Dr. Judith Rodin, 2012 InterAction Forum Remarks
May 10, 2012
Thank you, Sam, for those wonderful insights.
It is so powerful to recognize and appreciate that the development community is still developing itself, changing and challenging us in new ways as it evolves.
I’m honored to join such a diverse and dedicated group of people who are on the front lines of humanitarian and development work.
You and the organizations you represent embody the principles that make us all proud to be part of the broader movement for a better, more just world.
We see here a model for international assistance that can be—and must be—as collaborative as it is compassionate, and though it involves many actors, speaks with one voice on behalf of the voiceless: to shape policy, to change lives, to strengthen the fabric of our global society.
The Rockefeller Foundation joins you in this pursuit. We are celebrating our centennial, this year and next. I like to think of us as the Humphrey Bogart of development—an actor that’s august and devastatingly good-looking, but, well, old. Our very first grant was $100,000 to the American Red Cross—now a proud InterAction member—back in 1913. [I know Sam is grateful that Rockefeller’s funding has picked up a bit since then.]
Until World War II, the Rockefeller Foundation provided more foreign aid than the U.S. government. And we’ve been an innovative force for social good in the decades since. But, of course, the age of our foundation hasn’t prevented us from adapting to the whirlwind of change that is the 21st century. In fact, I’d argue it’s given us a unique vantage point.
Over the past half century, we’ve watched national governments shoulder greater global responsibilities. Bilateral and multilateral development agencies have become critical leaders in the aid ecosystem. We’ve also seen the proliferation of foundations and humanitarian organizations—IGOs, NGOs, and INGOs—committed to global health and poverty reduction, and to the cause of human rights, human dignity, and human potential. It has been our privilege to join this new generation in promoting wellbeing around the world. And I’m thrilled that Rockefeller, in addition to funding many organizations in this room, is also partnering with InterAction to host discussions on new technology, global giving and innovative finance.
Since Sam has given us an overview of the new development ecosystem and its implications, I’d like to elaborate on one particular change we have focused on at Rockefeller—one with powerful ramifications for the future of all our work.
In the U.S. and around the world, we see leaders breaking out of bureaucratic boxes, new ideas and innovations arising from the unexpected sources, and organic, leaderless movements finding and using new levers of power. In short, the innovators are inheriting the earth—and revolutionizing it. Now, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. For the past century, Rockefeller has witnessed—and encouraged—precisely this sort of innovation. Early Rockefeller staff didn’t use the word innovation; they called it “scientific philanthropy.” They supported people and organizations seeking significant breakthroughs: a vaccine for yellow fever, a Green Revolution in agriculture to reduce hunger for a billion people in Asia, and the creation of the field of public health.
And when a young Albert Einstein requested $500 for his research, John D. Rockefeller told his deputy, “Let’s give him $1,000. He may be onto something.” That’s the kind of experimentation and innovation that we hope to retain as the hallmark of the Rockefeller Foundation. Because when restless minds are “onto something,” they very often change the rules of the game.
Just a few bottom-up tweaks to the system can have significant ramifications for how we work. Take the innovation process called crowdsourcing, for instance. Crowdsourcing engages thousands of minds, each approaching a problem in a different way, to generate cutting-edge ideas that address complex social challenges. We have supported Ashoka’s Changemakers, among others to scale and expand this type of open innovation platform. Changemakers posts social challenges online and invites competing applicants to submit potential solutions. In their model, proposed solutions are published transparently and remain unlocked for revision.
This concept, called “collaborative competition,” facilitates two areas of learning. First, it identifies both clusters of ideas and blank spots. Problem solvers can see where their counterparts are focusing and where there may be space to propose alternatives. Second, it promotes collaborative revision and iteration. The sooner applicants submit their proposals, the earlier they can see others’ work, and further sharpen their own thinking.
For example, the Global Water Challenge, a coalition of 22 leading organizations, sought a new approach to help low-income communities in emerging nations access sanitation and drinking water at low cost. Competing applicants from 54 countries put forward more than 240 ideas. Since every suggestion was visible to every entrant, competitors collaborated spontaneously. The final winner included online contributions from countries as diverse as India, Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States. With one million from a private donor, the solution was tested in the field and then taken to scale. Hundreds of people, who had never met pooled expertise to solve a common problem. All these new models encourage unprecedented cooperation among diverse participants to generate unparalleled creativity and innovative solutions. Of course, many solutions don’t need to be invented at all…they need only to be found, and then scaled.
For example, we funded a G20 crowdsourcing initiative on the Ashoka platform to identify new, game-changing ideas for how to give small and medium sized enterprises the financing structures they need to grow and scale. One finalist was an organization called the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, which is pioneering methods to evaluate and finance companies in developing countries where credit information is unavailable so traditional credit scoring models don’t work. They’ve developed a statistically proven tool that assesses credit risk by looking at an entrepreneur’s intellectual and psychological characteristics. This is fascinating stuff, and a far cry from what the G20 might have otherwise focused on. In fact, the G20 was so impressed by the ideas they received that they picked 17 winners and committed half a billion dollars to fund them.
