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1. Context of the DAC peer learning exercise on innovation for development


Innovation for development and humanitarian work is understood as finance and technologies as well as new policies, partnerships, business models, practices, approaches, behavioural insights and methods of development co-operation across all sectors. This chapter explains the genesis of this peer-learning exercise, a priority challenge which Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members identified as urgently requiring more research and learning during its 2017 High-Level Meeting. It outlines the building blocks for strengthening innovation capabilities: strategy, management and culture; organisation and collaboration for innovation; as well as the innovation process from identification of problems to scaling of approaches.

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Innovation has played a role in development and humanitarian efforts throughout the history of international co-operation (Conway and Waage, 2010[1]). In 1867, Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, proposed the innovation that would form the basis of modern humanitarian action, arguing for “relief societies for the purpose of having care given by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers” (1939[2]). Some 80 years later, during the speech that launched the modern era of development co-operation, United States President Harry S. Truman, in his 1949 inaugural address, noted that “the material resources which we can afford to use for assistance of other peoples are limited. But our imponderable resources in technical knowledge are constantly growing and are inexhaustible”. In the same inaugural address, Truman went on to call for “a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped nations” (1949[3]).

Over the past two decades, levels of interest and investments in realising the potential of innovation in international development and humanitarian work have grown. In the humanitarian sector, life-saving and life-improving innovations include cash-based programming, community-based approaches to treat malnourished children and new technologies for crisis management (Obrecht and Warner, 2016[4]). The development side of the system has seen half a billion children receive the full course of essential life-saving vaccines, thanks to new biomedical advances that have driven down the cost of medicines, combined with enhanced national systems for vaccine delivery that have themselves benefited from innovative solutions in areas such as logistics and refrigeration.

Elsewhere, the rapid spread of mobile phone-based banking approaches has enabled millions of poor households to access financial services for the first time, helping to smooth their income streams, enhance resilience to shocks and stresses, and move above critical poverty thresholds. Other widespread examples include improved fortified seeds for small-holder farmers, and new renewable energy sources that make for cleaner, more affordable and more sustainable livelihoods for the poorest communities (Ramalingam and Bound, 2016[5]).

This collective effort has captured the imagination of those at the highest levels of international co-operation. In the latter half of the 2010s, major new global agreements for shared development and humanitarian ambitions and efforts were established, all of which placed a strong emphasis on the role of innovation. Within the development sector, the establishment in 2015 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framed innovation efforts as an essential means by which to exploit the unprecedented potential for novel solutions to complex problems humanity collectively faced (Charles and Patel, 2017[6]). The same year saw the establishment of the International Development Innovation Alliance (IDIA) as a collaborative platform across major international agencies, with the shared goal of “actively promoting and advancing innovation as a means to help achieve sustainable development” (IDIA, n.d.[7]). The following year, the Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit made innovation one of the core objectives of the global humanitarian effort, an integral part of how the sector should seek to improve in the future, and meet ever-growing global caseloads (UNGA, 2016[8]). In 2018, innovation for development made it onto the agenda of the G7 under Canada’s presidency, with the endorsement of the Whistler Principles to Accelerate Innovation for Development Impact1.

At their most radical, these calls for enhanced innovation argued for transforming what is done in international co-operation, how and by whom. This is based on the recognition that many of the most important innovations for development come not from the international system, but from those living and working in developing countries around the world.

Alongside these high-profile statements and initiatives calling for innovation as a solution to meet ambitious goals, investments have also been growing in innovation as a process and an activity within international co-operation efforts. For the past decade or so, leading international organisations have made concerted efforts to become better enablers and facilitators of innovation. There is an emerging consensus that international organisations must “adapt if they are to maintain their relevance, reputation and impact” (Ramalingam et al., 2015[9]).

There are new methods and tools, new teams and departments, new collaborations and partnerships, and new principles and ways of working – and a growing realisation that the sector needs to do more than just ask for innovation: it needs to roll up its sleeves and start doing innovation.

