Remarks by USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah: Transforming Development Through Science, Technology, and Innovation

Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Transforming Development Through Science, Technology, and Innovation

Hello. This is really special. And pardon me because when I look around this room and see Dr. Holdren and so many other creative thinkers, it gives me a huge amount of confidence that we can actually address some of the most pressing and difficult challenges in the world.

And I want to start just by asking you to stretch your imagination a bit and transport yourselves to 2030 and imagine we're traveling on a sort of bumpy rural road because the road might still bumpy in a West African country. And we meet with a farmer named Kwame (ph). You might talk to Kwame and he would tell you that he can wake up early in the morning and check his low-cost, renewable-energy-powered tablet computer.

He can gather information about market prices. He can take photographs of his crops and send them into a cloud computing system where he has access to the world's ag-extension experts who can diagnose the pest infestation that he has in that specific situation. He can order in the right pesticides or the right support to help him improve his productivity and his yields and his production.

The following year, he can do professional soil samples and would be able to match the conditions of his soil to the specific genetic technology he might put into play in agricultural production if he's in a high-saline soil environment, buying seeds for rice that have been tailored to exactly that specific environment. And he might have the ability to, because of his knowledge of market prices, access markets in a much more effective and efficient way.

And in doing so, he'd essentially be moving his family out of the poverty that he currently experiences, making that transition from subsistence existence that billions of people still experience to an environment where he's in a commercial production situation. He's earning money. With that money, he's sending his kids to school.

His kids would go to a school where they'd get the latest textbooks on Kindles that would be really cheap and require very little energy and updated in a low-cost and efficient way so you wouldn't have this sort of big logistics on cost problem of accessing the most modern, the most adapted educational instruction information.

And they would have real visibility into their economic and their educational opportunities for the rest of their life because they'd be connected to a world where they would see what kids in other parts of the world see, which is kids going to college, kids studying hard in school, kids having access to the types of higher education that allow them to move out another level and another generation.

All of this could be possible. But we constantly hear reasons why it's not. We hear that it's too costly. We hear that it's unrealistic. We hear that we can't really get there. And the reason I'm so excited about all of you coming today and tomorrow and the reason I want to start with a thank you is I look around this room and I see people who I know personally are capable of imagining that future.

And you have, in so many walks of life, across the board, each of you has done something to prove people wrong in creating a better future and identifying solutions to problems that people have thought were intractable. And in doing so, you've given people hope that you can find an AIDS vaccine, that you can develop a low-cost solution for diarrhea, that you can develop agricultural biotechnologies and get them accepted on a continent that faces a lot of political pressure, that you can create real businesses in agribusiness.

I mean I can go through the whole group and do that. What I – what I am so excited about is that you're here to help USAID imagine this new future for ourselves. And we are incredibly excited. The – our commitment to science and technology is not something we're going to take lightly. And in fact, it's actually not even really a commitment to science and technology. That's a sort of odd way of saying it.

But I was in a little bit of a debate discussion on several conference calls this weekend and I have come to the view that you could actually define development – I think you'll appreciate this – you can actually define development as describing a living condition where billions of people have access to a few centuries of progress and science and technology and billions of people essentially don't.

And it's why it's so glaring that when we visit communities that we think of as developing countries or rural environments, we're so – those of us in this room are familiar with that living condition and that environment. But the rest of the world still finds it so stunning that there are literally 2-to-4 billion people around the world, probably closer to two, that simply live in an environment that the past couple of centuries of technological progress has passed by.

And I was thinking back to my college economics courses. And I was remembering the Solow growth model. We have economists here but anyone who remembers the Solow growth model? Good. So the beauty of the Solow growth model was its simplicity. And it basically said that if societies' economic production, total economic production was a function of essentially two – three inputs – two inputs and then a coefficient factor.

The two inputs are labor and capital – that you put labor and capital into the system and it spits out aggregate output. And then the only thing that essentially moves the frontier of what the same amount of labor and capital are capable of producing as aggregate output was a coefficient – and for lack of a better term – called technology.

