Innovation and Governance: Some ideas

Innovation and Governance and Innovations in Governance

Talking Points

  •  The idea of innovation, which is indeed not new to development practitioners, is once again picking up steam. And it is now a buzzword that seems to permeate many discussions and conversations on development and beyond. What is perhaps new nowadays is the links that we see between innovation and governance.
  • For many, innovation seems to be driven by technology alone. While this might be the case -as we have seen, for example, in the use of innovations in development (think green revolution to mention one well-known example). But this is not always the case. For example, today we hear quite a bit about social innovation. But before we get into this, let us first bring governance into the picture.
  •  We at UNDP have been supporting democratic governance for more than 20 years now. As we see it, democratic governance has three core pillars: inclusive participation (or the demand side, the people), responsive institutions (the supply side, the state) and international principles such as gender equality, human rights, transparency and accountability. The latter pillar sets the “rules of engagement” for the supply and demand sides, the first two pillars of our work.
  • By the beginning on 2011, UNDP was supporting close to 2,500 democratic governance projects in over 135 developing countries, projects commanding almost 2 billion USD per year. We thus have a rich portfolio of programmes that help us shape our own work in support of developing country governments and partners. At the same time, it also fosters innovations in governance that allow countries to introduce and experiment with new areas of governance where current funding and support is still in the works. This we call innovations in governance.
  • The so-called Arab Spring and other new social movements in both the developed and developing world have brought back to the forefront the critical importance of the latest technologies and the centrality of democratic governance in fostering sustainable human development. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen (and in some cases build) the bridges between public institutions and the people where the latter has a voice heard by the former, and the former can respond effectively and transparently. Being that as it may, Information and Communication Technologies, old and new, can play a crucial role here
  • e-governance is a good example. I do not need to remind you that India at the national level and Kerala at the regional one are global leaders in this area and have many experiences and innovations to share with the rest of the world, especially developing countries. I am here to learn from you and then work together and explore how can we bring your expertise and knowledge to the many other countries that are following a similar path and can only benefit from such knowledge and expertise.
  • This allows me to get back to innovation. While innovation was usually associated with “stuff” happening in industrialized countries, today we see for the first time in centuries a shift towards developing countries. In other words, innovation is now taking place on a larger scale in countries that traditionally were not known for being part of the innovation process. India is one example. Kenya is another. And there are many others. A key aspect of the new innovation wave in the South is the link to development agendas and targets. That is to say, there is now a concerted effort to address critical soci0-economic and governance gaps with new solutions and tools that are being generated inside countries that are facing such gaps
  • The rapid evolution of mobile technologies provides an excellent background for this emerging environment. By the end of 2011, it was estimated that the world had 6 billion mobile phone subscribers. 75% of them live in developing countries. The same data indicates that Asia is the fastest-growing region and the host of the large majority of mobile users in the developing world. Although these numbers are indeed impressive, let us not lose sight of what is going on behind the scenes.
  • Mobility and mobiles have provided fertile ground to promote innovation in developing countries. Why is this so? The answer is relatively straightforward: the barriers to entry for the production, distribution, and consumption of new tools and solutions have been dramatically reduced in the last 5 to 7 years. Add to this the fact that the latest technologies are also interactive communication tools that in principle give voice to those who have none before -there we have, at the same time, a governance innovation.
  • It is from exactly here that social innovation has emerged. Let me illustrate the concept with a real example. A couple of weeks ago, an MIT technological journal published an article on Kenya’s “innovation economy.”
  •  As you know, Kenya is where crowd-sourcing with Ushahidi and mobile money with M-Pesa, to mention just a couple, emerged in the recent past in response to specific socio-economic and political issues. However, the article focused on mobile health or m-health (not that we are really keen on adding more 2.0 to everything we do) and provides examples of local social entrepreneurs – women being part and parcel of this process.  The article ends by arguing that a culture of innovation has flourished in the country. The same is happening in several other countries.
  • Note that social innovation is happening on a bottom-up basis. Local community members who have some skills get directly involved in addressing specific issues that the community itself confronts. Governments are either marginally involved or have no part in the process. Also, many social innovators work on a not-for-profit basis -although many others do so! But the critical issue is that the sustainability of most of these efforts is embedded within as the communities themselves are part and parcel of the process.
  • However, replicability and scalability remain to be addressed for most of these initiatives -as discussed in our mobile technologies report, which we just published (hard copies are available as I brought s few from NY). And this is where the government can play a catalytic role in supporting and piggybacking on these efforts.
  • On the governance side, the new solutions and tools promote three of its fundamental principles: participation, transparency, and accountability. These require the involvement of both governments and civil society who, working together as partners, can effectively strengthen the public sphere and thus enhance democratic governance in developing countries (examples from the mobile primer to be added here.)

Cheers, Raúl


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