Innovation is good, but action is better

A quote grabbed my attention the other day: “Innovation won’t cure global inequality – political action will.” The idea behind this quote struck me so ferociously that I actually took the time to read beyond the headline, read the article and think about it. It was on healthcare, not a field that I can claim much expertise in from a development perspective but which I am well versed in personally.

The article, written by Ben Ramalingam, featured here, focussed on one simple yet somewhat overwhelming idea: development and poverty reduction don’t lack for ideas, but they lack in political and economic action. And it’s so true. I’ve written here previously about innovation in development, about how the development field has become so focussed on innovation and grand schemes (that will somehow be the cure all to what ails the world? Sometimes it feels that way) that we fail to recognize that we pretty much already have most of the answers (although many need to be contextualized to fit individual countries and communities).

The problem is the disconnect between the innovation (big or small) and the action. Ben uses the Ebola crisis as a good example: in November 2014, when the Ebola outbreak was raging through west Africa, the US Food and Drug Administration went through an expedited approval process for a one-hour Ebola test, reducing the time for results by five hours from the previous fastest machines. The problem was that few west African countries had the resources to acquire the $40,000 machines or the skills to run them. They were, however, to be found in many US hospitals.

To this I would add public administration reform. I’ve worked in a number of countries and so many projects and programmes have focussed on improving governance and improving service delivery, when the real issue is the need to reform the public administration from the top down (or bottom up, whatever floats your boat). Indonesia was in the most desperate need of this type of action, simply due to the sheer size of the country, but there was little political will to make it happen. Political will and leadership on improving healthcare and disaster management and any other type of service was quickly forthcoming. But it’s difficult to really improve services when most of the government’s money goes to salaries (for many positions which are redundant), most jobs are filled by people not qualified for them and staff rotate through departments following elections so quickly that any programme to improve service delivery basically has to start at square one with its capacity building component. Yes, public administration reform is a massive undertaking and will inevitably face significant backlash, but it’s the necessary first step to really improve access to and quality of services and free up money to stimulate local economic development and reduce poverty.

Our biggest challenge is not so much not knowing what to do, or how to do it or even ‘trying harder’ – it’s just getting government to get it done. Development practitioners and organizations can only do so much. For nearly everything we do, a primary factor for success is political will, and when it comes to the difficult stuff like reform, as opposed to the easy stuff like building a road, it is generally lacking. There may be lip service but there will rarely be action.

So, where are we then? The SDGs and Paris Agreement and Addis Agreement provide us with all of the frameworks and direction we need. Governments the world over already know and agree on what needs to be done and how to do it. Perhaps our role now is to make sure governments stay the course – to help them overcome internal resistance to change, to be the moral support the change makers need to keep political will for real action alive.

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