In other words, new innovations brought new actors into the fold, and led government leaders to be bold—to take risks in finding and funding social entrepreneurs who could catalyze real social change. And if technology is enabling us to tap millions of minds, it also lets us tap hundreds upon hundreds of hearts. Take our grantee Sania Nishtar, a brilliant doctor and public health leader. In her native country of Pakistan, a child dies every minute of every day from preventable, treatable diseases. Sania saw the tragedy all around her and dedicated her life, “to end[ing] the silent and unjustified suffering of millions of individuals for whom the right to health remains unrealized.” Her innovation was Heartfile, an NGO that found entirely new ways to broaden access to health care financing and critically needed health services for the 90 percent of Pakistanis who are uninsured. With Heartfile, doctors now use cell phones to check a government database that will verify a patient’s poverty status. Using SMS texting, Sania then solicits donations from everyone around the world willing to give as little as $1 dollar for the patient’s treatment. Poor people now get people the life-changing and life-saving medical care they need… all within 72 hours.
But while technology—whether it’s crowdsourcing or mobile phones—is now a key element to mobilize social change, we also need innovative techniques that grow the long term, sustainable power of collective action.
Let me give you an example from the story of a Nairobi slum—and, just to confuse you, it’s called Kosovo. For years, the residents of Kosovo had been ignored and maltreated by the local government and local companies. They deeply resented the actions that ignored the harsh realities of their lives. When the Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company found illegal water hookups they simply cut off water and electricity service. But residents had never received bills because people in a slum have no official addresses. And, when the government proposed an initiative that would have razed all informal water hook ups, the slum-dwellers began to organize. They realized that since they were uncounted in any census and not displayed on city maps, the government and businesses could literally act as if they didn’t count.
The Kenyan Federation of slum dwellers and Pamoja Trust, a Rockefeller Foundation grantee joined forces. They used their collective power to obtain formal connections to the water supply for the first time ever. They organized street committees to ensure that everyone pays their fair share, and now, other utilities are expanding coverage into the Kosovo. They forced the municipal government to take notice, and when the World Bank invested $100 million in upgrading the human settlements in Nairobi the slum-dweller leaders were at the table.
These slum dwellers are now part of a growing global movement to translate innovative models of community empowerment into sustainable tangible gains, and the NGO, Slum Dwellers International, has become a powerful voice with national governments and in the global development agenda. They’re proving that even the world’s most disenfranchised people can innovate, join creatively together, upending entrenched systems…creating sustainable movements to hold leadership accountable…bring stakeholders together… and facilitate the spread of new ideas and new ways of thinking.
These are the new innovators. A virtual network of collaborative competitors. A passionate Pakistani physician. The poorest of the poor, the marginalized inhabitants of the slums—banding together, demanding that they be counted.
These new actors are participating in and creating new models of civil society, while simultaneously transforming the relationship between stakeholders and across institutions.
As everyone gathered here understands, it is the interaction of all these actors—old and new—that has world-changing potential. It is precisely because the roles these new actors play are so undefined, the interactions between them so creative and unprecedented, that they are reshaping the development landscape. And we must take notice.
On a cautionary note—while opening our minds and practices to embrace new innovations has real and growing potential to achieve impact, we know that isolated innovations alone will not sustain and scale gains made. Many of you understand these lessons from previous decades of so-called new innovations for development that were intended to save the world and never went to scale—such as clever new water pumps that sit broken and abandoned, new housing schemes that sit empty.
Most failed to take into account social and cultural factors, or the context in which people live, or the enabling policy and regulatory environment that needed to change. Thus, while I am a great proponent for the use and support of innovation for development, I do so with a commitment that understanding the context and the enabling conditions to make innovation thrive is just as important as supporting innovations themselves.
Rockefeller has helped support a number of online platforms that provide that kind of knowledge and catalyze our community to share information. Platforms like Information 4 Development and AidData.org are promoting transparency and furthering our understanding of effective aid. NetHope and the crowdsourced Apropedia emphasize sharing technological solutions to humanitarian aid and sustainable development. All of these resources—which I urge you to explore, if you haven’t already—are enabling us to understand and act in the development space more completely and compassionately than ever before. This is a moment of new roles, new rules—new impact.
Vaclav Havel, the late Czechoslovakian president, lived through and understood this sort of sweeping revolution. He once said, “The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless… all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.”
Havel—the playwright who became president—himself knew that sometimes we step into new roles. That, as he put it, we all have a small part of ourselves in the world of the powerful and the world of the powerless. You have made it your mission to bridge those worlds, to put pressure on the powerful on behalf of the powerless. At the Rockefeller Foundation, we’re facilitating that dynamic through our partnerships with like-minded funders and through incredibly passionate and brilliant grantees who see the world anew and adjust their place in it accordingly.
It can be a topsy-turvy endeavor, navigating this still-developing development world. But when I look at all that has been accomplished—when I see the truly stunning results of innovation applied to the great challenges of our times—I am energized by the promise I see ahead, and hope to help lead, in this accelerating, exhilarating new century.
Because the best is yet to come.