In common with every other sector or industry seeking to enhance innovation, challenges remain. These include:

  • ensuring development and humanitarian sectors can “repeat the innovation trick”

  • identifying, fostering and encouraging the best creative ideas

  • working effectively with actors such as the private sector, entrepreneurs, scientists, national governments, civil society, and poor and vulnerable communities

  • making consistent and patient investments in the face of complexity and uncertainty

  • ensuring effective management of risks

  • establishing and maintaining a clear focus on end users and impacts

  • scaling new approaches that often challenge vested interests

  • making sure innovation is not a short-lived fad, but a transformative catalyst.

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Background to this report

The OECD DAC has been working on innovation for development for a number of years (see Figure 1.1 for a timeline of key events in innovation for development and humanitarian assistance). At the 2017 High-Level Meeting, innovation for development and humanitarian work was defined broadly as:

… finance and technologies as well as new policies, partnerships, business models, practices, approaches, behavioural insights and methods of development co-operation across all sectors.

Against this background, in 2018 the OECD DAC designed and launched its peer learning exercise (PLE) on innovation for development. Peer learning exercises complement traditional DAC peer reviews, with a focus on learning, knowledge exchange and capacity strengthening. They enable members to come together on issues of shared interest. In the case of the innovation for development exercise, there was a specific desire to enable members to better understand “what needs to be done differently to achieve the 2030 Agenda whilst maintaining a focus on development effectiveness and leaving no one behind.”

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Figure 1.1. Key sector-wide efforts in innovation for development, 2010-19
Figure 1.1. Key sector-wide efforts in innovation for development, 2010-19

The overall goal of the PLE was to improve DAC members’ capabilities in innovation for development and humanitarian work, with specific attention to improvements in the following areas:

  • defining innovation and its value for development co-operation

  • identifying enablers and constraints to innovation

  • incentivising, managing, delivering and communicating the benefits of innovation

  • measuring, tracking and evaluating innovation, evidence of what works and why

  • supporting locally driven innovation in partner countries

  • scaling innovation in co-ordination with others

  • identifying good practices from other sectors, including from across the OECD.

This report synthesises the ideas and lessons that have emerged from this exercise to inform both those who have already embarked on their innovation journey and those who are about to. It provides recommendations for donors and those in the wider sector who are interested in ensuring that innovation benefits poor and vulnerable people around the world.

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The DAC PLE ran from December 2018 to November 2019 and consisted of the following activities:

  • a DAC member survey, which ran from December 2018 to March 2019

  • desk research, including grey literature of DAC members and wider innovation literature

  • consultations with DAC representatives

  • interviews with key stakeholders in the development and humanitarian sectors

  • four missions to DAC member capitals in Australia, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom, with in-depth organisational case studies

  • a multi-stakeholder workshop in Paris in October 2019 (OECD, 2019[10]).

The design and implementation of the PLE was supported by the Strategic Advisory Group, which consisted of DAC member innovation specialists, representatives of the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) and independent members.

The PLE was launched in December 2018 with the member survey to understand the current state of play across the membership. Out of 30 DAC members, 24 responses were received, which were analysed and used to inform discussions and dialogue with DAC representatives and the Strategic Advisory Group. This helped to further refine and focus the PLE and inform the design of the peer learning instruments.

Broad consultations on the methodology led to the development of a framework for DAC members to reflect on the capabilities of innovation, both as individual members and collectively (Figure 1.2). For the purpose of this report, capabilities can be seen as different abilities needed to foster, generate and manage innovation through the use of internal and external resources. These capabilities, or building blocks for innovation, were then road-tested with DAC members and members of the Strategic Advisory Group.

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Figure 1.2. Innovation capabilities framework: The building blocks of innovation for development and humanitarian work
Figure 1.2. Innovation capabilities framework: The building blocks of innovation for development and humanitarian work

Peer learning focus countries and facilitator countries

Four countries volunteered to be peer learning focus countries: Australia, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These members put themselves forward to be the focus of learning missions, to be analysed and assessed by peer learning facilitator teams led by the lead consultant and accompanied by representatives of other DAC members.

