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Innovation has been a feature of international co-operation efforts since their very beginning. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign aid saw a growing focus and increasingly urgent calls for innovation, especially in light of the anticipated developmental shortfall in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ongoing global pandemic has only further highlighted and deepened the disparity between the available resources and unprecedented levels of developmental and humanitarian needs, and underscored the vital importance of innovation.

Prior to the pandemic, many Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members and partners had started implementing innovation activities across their portfolio, and establishing organisational capacities, systems and processes to facilitate these activities. This work has taken on greater importance in the first few months of 2020, in order to ensure effective responses to the pandemic, as well as to mitigate the wider social, economic and political effects.

The OECD-DAC Peer Learning Exercise on innovation was developed and implemented over the course of 2019 with the aim of strengthening peer learning among DAC members about how innovation work can be strengthened, individually and collectively.

This synthesis report from the peer learning exercise contains much to celebrate. It identifies significant gains from flagship innovation initiatives over the past decade. Numerous innovations have already had transformative effects on the lives of poor and vulnerable people around the world. There has also been a rise in new initiatives and programmes to support innovation, and many promising pilots in every area of development and humanitarian work. Many of these efforts have been supported by DAC members – and it is notable that a number of these have proved essential in international efforts to deal with COVID-19.

At its best, the innovation work DAC donors have led and supported involves the fusion of new technologies and technical advances with new business models and organisational approaches, as well as efforts to reform and transform institutions, norms and political contexts.

When such efforts are at the forefront of development work, there is a win-win-win situation:

  • a win for poor and vulnerable people, whose needs are better met, their opportunities more meaningfully realised and capabilities more fully capitalised on

  • a win for the development and humanitarian sector as a whole, bringing creative new approaches to bear on long-standing problems and catalysing organisational transformation

  • a win for donor organisations, providing the means to demonstrate the transformative effects of their investments, domestically and internationally.

This kind of innovation effort is increasingly not just something nice-to-have for the sector. It is arguably the best pathway for achieving the SDGs and other global commitments. And these lessons have genuine relevance and resonance for the ongoing pandemic response: without attention to the win-win-win set out above, we will not be able to develop and distribute vaccines, treatments or any other COVID-19 innovations to the people who need them most.

It was clear from the peer learning exercise that innovation for development would be of growing importance. In order to realise the broader ambitions of the innovation agenda, and do so in ways that meet the extraordinary circumstances in which the world now finds itself, the DAC membership needs to build on the good work already underway to actively and sustainably encourage, foster, incentivise and manage truly global innovation efforts.

This means supporting innovation not as a hoped-for result or another new sector of work, but as a set of centrally important and cross-cutting strategic capabilities within DAC members and their partners. This means harnessing these capabilities courageously and systematically in pursuit of the most pressing and complex development and humanitarian goals.

This excellent report provides a clear and thorough assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of innovation work to date, sets out the future pathway towards harnessing innovation in development and humanitarian work, and provides robust tools to assessing and improving innovation capabilities individually and collectively.

The events of 2020 show that the need for rigorous, creative and collective innovation to address global problems is clearer and greater than ever.

I hope that the DAC membership and the wider development sector heed this timely call to action, make use of the insights and guidance contained here, and redouble their efforts to realise development and humanitarian goals in creative and novel ways. The poor and vulnerable of the world deserve nothing less from those working to support, enable and empower them.


Jorge Moreira da Silva

Director, Development Co-operation Directorate

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