4 April 2014

Bringing people out of poverty by connecting them to the global economy: USAID’s Global Development Lab

USAID and its 32 partner organisations have launched on 3 April the ‘‘Global Development Lab to Help End Extreme Poverty by 2030’’.

The objective of the Lab is to change how development is being delivered and to work on a larger scale than ever before and ‘‘dramatically improve or save the lives of over 200 million people in the next 5 years’’.

How will this result be achieved? By applying, developing, disseminating technological innovations through a vast partnership grouping ‘‘entrepreneurs, world-class experts from corporations, NGOs, universities, science and research institutions’’ and USAID missions around the world. This vast partnership will endeavour to ‘‘discover, incubate, and scale breakthrough development innovations in sectors like water, health, food security and nutrition, energy, and climate change, among others that can reach hundreds

of millions of people’’. To gather new ideas, the Lab collects innovation ideas that offer cost effective solutions that can be successfully brought to scale.

The Lab is a new incarnation of the pre-existing USAID Offices of Innovation and Development Alliances (IDEA) and Science and Technology (OST).

An on-line catalog of some of the innovations promoted shows that most are embodied in equipment produced by US corporations and that are available for sale: irrigation systems, pumps, milk chilling facilities, electronic equipment for e-learning (e-library), data collection and photographic system to gather evidence of human rights violation, facilitation of use of cellphones by illiterate people, and others.

Who are the partners? They include major multinational corporations (Cargill, Cisco, Coca-Cola, DuPont, GlaxoSmithKline, Syngenta, Unilever, Walmart and others), Civil society organisations (Care, Gates Foundation, Save the Children, World Vision, etc.), universities and one country (Sweden). (see list of cornerstone partners)

The approach proposed is that of global development alliances (GDA), USAID’s premiere model for public-private partnerships established on the following criteria:

  1. Funds by private partners should at least match USAID resources (in cash and in-kind)

  2. Common goals defined for all partners;

  3. Jointly-defined solution to a social or economic development problem;

  4. Non-traditional resource partners (companies, foundations, etc.);

  5. Shared resources, risks and results; and

  6. Innovative, sustainable approaches to development.

One example given on the USAID website of one of these alliances is the AMARTA Sulawesi Kakao Alliance through which Blommer Chocolate (the largest cocoa bean processor in North America) and Olam International (the Singapore-based African origin multinational specialised in agricultural and raw material including forest products, palm oil, cocoa, coffee, cashew, rice and cotton) work with the Government of Indonesia to promote Sulawesi’s cocoa industry. By providing training in pest and disease control technologies and cocoa best management practices, the alliance helps to improve farm productivity and increase the incomes of rural cocoa farmers. It is fair to assume that Blommer and Olam will be the main, if not exclusive, purchasers of the cocoa produced. Another project of this type is also operating in Côte d’Ivoire and one was launched in the Dominican Republic in October 2013. (read press release)

USAID is said to be injecting USD 1 billion annually in the Lab.

What can be said about this USAID programme? It has a top-down approach (development is being ‘‘delivered’’ to beneficiaries), it appears to be a playground for multinational corporations who benefit from a public subsidy to develop new products or increase their business abroad, mostly in poor countries, and it is not clear how and by whom the ‘‘common goals’’ are being defined. It definitely seeks to connect groups of poor people to the global market, but the extent to which beneficiaries are involved in the definition of ‘‘common goals’’ is unclear. Neither is it clear how the benefits of these joint ventures are being shared among partners and among partners and beneficiaries. In fact, beneficiaries are conspicuously absent from the above picture showing the common interests of USAID and its multinational partners!

These are important questions which, for the time being, do not have an answer. Other experiences of global partnerships which gather many of the same players tend to make us fear that these answers are not so favourable to those very people whose lives are supposed to be saved and who are supposed to be lifted out of poverty by the Lab’s activities.

On similar approaches of public-private partnerships, watch a video on EU’s blending programme.


Last update:    April 2014

For your comments and reactions: