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Innovation: buzzword or development solution? An analysis of innovation among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in international development

Kaoukji, Dwan (2017) Innovation: buzzword or development solution? An analysis of innovation among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in international development. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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Abstract

Over the last three decades, innovation has come to be regarded as a key attribute of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and an important activity for them to engage in by key stakeholders in international development. This is evidenced by the rise in the number of innovation grants and activities directed at development NGOs aimed at exploring new ways of working. Despite the increasing interest in innovation however, the characteristics of an NGO “innovation” or innovative activity remains vague and difficult to identify. References to innovation relate to it as both a means for NGOs to achieve outcomes, as well as an end in itself. And examples of projects that have been considered “innovative” by stakeholders span across a wide range of activities that make it difficult to identify the contributions towards the innovation. Furthermore, while the empirical research on innovation in practice is increasingly being explored, the theoretical study of innovation as it relates to NGOs continues to be largely under-researched in the NGO literature. Thus, it is unclear whether innovation merely serves as a new ‘buzzword’ in international development that lacks meaning, or whether it plays a more significant role for stakeholders in the sector. This study examines the role that innovation plays for donors and NGOs in international development, particularly in terms of the ideas and practices they engage in, and why it has come to be regarded as an important aspect of their work. It specifically explores the relationship between donors and development NGOs working in the Global South, and how innovation has come to be prioritized in their work. The research combines a theoretical investigation of ideas around innovation as applied by the organization within the private, public and the third sectors, with an empirical study into how innovation is understood, communicated and practiced by NGOs and key stakeholders within an ‘aid chain’ using three multi-sited case studies with a focus on Ethiopia. Through this, I build my research on four key concepts for defining organisational innovation, and look at how concepts of innovation in relation to NGOs particularly relate to them. These are; innovation as product and outcome (Schumpeter 1939), innovation as a process (Seelos & Mair 2012), and innovation as an organisational characteristic (Fyvie & Ager 1999) and innovation as diffusion (Rogers 1963). Ethiopia’s long history with NGO activity, and its civil society movement was an advantage for the fieldwork in that it encouraged a significant international aid presence among donors to the country, particularly among those looking to support experimental projects. The two most significant findings from the research indicate that there is a disconnect in the way stakeholders define innovation and the value they place on it in their work. First, innovation was found to be deployed as a buzzword primarily by the donor community in over-generalised ways that fails to capture the complexity and the nature of NGO work. This ultimately prevents development NGOs from contributing their own ideas, forcing them to adopt the terms associated with it. Second was that the concept of innovation was primarily referred to as both a product and process and among stakeholders with little distinction made between them. It is this disconnect between the definitions of innovation among donor agencies and NGOs that makes it difficult to identify what an innovation is among NGOs, and ultimately prevents them from building a shared understanding of the potential benefits of innovation. The main implication at the level of policy and practice is the need to recognise innovation as a process that NGOs may usefully engage in, rather than simply a product or outcome of their work. A clearer understanding of innovation as a process, and a focus on innovation for NGOs would them room to experiment and explore different ways of working, rather than adapt to innovation as a buzzword.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2017 Dwan Kaoukji
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Sets: Departments > Social Policy
Supervisor: Lewis, David
URI: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/4050

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