Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Innovation & scale: only as hard as you make it

Recently I participated in an online chat called “Why is innovation at scale so hard?" organized by the Guardian Development Professionals Network. Throughout the dialog, I was struck by the underlying assumptions that immediately color our understanding of these concepts. Many of these beliefs are so ubiquitous that no one even stops to think about them anymore. But like much conventional wisdom, they are dangerous when taken completely at face value.

Five "facts" on scale and innovation that I’d like to challenge are: 

Innovation is harder at scale. Why do we assume that the little guys have a monopoly on innovation, and established organizations can only provide the infrastructure and distribution networks for scaling up? One great thing about being big is that it's easier to justify (and fund) research and development.  For example in our microfinance programme, we can simultaneously run a dozen pilots testing new products and services, because we've got over 2000 branches as our playground!!  It's awesome.  Much easier than going from place to place trying to sell a potential partner on an idea, just to start a pilot.

Certainly some types of innovation are harder at scale--for example, many new financial institutions built on mobile payment platforms that are popping up in East Africa have a much easier time taking advantage of the technology that those more mature providers that now have to retrofit everything if they want to make the switch.  Often smaller institutions have a lot to gain (and less at stake), so are more aggressive about pursuing opportunities faster.  But innovating at scale is possible and happens every day.  It requires different models that are often less sexy than the start-up cults of scrums and ping pong tables. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Living the dream: Shamim’s story

Much of Bangladesh’s economy is built on remittances and money earned abroad.  The owner of my corner store saved up during the 15 years he spent in the UAE to start this business.  On St. Martins island, I stayed in a hotel on land purchased by years of hard labor in Saudi Arabia.  Just last month, I met an electronics shop keeper cum bkash agent that had worked in Dubai for almost a decade.  Millions of Bangladeshis are still abroad, and millions more are hoping to go.

Why do people desperately want to go so badly?  Recently there have been several stories of migrants on rafts that capsized on the way to Malaysia.  People are literally dying to work abroad.  Who are these people?  Meet Shamim*, who is one of the aspiring millions.

Shamim was born in Dhaka.  His father worked as a gardener in Kuwait and was rarely in Bangladesh.  When Shamim was young, his mother took him and his brother to live with her in-laws in their village.  He enrolled in school, but like many others in his village attended irregularly.  After completing secondary school, he stopped going.

For Shamim and others in his village, “success” meant going abroad for work.  Everyone his age was trying to find a way to go.  Shamim’s father also hoped that his son could find a way to go, as he had been living in Kuwait for over 20 years, and was ready to come home.  But his family depended on his salary, so he could only return once one of his sons was earning enough to support them.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Millennium Development Goooooooooooooooool

Dhaka transformed by World Cup Fever
Football* is powerful.  I've watched the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica transform into raucous parades of celebration of a World Cup qualifier, and toasted with free champagne in Paris when France won.  There's no escaping the football love.

I was not expecting Bangladesh to be quite so football crazed.  Yet the whole country has become nocturnal to follow the action.  Brazil and Argentina flags fly across the country, and in many places people have painted huge flags on open walls.  Messi is a national hero.

During the political demonstrations that crippled Bangladesh late in 2013, my friends said, "During the World Cup, there will be no political movements.  Everyone will be busy watching the games."

I suspect that this is true in many places, excepting of course the host country, where activists (rightly) use the limelight to call attention to urgent social issues.

Reading Gloria Steinem has gotten me thinking about the big "what if's"?  What if we weren't satisfied with the incremental progress of development in the world?

What if FIFA had development components in its admission criteria?  As in, in order to participate, countries would need to recognize certain human rights (for both men and women), and actually enforce?  Countries that stone women to death for adultery would perhaps not make the cut?  Anywhere with documented government sanction (including inaction) of human rights violations, like genocide, sexual slavery, child soldiers?

What if FIFA and the UN worked together on the Millennium Development Goals, and whatever follows them?  What if making education accessible to all children in your country was required to participate in the 2018 world cup?  What if access to clean water and a sewer system was a prerequisite for consideration?

What if countries had to face their citizens publicly, on a global stage, when they failed to make social progress?  What if all avid football fans suddenly started holding politicians accountable for transparency, social protections, and equity issues?  What if development achievements and failures got as much air time as coca cola?

What if companies had to pass a social impact screen in order to qualify to run ads, or sponsor the games?  What if workers' safety codes and sexual harassment policy were actually scrutinized regularly across the world?

What if everyone in the world had to, at least for one month, face the massive scale of inequity in our world today?  What if no political leader could hide?  And all the development agencies were also scrutinized by football fans at home, for not implementing policies that actually build local capacity and foster growth?

What if the world's superpowers actually wanted to see the end of poverty, as soon as possible?  Wouldn't we all get more involved?

The truth is, it's all possible, and we should make it happen.

*Soccer is an American creation.  Football is the globally accepted term.