And in fact, in its most simplistic form, there's a lot of truth to that – that it is the technology that has gotten us to a place where we experience a standard of living that is light years beyond what it was just a few centuries ago. And it's also true that if you look across the entire global population, across a much longer historic period, you only had that divergence of access to technology in a systematic way happen around the early 1800s.

And people debate why that happened and that's sort of the core theory of development. And one – and I would say the standard theory of development is a retrospective analysis of how did we get access to all of this technology – to all of this science, to all of this stuff that makes our lives more productive and lets us achieve our God-given potential?

And the answer is, well, you know, we had governance and that was a great thing because it created a market. So then we had private markets. And that was a great thing because it unlocked a great deal of entrepreneurial activity. And then we had a banking sector and that fed capital – financial capital into the entrepreneurs that were able to create big businesses that transformed our society.

And, oh, by the way, we had an educated workforce. And so the workforce was there to be the labor part of that equation. And we had rule of law and all of that, that would adjudicate claims between participants so we could use the capital well. And so the standard theory of development is we have to recreate that everywhere.

We have to work on governance; we have to work on education; we have to work on basic health for having a labor force; we have to work on rule of law; we have to work on improving the business climate. And all of that is true. I mean there's no question that all of that is absolutely true, but I would actually argue that our challenge here, today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks, months and years, is to actually craft an alternative vision of development.

And a vision that is not – it doesn't have to necessarily critique – these can be additive visions – but is a vision that's inspired by the idea that maybe there are some situations or some technological breakthroughs or some scientific advancements that can actually push the process faster, that can allow us to skip the need for all of that basic governance and physical and human infrastructure and achieve a different kind of success because it's essentially a skip technology.

And of course, the most significant skip technology in the last 10-to-15 years has been the huge proliferation of mobile phones, one that is ringing now. (Laughter.) And yet, if you think about it, I had a wonderful experience a number of years ago in a rural northern part of India – and we were there, Arlene, you might have been with us – (chuckles) – I don't remember at the time, but we were there.

We were visiting with a rural farming community. The community, I remember, had about 30 percent of the kids were chronically malnourished and therefore stunted. So it's a pretty low base. People had maybe a dollar or two of income a day. It was a – both a pastoral and a productive crop-oriented community.

And so we gathered all the farmers around and they were actually in the process of working with an NGO that was providing them foot pumps to do improved irrigation and I saw Martin here somewhere. But – and it was great because they were saying, well, if I buy this foot pump, I can start planting vegetables.

And then if I produce the vegetables, I can actually feed them to my family and they get better micronutrient sufficiency and I'm seeing the difference in their own health and well-being, but I can also sell them. And they're high value and I have access to income and I've never really had access to income before.

So you're talking to a community that essentially just very recently is introduced to a technology that even gives them basic access to a cash economy, right? And you're thinking, wow, this is – this is pretty primitive stuff. And so we got everybody together and we said, well, you know, do you guys have cell phones?

And they were actually – the group of farmers we were talking to – they were deeply offended that we asked the question. And they sort of talked to each other in the local language and we said, well, why – you know, what's going on? And they said they're a little bit – they kind of took it poorly that you asked. I said, well, why would they take that poorly? And then one of them said – and it was translated – even the goat herders have cell phones. (Laughter.) And we're farmers.

And it just gives you – and then you've traveled around and you've seen how even Haiti during the peak of the crisis when we had no idea how to help people find out where to go for food and water, I walked through one of the settlements that had just formed and people didn't have access or water and we're thinking, boy, we've got to NGOs here. And how are they going to know where to go?

And near the end of the sort of sidewalk, there was a blanket with some wires underneath it. I thought, what's that? So I said, well, do you mind opening that? So they lifted up the blanket and there was a 12-volt battery connected to an inverter, connected to about 28 cell phones that were all being charged. And you just thought, you know, we can do a lot that way. So we actually sent cash and had it transmitted by SMS text into rural communities so people could take – could take care of their family and their next of kin.

We had – we're now launching a mobile banking program together with the Gates Foundation to see if we can actually develop another skip technology, which would be using the fact that Haiti doesn't have the same, frankly, banking regulations that we do and that people have access to mobile connectivity, but more than 90 percent of people don't have any access to meaningful banking services to provide them with an SMS text-based safe place to save and access to lending and credit.

