Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

The Challenge in Developing USAID Grand Challenges for Development

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has a proud history of transforming development through science & technology. As part of the ambitious reform effort, USAID Forward, USAID is developing a set of Grand Challenges for Development, a framework to focus the Agency and development community on key barriers that limit breakthrough development progress.

Last Thursday, Ticora V. Jones, Ph.D., an AAAS Fellow in the USAID Office of Science & Technology, and David Ferguson, also of OST, informally spoke with us about the Grand Challenges for Development initiative.
Grand Challenge

Do note that while Ticora and Dave talked at the meeting, these notes are not their statements nor the position of USAID – this is my impression of the cumulative input of all twenty-five Technology Salon participants.

What is a Grand Challenge for Development?

First, USAID is trying to identify what a Grand Challenge could be. There are two questions that are framing their search:

  1. What are the biggest solvable problems in development that can be addressed through science, technology, and innovation within the next 10 years?
  2. Of these solvable problems, what can be readily deployed? What can be scaled? What is affordable? What could be transformative?

Note that they’re trying to find a challenge that can be solved – so less “world peace” and more like the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health:

“The [Gates] Grand Challenges initiative is modeled after the grand challenges formulated more than 100 years ago by mathematician David Hilbert. His list of important unsolved problems has encouraged innovation in mathematics research ever since.Similarly, the Grand Challenges in Global Health focuses on 14 major global health challenges with the aim of engaging creative minds across scientific disciplines – including those who have not traditionally taken part in health research – to work on solutions that could lead to breakthrough advances for those in the developing world.”

Yet USAID seeks Grand Challenges in more than just health. So far, the challenge search is focused around the following initial key sectors:

  • Biodiversity, Conservation, Climate Change, & Water
  • Health, Nutrition, and Population
  • Agriculture, Poverty, and Hunger
  • Energy Access, Renewables, and Infrastructure
  • Fragile States, Conflicts, and Disasters

USAID is putting the call out to us all to give them ideas for Grand Challenges, there is even a Transforming Development website that is crowd sourcing ideas from the general public with over 100 submitted so far.

Impact on Development Community

While we were all excited that USAID has a resurgent Office of Science and Technology and is embarking on Grand Challenges, the Salon discussion mainly focused on how these Grand Challenges would impact the development community – from the detail of the challenges themselves to the system in which they would be executed.

An Education Example
In education, access to primary education is generally universal across the developing world – if at least at the policy level. Yet there isn’t a corollary increase in the resources applied to primary education or an increase in outcomes – children are now going to school, but are they really learning anything, or is school now an inefficient daycare?

A Grand Challenge in Education could be: ensure every child can read and write in their own language after 3 years of primary school.

Creating a solution that is affordable and effective at scale could motivate donors like USAID, governments themselves, as well as private industry, philanthropy, and new entrants to development. The challenge is also measurable, and would be transformative in the countries where it was applied.
With that as an example, what Grand Challenges can you think of?

New Systems
As noted quickly by participants, USAID does not have prize making authority from Congress, and its current procurement processes are huge barriers to entry. So USAID will need to adapt an existing contracting mechanism or seek approval to create a new system to be able to facilitate a Grand Challenge.

And “facilitate” is key. Rather than just an X Prize approach, where winners get a big check and global recognition, each challenge should attract significant non-USAID support and have its own funding mechanism. There may be mechanisms for established USAID implementers and other systems to recognize outside-the-beltway solution providers.

One example discussed was an initial grant that allows for piloting, then a larger award for solving the challenge. As well the award may not be funded by USAID at all, but defined by the beneficiaries of the challenge (maybe government funding in the education example).

Would you have ideas on how to fund a Grand Challenge?

Feedback Requested

As the Grand Challenge initiative is still in its formative stages, both Ticoa and David were very adamant that they wanted feedback – ideas for Grand Challenges, ways to implement them, and how both could have great impact on methods and results of international development.

So be sure to offer your advice in the comments below and join us at the next Salon.

One Response

  1. Wayan Vota says:

    Now this is an interesting USAID RFI to appear after the meeting:
    USAID Grand Challenges for Development RFI
    USAID seeks through this RFI to identify potential sources to provide technical support and to assist the Agency’s Grand Challenges for Development initiative (GCD) with developing strategic approaches that target specific development outcomes based on transformational, scalable, and sustainable change.
    Responses to the RFI shall be submitted electronically no later than COB EST on January 14, 2011