THE BLOG

International Aid: The Case for Innovation

08/05/2013 15:12 BST | Updated 08/07/2013 10:12 BST

Africa has faced challenges ever since colonial powers withdrew, however, has never been in such good shape. It has vast natural resources, a fast-growing middle class and foreign direct investment flooding to the continent; Africa has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

The private sector has driven Africa's growth over the last decade and has given the continent what its people need - jobs. According to the World Bank, almost nine out of ten (86%) jobs in Africa are generated by entrepreneurs. This is a welcome and wonderful transformation of a continent that was once mired in violence, rife with disease and overwhelmed by corruption. However, that transformation is incomplete and although poverty is less visible in the continent's capitals, it remains widespread and growth has yet to meet the needs of the hundreds of millions of Africans at the bottom of the pyramid. That's why our government's decision to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid is important and we should take pride in our commitment.

Like Justine Greening, I can't understand the arguments made by some against spending 0.7% of GNI to relieve suffering overseas. They should remember that 7p in every £10 is a small slice of our national income when compared with the spectre of people dying unnecessarily, living without access to education or even clean water.

To paraphrase the secretary of state, there are clearly some who think that focussing 99.3% of Britain's Gross National Income on Britain isn't a big enough proportion; maybe we should spend that better. International development is in our interest but the aid we provide must be invested wisely.

DfID is already taking steps by launching a new tool, the Open Aid Information Platform, to improve public access to our aid data and open up the chain of aid delivery, from DfID right through to the end beneficiary. However, aid agencies can go even further by making a case for investing in innovative ideas.

Those innovations don't necessarily require new inventions - just making better use of existing structures and applying new ideas to existing campaigns can yield important results.

Consider the following examples:

Almost one in nine children in Africa dies before they turn five years old. They die from what are often preventable causes such as dehydration from diarrhoea.

Cola Life is a campaign to get Coca-Cola to use its distribution muscle in developing countries to reduce child mortality rates and improve their living conditions.

Its creator, Simon Berry, noticed that in developing countries, although medicine wasn't readily available, you could go anywhere and pick up a bottle of Coca-Cola. He started ColaLife which utilises the beverage company's distribution channels to get medicine to the remotest parts of the Africa.

His product idea, called Kit Yamoyo, fits perfectly between the necks of the beverage bottles, utilising the unused space in Coca-Cola crates to store medical products like oral rehydration solution (ORS), zinc supplements, and water purification tablets. This innovation recently won product design of the year.

Another innovation is one that is based on access to information and delivery of that information. It's something I have written about in the past and it's an idea that is close to my heart.

Malaria is the single biggest killer of Sierra Leoneans: it accounts for one third of all infant deaths in the country. Yet despite these startling figures, much ignorance still surrounds the causes of, and treatments for, malaria.

This lack of awareness is compounded by the over-burdened health care system. Sierra Leone is a country of nearly 6 million people, with just 102 medics. That's one doctor for every 59,000 people. Only half of the population live within 5km of any healthcare facility. This fact, coupled with only 2% actually trusting the advice of medical practitioners - well, you can see the problem.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation's 'Faith Act' programme identified that 75% of Sierra Leoneans cite religious leaders as the group they trust the most, and in every village, no matter how remote, there are churches and mosques.

The 'Faiths Act' programme works to organise training programmes which encourage Muslim and Christian religious leaders to work together and then, in turn, to train their local congregations and communities in malaria prevention. They blend practical and Ministry of Health-approved advice, such as correct use of bed nets, with sermons that directly connect their religious inspiration with taking action to protect their fellow citizens from illness and harm.

330 religious leaders were trained, they then trained 8,325 community leaders and these volunteers then made 168,311 household visits, to talk to and educate families about how to prevent sickness and death from malaria. With the average household being 6 people in Sierra Leone, we have reached over a million people through household visits alone.

There is a clear, culturally-sensitive innovation to Faith Acts approach.

Aid is not an alternative to self-sufficiency and six out of the fifteen fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. That is why I agree with the Government announcement to end development funding to South Africa, which reflects only positively on the country and the progress it has made over the last 25 years.

Africa will eventually have to move beyond aid, but while millions on the continent haven't yet felt the benefits of this growth, aid still has a place. And while that is the case, we must look at other innovative ways to do more direct investment, including more projects based on returnable capital, which sees an investment fund, investing in local companies, creating jobs, generating a return that can itself be reinvested and, above all, improving the quality of life of aid recipients.