firmly believe to drive sustainable development the time for nudging is gone. There is need to address traditionally taboo topics when it comes to why most developing countries. Experts shy away from tackling key reasons the real reason why success remain evasive despite the high number of development partners working particularly in the Sub Sahara African region. Justification for development is aid is very well articulated. However, it also seems the presence of development aid has inadvertently lulled upper echelons in developing countries into a deep slumber.

According to OECD, “ Innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations

Credit: Ig professionals

The world is changing with natural disasters becoming more frequent hence the need for innovation and sustainable development. Good governance and accountability must precede these. In the absence accountability funding development initiatives is tantamount to throwing money down the drain. In the absence of appropriate policy the needy barely benefit while tenderpreneurs and politicians continue to fatten their pockets. I am digressing, well back to technological innovation; this concept is very common in the development sector to the extent that most practitioners believe it is one of the key drivers of success. In the books of many practitioners innovation is about technology, new techniques, rapid change. Some believe it is about finding that niche that transforms everything. The development sector is different from the private sector both are hinged on good policy and governance but the latter is driven primarily by profit. The same cannot be said about the development sector in a context where the majority fail to meet basic needs. With high rates of unemployment in developing, everyone wants to be an innovator or entrepreneur. Innovation created a rush in the development sector over the years. Below are some outcomes and indicators of the innovation rush in the last decade:

  • Major bilateral donors are working independently to fund innovations and support startups
  • Founding of humanitarian and development innovation funders such as The Global Innovation Fund, 
  • A multitude of innovation hubs have been established in the last few years to foster private sector partnership projects

At this point technological innovation must be taken with a pinch of salt in developing countries. This is because of the 10 reasons below.

1. Most of the challenges in developing countries are not related to lack of innovative technology but rather lack of will, corruption, lack of accountability and poor governance. 

2. Technological innovation only works when certain preconditions are met such. Failure to meet these renders innovative ideas futile or the technology redundant. 

3. Not everything can be turned into business in developing countries. Given the low rating in most Human Development Indicators (HDI), it is difficult to turn major development sectors into business models. These only look good on paper but fail dismally in practice. 

4. Most developing countries fail to do the basics well, there is blatant disregard for policy and related instruments hence at this stage innovation that works is one that addresses aforementioned challenges. 

5. There is lack of understanding of underlying challenges and disregard of red flags by innovators. Although there has been some success of “donor hand held” technologies. For obvious reasons the sustainability of such initiatives remains questionable. 

6. What most developing countries need now is improvement. Once current basic systems are working well there is huge room for technological innovation.  

7. Introducing technological innovation is one thing, developing a sustainable solution is a different story. The only innovation required in most developing countries is management and policy innovation. These will pave way for other forms of innovation.

8. Most development practitioners shy away from controversial topics such as corruption mainly because it poses a risk to their ability to operate. Such should be confronted before we talk of innovation. 

9. It is important to understand not only the difference between innovation and improvement but also the value of each. An innovation may be an important improvement, but an improvement may not be innovative at all.

10. Innovation must be coupled with well-documented research so that we do not reinvent the wheel and repeat of mistakes. Most innovators are very good marketers unfortunately most developing countries buy into these without properly considering the long-term impact of such. 

Innovation is often lauded as a force for growth and development in developing nations. However, when most speak about innovation, they usually refer to the technovation (technological innovation), and many times policy and institutional innovations are often overlooked.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts & opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s current or previous employers. 

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