Projects that vanish, ministerial over-involvement and a lack of evaluation: a new report finds some major problems with the secretive aid initiative at DFAT.
Three years after its launch, a lack of transparency makes it difficult to evaluate how well InnovationXchange is faring — and even whether some funded projects are continuing at all.
InnovationXchange was launched in March 2015 by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to bring greater innovation to Australia’s foreign aid program, and has featured in several major speeches made by her in the years since. The unit, which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has made extensive use of challenges and competitions in finding new ideas to fund.
But a report by Professor Stephen Howes, director of the ANU’s Development Policy Centre, argues that it is “difficult to assess the achievements” of InnovationXchange. Although many of the selected winners from various challenges “look extremely promising”, there is “very little information about the projects that have received funding” publicly available.
Although Howes describes himself as a “sympathetic critic” who believes the aid program could do with greater promotion of technological innovation and private sector partnerships, he found several examples of projects that were announced as winners of funding, but have never been heard from again. Indeed, the web page for one project, for which winners were announced in 2016, asks “where are they now?“, but provides no answer.
There appears to be no publicly available evaluation of InnovationXchange’s projects, other than brief summaries giving the impression everything has been successful.”But they cannot be regarded as serious evaluations,” Howes argues. Indeed, at least one of the claims of success appear to be incorrect, he thinks.
Fragmentation and political risk
It’s not just a lack of transparency that’s the problem. Howes is concerned that InnovationXchange spreads itself too thin, funding many different types of projects, likely making it difficult for the public servants in charge to have the expertise needed to engage effectively with them.
The funding guidelines are also rather vague, which has led to a number of projects being supported which do not appear to be particularly innovative — or at least no more so than a normal aid project. The foreign minister’s involvement appears to have contributed to this, Howes thinks.
Indeed, Julie Bishop is strongly associated with the program, making it more likely a future Labor government would shut it down. The report notes that although InnovationXchange only comprises less than 1% of the total aid program, she has given at least three major speeches on the subject of innovation in foreign aid.
Bishop’s association with InnovationXchange has also made it more difficult for any project to publicly admit failure — something one would commonly expect to occur sometimes in innovation, Howes argues:
“It is very plausible that the lack of transparency around iXc and the self-promotional nature of its material is due to its close association with the foreign minister. It is certainly odd that four years on there is not a single admission of failure from iXc.”
Not learning from the past
The focus on innovation has also led to a de-emphasis on learning from previous projects — despite experimentation and learning comprising two of its three “pillars”. The tender documents for one of the funded projects, SEED Pacific, an enterprise challenge fund, omitted to mention that the same idea had essentially already been attempted, and that the DFAT evaluation found the concept was “not appropriate” for the Pacific.
“One has to ask what the point is of doing a pilot, learning a lesson, and then ignoring it,” Howes laments.
SEED Pacific also made no announcements for three years after it was launched, providing its first update in June 2018. The partner SEED Pacific is working with, cruise company Carnival, has previously been involved in such initiatives. While the evaluation found its involvement in the first project was worthwhile, additional funding for a previous partnership is perhaps not very innovative.
“Political support for iXc will wane if is not able to do a better job of demonstrating at least one significant breakthrough that it has facilitated,” Howes argues.
Indeed, he is not even sure InnovationXchange should exist at all, arguing that multilateral body The Global Innovation Fund “seems to do pretty much the same thing” but at a larger scale, with deeper experience — and at arm’s length from meddling ministers.