That's just one example. There are examples across each of the different areas we've talked about and in the materials that we've sent in health, in education, in renewable energy and access to banking. In all of these areas, we can use science and technology to sort of search for those big breakthroughs that would actually not just be an incremental step forward in helping us, you know, serve a population with basic services, but would actually put us on path to fundamentally solve a problem.

And of course, when we talk about problem-solving and development, we tend to hearken back to the most dramatic examples, eradicating smallpox, the transition from iron lungs to polio vaccine that made possible a huge level of treatment and service provision and prevention at a scale never previous imagined.

We think about the green revolution, which was actually a large investment of political resources and political energy and organizing markets for agriculture. But at the end of the day, the thing that got it all going was a technological breakthrough that allowed a scientist, Norman Bourlag to travel to India or travel to Pakistan, literally work with farmers to create a demonstration plot, drive a head of state to that plot and say, see what your country could do.

And it created a change in mindset that unlocked a huge amount of political will and political capacity. So I'm not suggesting that science and technology and these breakthroughs will solve every problem. But I do think this is a unique opportunity.

It's an opportunity for this group to get together and help identify those specific breakthroughs that would actually allow for some degree of skip technology progress, that would allow for real transformative change and that would allow people to think differently about their commitment to solving these problems, about their ability and willingness to invest in addressing them and about their passion to really see that we create a world that is different from today's.

I'd like to just highlight a few of the usual critiques of this approach. And I want to address these because from the outset, you should know that we at USAID are now very, very serious about addressing each of these. The first is cost. Everyone will say, well, a new technology costs a lot – and as I was placing my iPad order the other day, I kind of experienced that myself.

But we all know that actually, with significant adoption and with scale comes engineering improvements in production. We know of some of you this room at an incredibly and radically affordable price point. And we know we can address the cost challenge if we're smart about it. And we've seen that in mobile phones. We've seen that in microirrigation. We've seen that in vaccine production. We've seen it across a range of sectors.

A second critique is appropriateness. And I look to you, Chris, because you run an organization called the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health. The usual critique is, well, those technologies are appropriate for the first world, essentially, but not appropriate for the development context in which we work.

And so I'm asking that a lot of the conversation, today and tomorrow, is really around identifying those specific product-profile characteristics, or those specific attributes of the breakthroughs that you might imagine, that would actually allow them to be appropriate. In this room is more than enough talent and capability and experience to define appropriate for the environments we live in and to not take the standard critique as a way to slow down our progress against this.

A third is capacity. People believe that, well, you've got to build the local capacity to create the solutions. And doing things in, you know, the United States or Europe or China or wherever may not be the most effective way to solve local problems that are local elsewhere. And to that I'd simply say that USAID and so many of your organizations have a long history of just simply developing real partnerships between institutions, wherever they are, to address these challenges.

And in fact, it's almost – it's much, much easier and more credible to identify places where real capacity has been built by doing something together, as opposed to the sometimes, I think, misguided effort to simply build capacity in the hopes of then, someday, addressing the problem.

And finally, we're often told that we don't have the capacity as the public sector, or at USAID or in this development context to take risks, that everybody will rant to see, exactly how many people are you treating of a health condition with the resources you're using? Or that we'll have to go to Congress and describe why an investment in a particular technology approach might have failed. And then we get raked over the coals for that and therefore we shouldn't do it.

I was told that a lot when I started here. And I was told the agency was sclerotic. I was told that our processes allowed for no entrepreneurial behavior. I was told if we did anything and got it wrong, Congress would, sort of, have me for lunch. And I took it seriously because I didn't know any better.

And the reality is, what I saw in our response to the Haiti earthquake absolutely shattered that myth for me. I saw people from this agency and from across this government say, well, you know, the rule says we can't do this, giving food to local NGOs. But I just handwrote a voucher that I think will meet the regulations and let's give it a shot.

And I saw people launch really innovative solutions to how we get chlorination and chlorine-tablet distribution at the point of water provision, so that we now have the Port-au-Prince diarrheal disease rate lower than pre-earthquake lowers by 12 percent because they have better access to clean water. And just across – example after example – I've actually seen us take real risks.

