The sprawling and growing skyline of Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam, is quite breath-taking. But do you notice anything else in the picture? Look across the river to the left and you will see a dark area, which is a slum. Welcome to the reality of middle-income countries- where a small percentage of the population enjoy the luxury that comes with economic growth but the rest are left behind. In this changing context, BRAC’s Frugal Innovation Forum 2015 poses the pressing question- Is the development sector up to date to tackle the emerging needs of the new bottom billion?
Last Thursday, the 2015 Gates letter identified mobile money as a transformative innovation for the next 15 years, driving faster improvement of the lives of people in poor countries than has ever been seen.
Nothing draws an audience faster than a good story. The best stories transport the listener to a new perspective, down a journey of twists and turns, moments of despair, and of course, triumph. What better way to start to untangle the complexities of scaling social impact in the context of South Asia than to focus on the stories of organisations that have made it there? Theories are great, but without deep grounding in experiences and practice, they often have little application.
A week before the Frugal Innovation Forum, I came across the Ted Talk by Dan Palotta that criticized development for rewarding frugality (i.e. low rates of overhead) instead of ambition and big ideas. This is one reason why, in his opinion, progress has been slow to find solutions to address social issues.
Day 1 of our Frugal Innovation Forum sought out best practices from diverse organizations—from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan to Myanmar and Sri Lanka—grounded in developing human capital, organizing communities, and engaging civic action. While common rhetoric around innovation tends to stress technology advances, Asif Saleh, BRAC’s Senior Director, Strategy, Communications, and Capacity, stressed that "this innovation is not about products, but is a constant process in the organization focused on impact.”