Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

If you don’t think about system transformation you might get weak innovation

9 March 2020

I was recently at an interesting event on the future of philanthropy as field. One of the panelists raised a thought-provoking challenge, arguing that when thinking about system change - in particular from a policy point of view - venture philanthropy may not be the area to look at.

Venture philanthropists, it was argued, are more interested in innovative and scalable solutions for a particular given problem, rather than looking to structural changes to address issues at a systems level.

Challenging systems

I am paraphrasing here and I understand that this was more of a generalisation – venture philanthropy is a wide field - and not the personal opinion of the speaker. But it reflects similar critiques that have been made of other approaches, such as Effective Altruism, where critics (see Elizabeth Ashford’s paper Severe Poverty as an Unjust Emergency) have argued that they take existing systems as given and merely seek to maximise efficiency or effectiveness within them, rather than challenging the systems themselves.

This got me thinking about whether a distinction between ‘advocacy, social and system change’ on the one hand and ‘practical innovative solutions for a fixed set of problems’ on the other is really that helpful. Should they be seen as separate, or would be better viewing them as two sides of the same coin? And does distinguishing in this way lead to ‘weak innovation’? 

Data bias in a world designed for men

I recently read Caroline Criado Perez’s book ‘Invisible women’ (yes, I am late to the party on this). Perez provides countless examples across sectors such as health, transport, defence, international development, urban planning (and the list goes on) where the lack of sex-aggregated data (she calls it the gender data gap) exposes a ‘data bias in a world designed for men’.

There is an endless array of very innovative products – like seat belts, flight suits, transport links, even pumps for breastmilk – that are basically inferior because they don’t account for over half of the world’s population (i.e. women) at the design stage, simply because there is a lack of data. In the worst cases, these products and services harm or even kill women due to critical design flaws.

Scalable, innovative and wrong

South Africa - an anecdote

mother and child south africa township

One example from the international development and charity world stuck with me the most. An organisation developed an app for health workers that they can use to track crucial data on the treatments and health status of individuals when working in South Africa’s very deprived townships. The app was state of the art and ticked all best practice boxes.

It was a scalable and innovative solution for a particular set of issues (the improvement and tracking of health treatments for people living in deprived areas) The problem was that it was rarely used by the health workers – despite being a superior product.

It took a female to join the team of developers to get to the bottom of this. Most health workers are female. And many of them were living outside of the townships they worked in. When going into the townships to meet their clients, they would hide their valuables in their bras. A very normal practice for women who travel between places and through townships because they are more vulnerable to theft. Smartphones were simply too big to hide. As a result the app never caught on.

What needs to be done

This small anecdote (or big anecdote, in terms of health outcomes for poorer people) highlights the way in which ‘system change’ and ‘innovation’ are often interlinked. Not taking into account social change issues and wider thinking around system change (gender equality, women’s role and safety in society on a very large scale) leads almost inevitably to very ‘weak innovation’.
Perhaps we need to do more to bridge this gap when it comes to charity and philanthropy. The perception that there is a clear dividing line between providing interventions as a way of dealing with issues within existing systems and engaging in advocacy as a way of challenging those systems is still widespread in many quarters.

But this is a false choice, and until we understand better that innovation and systems change are intricately linked, we are unlikely to get the real benefits of either.