And so for me, the science and technology and innovation approach is about broadening that, about giving all of our officers, everywhere around the world, the capacity to take real risks in the work they do and to honor the fact that, actually, when you take risks, sometimes you fail. And that's actually okay because development is tough.

And if we're going to provide energy to the 2-to-3 billion people that simply don't have it, if we're going to change the light map – if you've ever seen the light map of Africa at night, it's a pretty stark reminder of access to productive energy – but we're going to have to try a lot of different things to find what works at a price point that is fundamentally scalable, not just for certain villages but for hundreds of millions or billions of people.

So I just wanted to conclude by saying thank you. And we have a real opportunity, in the next day and a half, to craft a set of grand challenges. And you might say, well, what are you going to do with the grand challenges when they're crafted? And the answer is, we don't exactly know. We're very much hoping that you'll help us identify what to do with them.

But we have some thoughts and we'll talk about them as the conference goes on. One is, as we identify a set of research challenges, we'd like to ask the entire federal science community and, frankly, everybody else, to take them on, to invest in them, to try to solve them.

I was thrilled, when I was at USDA, to meet scientist after scientist who worked on largely American-production agriculture just light up and send me notes, meet me in parking lots of research facilities and say, you know, I got into this field because I wanted to solve hunger. And if you can give me a change to apply my scientific capability in some other part of the world, that would bring me back to why I went into science in the first place. So I think we'll succeed at that, but it'll take some work.

A second thing we're going to do is really identify a set of applied research programs and try to mobilize the funding and the resources within our work to do an awful lot of application development. I was in Haiti last week, but even in Pakistan recently: Our programs in some parts of the world are pretty significant. And they're big enough that we could take 5 or 10 or 15 or even 20 percent out of every program or project and say, how would you create real experimental design with this amount of money? What are the kinds of technologies that would be transformative?

In the case of Haiti, housing reconstruction: I've asked them to look at rainwater harvesting and purification systems and latrine systems that could be put into homes that we are reconstructing and to do it at about a tenth of the cost of just using the traditional, masonry-based approach. So I think we have a huge, $20-plus billion platform for the development of applied research and experimentation and I think we can leverage that and use that effectively.

And then the third thing is, in my mind, perhaps the most important, which is, we all know that there is an art and a science and a special politics and a special economics around the introduction and adoption of new technologies. We've seen that time and again: in the 17-year lag between hepatitis-B vaccine being used in the United States and its application elsewhere in the world. That's just one example, but we all know of many, many similar examples. We need to solve that problem.

And I think USAID can commit itself to become a real center of excellence for product analysis, for market-demand analysis, for creating venture funds that would support entrepreneurs in the public or the civil sectors to really take technology and try to use it as effectively as possible to reach what C.K. Prahalad called the bottom of the pyramid. And some of you around this room have a lot of experience in doing so.

So that's our, sort of, three-part early agenda. But the real truth is, we want to hear from you. And we want your creativity and your ideas and your ability to imagine a different future – whether it's for Kwame in West Africa in 2030 or for low-cost latrine systems in Haiti in six months – to really help us change the culture and the approach, not just of USAID as a single development agency, but of the combined global-development portfolio that just last year was $120 billion of investment in official development assistance from all partners.

And I'm confident, looking around this room, that you can help us do this. And I hope you know the other secret of this day and a half, which is, this really is, for us, just the first step. So I would ask that you stay engaged with us, continue to work with us and stick with us because we're not just trying to launch a science program for development.

We're trying to actually change the way people think about what development is, what it could be and how we can create the kinds of solutions that inspire others to care and to address the needs of the billions of people who live without the benefits of two centuries of science and technology. So thank you. We're very excited. And I'll hand it over to Alex and Rick for the rest of the day.

And I should also say that I want to take a special moment to thank Rick Klausner and Alex Dehgan, who are our cochairs, and Ticora Jones, who's, I'm sure, going to be running around, busily supporting the conference. This has been a team effort and we welcome you as part of our team. Thank you.

Last updated: May 30, 2012

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