In addition to Australia, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom, five countries agreed to play the role of peer learning facilitator countries: Austria, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. These members put forward key individuals with a focus on or interest in innovation to be part of the facilitation team, which worked to build a picture of the focus countries’ efforts, how they were working and how they might be strengthened.

Missions to the focus countries took place between July 2019 and November 2019, resulting in four in-depth organisational case studies. In addition, a multi-stakeholder workshop was organised in October 2019 at OECD headquarters in Paris. This workshop brought together DAC members, representatives of international and civil society organisations, academia, private sector organisations, innovation specialists, and others. The aim was to foster and inform a productive debate and generate ideas about the current and future role of innovation in the development sector.

Innovation for development has many dimensions that DAC members sought to understand and explore. A number of different capabilities were identified through the member survey and accompanying literature review. The literature review drew on and integrated existing frameworks and models, including OPSI’s frameworks on learning for innovation; Nesta UK’s work on innovation capabilities and pathways to innovation for development; discussions and substantive work underpinning and resulting in the G7 Whistler Principles; the IDIA’s ongoing work on innovation for development; and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)’s Innovation Strategy Learning Agenda.

This work helped to identify a number of common capabilities across DAC members (see Figure 1.2). The capabilities for innovation were analysed and grouped into three areas:

  • strategy, management and culture (the focus of Chapter 2)

  • organisation and collaboration for innovation (Chapter 3)

  • the innovation process (Chapter 4), comprising: identification of problems; generation of ideas and development of proposals; implementation and evaluation of innovation projects; and diffusion, adoption and scale of approaches.

The peer learning process made extensive use of the innovation capabilities framework to present ideas, opportunities and options for how innovation might be strengthened in pursuit of development and humanitarian goals, individually and collectively. It was used to:

  • structure the overall missions, and orient representatives of both focus and facilitator countries towards a shared language and approach in discussing and thinking about innovation efforts

  • guide individual interviews, focus groups and workshops

  • structure collective dialogue in the multi-stakeholder workshop in October 2019

  • provide a basis for feedback to peer learning focus countries

  • inform the framing and structure of the synthesis process, as well as the current report.

The rest of this report is structured as follows:

  • Chapters 2-4 provide a synthesis of findings from across the member practices. These chapters place a strong emphasis on evidence from the missions to focus countries and the resulting case studies, while also drawing on the survey findings, wider literature review and interviews.

  • Chapter 5 summarises the overall findings, sets out strengths and opportunities from across the focus countries, and presents recommendations for consideration by DAC members at different stages of their innovation journey, as well as across the DAC membership as a whole.


[6] Charles, K. and D. Patel (2017), Estimating the SDGs’ Demand for Innovation, Working Paper 469, Centre for Global Development, Washington, DC, (accessed on 1 January 2020).

[1] Conway, G. and J. Waage (2010), Science and Innovation for Development, UK Collaborative on Development Sciences,

[2] Dunant, H. (1939), A Memory of Solferino, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva,

[7] IDIA (n.d.), International Development Innovation Alliance website, (accessed on 1 January 2020).

[4] Obrecht, A. and A. Warner (2016), More Than Just Luck: Innovation in Humanitarian Action, HIF/ALNAP Study, London, (accessed on 1 January 2020).

[10] OECD (2019), Accelerating Innovation for Development Impact: Summary Record, OECD, Paris, (accessed on 1 January 2020).

[5] Ramalingam, B. and K. Bound (2016), Innovation for International Development: Navigating the Paths and Pitfalls, Nesta,

[9] Ramalingam, B. et al. (2015), Strengthening the Humanitarian Innovation Ecosystem, University of Brighton, Brighton,

[3] Truman, H. (1949), Inaugural Address, Thursday, January 20, 1949, (accessed on 1 January 2020).

[8] UNGA (2016), One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, United Nations General Assembly, New York,

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