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September 08, 2022

In the Spotlight – USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures

By Sasha Gallant, USAID and The Evidence Team, OMB


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Describe your office and what it does in one sentence.
Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) is USAID’s evidence-based open innovation fund that offers flexible grants to test new ideas, builds evidence of what works, and scales breakthrough solutions that address some of the world’s toughest development challenges.

What makes the work of your office so unique?
Built on the idea that game-changing ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, DIV accepts applications year-round from social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, companies, and researchers working across every sector and country in which USAID operates.

DIV assesses applications based on their evidence of impact, cost effectiveness, potential for scale, and financial sustainability. Our tiered evidence-funding model enables strategic risk-taking and our due diligence process merges techniques used in academia with those used in venture capital. Since 2010, DIV has reviewed over 12,500 applications and supported 256 innovations in 47 countries. Half of these awards have been to organizations that had never received funding from USAID.

What has your portfolio achieved?
DIV awards have seen impressive results. This includes individual awards, such as Apopo’s trained rats, which have prevented 154,000 tuberculosis cases through early detection, to Zola Electric’s solar distribution model, which has enabled 1.1 million people to access affordable electricity at home.

Looking more broadly at the DIV portfolio of awards, Dr. Michael Kremer – DIV’s Scientific Director and 2019 Nobel Laureate – led a research team to examine early DIV grants. Results demonstrated that these awards achieved a 17:1 social rate of return (meaning $17 in social value was generated for every $1 of U.S. taxpayer funds spent). Collectively, DIV awards have improved the lives of more than 100 million people to date.

How does DIV support the generation of evidence?
DIV offers three tiers of grants: 1) up to $200,000 for pilots; 2) up to $1.5 million to rigorously test or assess the market viability of a product or service; and 3) up to $15 million to take proven solutions to scale. DIV also offers awards of up to $1.5 million to evaluate programs that lack sufficient evidence of causal impact and cost-effectiveness. Approximately 40 percent of DIV grants support randomized controlled trials. DIV’s selection criteria incentivizes collaboration across innovators and researchers.

Can you describe two recent evaluations and how you or others in your agency used the results to inform programs, policies, operations, etc.?
Although school enrollment worldwide is increasing, over half of the students in low- and middle-income countries progress through school without gaining foundational skills. In response to this challenge, Indian NGO Pratham developed Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), a learner-centered approach to teaching that helps students catch up on reading and math. In 2013, DIV supported Pratham to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of various TaRL models in India. Given the demonstrated effectiveness of the model, DIV in 2017 funded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Africa to evaluate ways to scale TaRL in Sub-Saharan Africa. The USAID Zambia Mission, impressed with TaRL results, was the first country to roll out the program in the region. DIV’s combined investment of $7.24 million helped catalyze over $25 million from external funders to expand the model to 12 African countries. Today, TaRL is recognized as one of the highest impact and most cost-effective learning interventions available, benefiting millions of children globally.

In 2015, DIV supported the USAID Rwanda Mission to launch the first cash benchmarking experiments. The grant was launched in collaboration with Google.org and GiveDirectly through the Development Impact Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, one of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) partners. DIV then negotiated an expansion of the cash benchmarking initiative with GoodVentures and USAID Missions in Malawi, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As part of this program expansion, USAID piloted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to benchmark the cost-effectiveness of large-scale “traditional” programs against cash transfers. This initiative spurred the adoption of cash-transfer programs by USAID Missions in Morocco and Uganda.

Tell us about an evaluation currently underway that you are excited about?
DIV supports research that generates the evidence needed for improved policymaking. For example, DIV-supported researchers are working with the Government of Indonesia to conduct an RCT that evaluates the impact and cost-effectiveness of transitioning a social benefit program from physical rice distribution to direct purchase through an electronic debit card. The traditional food subsidy program, which supported Indonesia’s 15 million poorest households and cost roughly $1.5 billion per year, was plagued by extensive leakage. It was estimated that only one-third of the subsidy actually reached targeted households. Initial results show that the new electronic system has led to a 20 percent decrease in poverty among the poorest 15 percent of households at the same cost as the traditional program.

What are some effective ways that you’ve found to share evaluation results with decision makers in your agency?
DIV maintains relationships across USAID by regularly engaging Agency partners during its award selection process and sharing results with technical program officers in Washington and USAID Missions across the globe. At the end of each evaluation, we organize brown bags that are open to all interested colleagues and stakeholders. Additionally, all grantees are required to submit evaluations and anonymized data to USAID’s public platforms (here and here). DIV has also commissioned several independent look-back reports assessing its longer-term results in key countries.

DIV’s impressive results suggest that its approach could be replicated by many other Federal Government Departments and Agencies to deliver cost-effective and evidence-based outcomes. What advice would you offer teams interested in starting down this path?
We believe DIV offers an innovative, complementary model to help Agencies deliver maximum value using limited U.S. taxpayer funding. Interested parts of the U.S. Government (including local governments) could consider setting up pilot programs that build from DIV’s Annual Programming Statement to help meet their own objectives. The initial investment for an Agency can be quite modest. For example, many grants are less than $200,000, and DIV itself was established with only $1 million in funding. Over time, DIV’s budget has expanded and its small team has built a roster of Agency and external technical experts to help assess and select the best applications. And one shouldn’t expect perfection—we think part of DIV’s success has been its philosophy of continuously iterating and learning. Finally, DIV Staff are happy to speak with other U.S. Government colleagues interested in learning more about DIV’s work and, equally, look forward to learning from other agencies and departments to improve our own approach.

Where can readers find more information about your office? Please visit DIV’s Agency webpage at www.usaid.gov/div and the portfolio and impact site, where you can also sign up for DIV’s newsletter.


About the Series: In the Spotlight serves to introduce you to the people and offices across the Federal Government who are doing the hard work of undertaking program evaluation and shine a light on their many notable accomplishments and activities. Through this series, you will get to know the individuals who are leading and conducting the critical evaluation, research, and analytic work happening throughout the government. You’ll also discover the many offices where this work takes place, especially those that may fly under the radar. In the Spotlight will highlight how evaluation and related activities, and the staff that undertake them, are critical to inform policies, program design, decision-making, and advance evidence-based policymaking.


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