Daring to fund creativity

It seems like everyone is talking about innovation at the moment. It’s not just the development world which thinks we need new ways of doing things, austerity in the UK has led to pressure on the government to innovate. In the UK, this has basically meant doing more with less – by pooling resources, streamlining services, and encouraging people to help out with delivering public services (the Big Society etc.). The severe cuts to public funding have forced government to find new ways of providing public services. While the cuts have been (and continue to be) extremely harsh in particular areas, austerity has at least pushed people to think differently about how public services work.

So, in the development field how can development practitioners and donors also be encouraged to think differently about public sector improvements? The BRIC countries are not facing the same spending constraints as many Western economies and so low- and middle-income countries need to be able to develop solutions according to their own context. Recent development thinking has called for ‘development entrepreneurs’, who are people with a strong understanding of the politics and economy of a country and who can work creatively to solve particular problems.

However, Pritchett et al. talk about ‘capability traps’ which suffocate innovation in developing countries. There traps occurs when bureaucracies are incentivised by aid to replicate ‘best practice’ forms of government funded by donors. Beneficiary governments may appear to have followed donor advice on how to reform their public sector but often new organisational forms are created without changing enough for the intended outcomes of reform to be produced. Pritchett et al. also talk about how donors place high demands on developing countries to rapidly transform their public sector which overburdens the existing system, reducing its ability to manage problems and develop solutions. In short, developing countries are swamped by donors funding huge public sector reform programmes based on ideas which have been developed in other country contexts.

It’s easy to criticise but faced with the complex challenge of supporting a country to improve its public sector, it’s unsurprising that donors look to support forms of government which are seen to function in other places. This seems like the safest option, especially when a donor is accountable to tax payers. But, given the general lack of success in supporting public sector reform, allowing countries to experiment and develop their own solutions is increasingly seen as the new way forward. Of course, there has to be the will to solve problems on behalf of the national government first, but assuming there is some motivation for improvement, donors are in a unique position to fund innovation. The UK government is funding innovation in its own government so why not take the same risk and fund innovation elsewhere too?

It’s a question of daring to experiment, taking a venture capitalist approach to development where donors expect some things to fail but understand that continuing to fund the same approaches to development is far more likely to be a path to disappointing results. Finding new ways of supporting public sector reform and delivering services calls for imagination and experimentation, and donors’ role in this should surely be to fund creativity.



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