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Innovation for Development Emerges on Many Levels

By Susan Carey Dempsey on September 24, 2009No Comment

In introducing a CGI panel on Harnessing Innovation for Development, The Economist's Matthew Bishop pointed out that virtually all sectors – nonprofit, government, the corporate sector, embrace innovation. With 2 Nobel Peace Prize winners, a philanthropic foundation president and leaders of an entrepreurial group on stage, Bishop had an opportunity to explore how each of these areas can encourage and integrate innovation. From Al Gore, who now heads the Alliance for Climate Protection, it's all about carbon. Heretofore, efforts to control greenhouse gasses have been only partly successful. "The missing ingredient," he said, "has been political will. But we're seeing a big sea change around the world.We have to put a price on carbon."

Grameen Bank founder Muhammud Yunus, who had received the Nobel for his work in microcredit, said he could envision similar innovation by using a similar social business appoach in many other areas: "sanitation, health, growing vegetables, health insurance programs. Social businesses address issues while making money, as we did in making and selling yogurt that had enhanced nutrients, and opening a nursing college."

Bishop, while acknowledging that innovation in the financial sector has gotten some bad press of late, asked what financial mechanisms could help poorer countries help themselves. The responses reflected the panelists varied approaches to priorities as they see them. For Jack Ma, Chairman and CEO of Alibaba Group, there is great potential, not yet fully harnessed, in individual entrepreneurs. Citing his own experience, he said "Small is beautiful. Entrepreneurs are responsible for 1.1 million jobs created in China. Next, we'd like to see 100 million."

Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, cited the legacy of the late Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, which had been spurred by the Foundation. He succeeded, she said because "he looked for innovation, he experimented with the best way to do things." Rodin stressed that the social sector must embrace a "willingness to take risks, to experiment and to fail." Through that process, she said, you can assess which approaches are worth pursuing and scaling up.

Bishop pointed to the need for measuring social impact from innovative philanthropic endeavors.  "If you don't assess the outcomes," Rodin said, "you won't find the resources or the political will to take them to scale."

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