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US Seeks to Foster Development Innovation with $1bn-a-Year Lab

April 3, 2014
The Guardian

Agency hails chance to produce 'game-changing solutions', but corporate involvement sparks scepticism among campaigners

Inspired by such epochal breakthroughs as the "green revolution", not to mention the advent of humbler technologies including the cow manure-powered fridge, the US agency for international development (USAid) is to sink almost $1bn (£602m) a year into a new global development laboratory. The scheme will bring together scientists, corporations, universities and charities in a collective that will dream up and test new tools to fight poverty.

The lab is being billed as USAid's equivalent of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the US Defence department wing known for its development of the stealth fighter and involvement in the creation of the internet.

The agency describes it as a new way of working, but some anti-poverty campaigners have received news that the lab's 150 staff will collaborate with several corporate "cornerstone partners" – among them Coca-Cola, DuPont, Unilever, Walmart, Syngenta and GlaxoSmithKline – as further proof of the increasing commercialisation of development.

The Oakland Institute said the initiative's science and technology-based approach to development challenges was "a case of emperor with no new clothes", while the World Development Movement said it would do nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty.

USAid, however, argues that the creation of the lab, other partners in which include Save the Children, World Vision, the Smithsonian Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, marks a fundamental shift in its approach to development innovation. "Instead of selecting a proposed answer, we bring together a whole group of partners to attract ideas, test them and take them to scale," said Lona Stoll, senior adviser to Rajiv Shah, the head of USAid.

"The lab has ambitions of disruptive technologies and game-changing solutions really helping improve the lives of 200 million people in five years: things like eliminating the transmission of HIV/Aids from mother to child using the Pratt Pouch – a two-cent package [of antiretroviral drugs] that looks like a ketchup packet – or looking at how you get electricity access out to rural communities without building the kinds of grids that previously were a big part of development programmes."

In addition to the manure-powered fridge and the Pratt Pouch, the agency has helped fund trials of the Odón device, a low-cost instrument that resembles a bicycle pump but has been hailed by some as the greatest aid to assisted births since the invention of the ventouse suction cup.

There are also innovations that fall into a more nebulous bracket. "We consider electronic payments to be in this category – the ability to reach communities that have never been reached with infrastructure with financial services; the ability to save," Stoll said. "We are very focused on scaling both broadband access and electronic payment systems to hundreds of millions of people."

The agency hopes the lab will one day yield "a handful of real game-changers" in development thinking and technology. "We use the reference points of oral rehydration therapy and the seeds of the green revolution ormicrofinance as things that are akin to the kinds of breakthroughs that we would like to help shepherd," Stoll said.

The initial focus will be on six areas deemed consistent with US development and foreign aid priorities: food security and nutrition; maternal and child survival; energy access, sustainable water solutions; child literacy; and connected technologies. To that end, it is looking into everything from climate-resilient cereals to off-grid energy services and electronic educational devices.

"This is a win-win for our country: bringing America's scientific and entrepreneurial capability to the service of those intractable global challenges is something that we think we really need to do," Stoll said. "At the end of the day, the results get us to development goals better, faster and cheaper."

However, Christine Haigh, a spokeswoman for the World Development Movement, said the initiative was merely the latest in a long line of corporate schemes supported by USAid and the British government. "[They] promote the interests of corporations like Cargill, Unilever and WalMart under the guise of tackling poverty," she said. "In fact, by entrenching the power of major companies in the global economic system, these projects contribute to greater global inequality, and do nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty."

Anuradha Mittal, the founder and executive director of the US-based Oakland Institute thinktank, was equally sceptical. "This preposterous idea that corporations will solve the world's development challenges is so out of touch [with] reality that it would be comical if it were not for its disastrous consequences," she said.

"The initiative hoodwinks the world, claiming that the largest [global] corporations can address the needs of the poor – including small farmers in the developing world – whereas what the developing world needs is support and space to build robust public policies, institutions and investments that can serve the public good rather than the business of corporations."