Global Policy Studies & International Security

Measuring Scale-Up Potential at USAID

Interning with USAID has been great for the past five weeks. No coffee fetching for me. The professionals within the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact have far too much on their plates for them to not give me as much as I can handle. Now I’m immersed in a number of projects with the potential for having a real impact on innovation research within the Global Health Bureau. All this is thanks to USAID HESN (Higher Education Solutions Network) which orchestrated this new internship program.

The main project I’ve worked on concerns health innovation scale-up. Innovations are new ways to deal with health problems, be they a new drug, diagnostic tool, or practice. The fundamental problem, giving rise to my project, is that the amount of preventable illness and death in the world is far greater than what our current resources can mitigate. There are so many new solutions or health innovations that USAID is funding to solve the problem. However, Dr. James Shelton, a USAID science advisor, argues in his 2011 article that success on a large scale to meet these immense needs requires a systematic approach. He suggests twenty criteria to help determine how much potential for successful scale-up each innovation has.

These criteria include questions such as: how acceptable a particular innovation is to the local beneficiaries; whether it solves a problem that is an international policy priority; or whether the innovation is more cost-effective than current practices. The hard part is deciding how to weigh certain criteria over others. For example, in a tool that assigns points for how scalable a particular innovation is, does someone ask four questions about a logistical issues or just one?

I identified one tool that a large organization currently uses, which may serve USAID’s needs. The tool works as an analytical framework that asks questions about an innovation. It compiles the answers so the user can analyze them. I’m using case studies to compare the tool output to what actually happened in terms of scale-up success. If the tool says yes, but history says no, I’ll know that the tool still needs some tweaking.  If the tool says yes and history says yes, then I at least failed to disprove its accuracy. In the end, it will require years of actual use to get a sense of how good a predictor the tool really is.

This project has taken up most of my time, but is not the only thing I’ve been up to. My supervisors have so much on their plates on top of endless strings of meetings, and they are pleased to give me as much to do as I can handle. So I’ve had some data verification and analysis work on all the innovation research that the Global Health Bureau funds.  I’ve even gotten to help a bit with writing and editing the executive summary of a research report to Congress. In my spare time, I attend M&E (monitoring and evaluation) meetings and have coffee with different M&E experts.

A summer internship in DC isn’t all nice offices and wine at think tank events. The fact that I didn’t get an interim security clearance was disappointing at first, but I soon found it wasn’t much of a real problem. I can still attend meetings 2-3 times per week in the RRB (Ronald Reagan Building) where the main USAID offices are. I had to learn to be more selective about what talks and events I attend, but the events I have gone to have given me the chance to meet so many brilliant professionals across a broad policy spectrum. By embracing the positives and forgetting the negatives, you can get the most out of any summer experience.

I’d love to hear whether any of this resonates with your current or past internships, or what unique experiences some might be having.  Please share in the comments!

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