22 November 2010

The Power of Prizes

Most of the best work in international development is done in unglamorous places, where resources are scarce, systems are weak, and conditions are harsh.

In these places and spaces resourcefulness, innovation and leadership are priceless commodities. And yet much of this innovation , resourcefulness and leadership goes unnoticed outside of its immediate location. Even within organisations it is difficult to capture innovations, share them and learn from them. IDS is working with groups like UNICEF to see if we can use multimedia approaches (short video clips, audioblogs) to systematically do this.
Another way of unearthing and sharing innovations, especially those on less fashionable issues or from more remote areas, is to give awards for them. Awards can be self-serving and can reinforce the status quo, but if set up with the right governance and rules they can surprise and inspire.

For example, a programme that IDS supports, ALINe, is working with agricultural organisations to support their efforts to hear systematically from farmers about whether agricultural interventions are working for them. Working with Keystone Accountability we had a hard time identifying which organisations were experimenting with these social accountability mechanisms. We then set up a Farmer Voice Award, where the prizes were to work with us! A group of 12 or so innovations were selected (most of which we had never heard of before) and we are sharing their innovations and helping them document their experiences. For a couple of them we are helping them evaluate the innovations. The award--not glitzy, not expensive--worked much better than I thought it would.

So I was pleased to accept an invitation to be a judge for the Guardian's International Development Achievement award. The award is for people who are having a demonstrable impact on people's lives in a sustainable way, are helping transform systems and attitudes more widely and are inspirational leaders. In our work at IDS with our partners around the world, we see many examples of this quiet and transformative leadership. That is why the shortlisted nominees for the award were so extraordinary.

The winner, Odette Kayirere, was judged to be the most extraordinary of all. She overcame her own personal grief in the Rwandan genocide and in 1995 established Avega, the Association of Widows of the Genocide. Today Avega has 4000 members and provides them with psychological support, training in trauma healing, and paralegal support. The most important thing perhaps that Avega does is to provide its members with hope and self esteem. Avega funds a large chunk of its costs through local fundraising efforts. In meeting Odette, I was struck by her modesty and quiet nature, but also by her inner strength and calm charisma.
There is no shortage of leaders and innovations out there. What we are short of is mechanisms to unearth these unsung heroes and ideas so we can learn from and celebrate them. Prizes, done right, might be one way to help us do this.

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