Reverse Innovation and the Poor

Innovation Farm

Innovation Redefined

The elimination of poverty is one of the most complex endeavours to undertake.  In the decades since the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1864 as the first international development agency, none have yet innovated a solution largely because they have focused on the wrong goals and wrong systems for eliminating poverty. 

Innovation starts with people and vulnerable people are both capable of innovating and willing to work at it, not just individually but also with others. Collaboration between vulnerable people and development agencies will be crucial to our success at finding innovative solutions to poverty.

People Driven

Poverty elimination requires people driven and not government driven solutions.

I have always advocated to my colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank that poor people know more than anyone else, the solutions to their vulnerability; a process called reverse innovation. Poverty elimination requires people driven and not government driven solutions. Perhaps the single most important factor in the limited impact of so many development projects supported by government and development agencies is the lack of influence allowed poor people in the conception, design, mobilization and implementation of the solutions.  We in the development community need to begin to look for the vulnerable groups of people that we can collaborate with and reach consensus solutions.

Diversity Will Help Drive Innovation in Development

Poor people can be considered the most innovative to be able to survive daily vulnerabilities and with little resources.

Innovation which is essentially ideas, comes from anywhere and anyone. Part of the solution to eliminating poverty is that magic happens at intersections, when the mindsets and ideas of vulnerable people from different circumstances and life experiences collide with the development thinking. People who experience poverty and vulnerability are the most innovative since they are able to survive daily vulnerabilities on very little resources. Poor think differently and come up with different solutions that can make life better for vulnerable people. 

Just having a diverse group of vulnerable people working together on development projects promotes innovative thinking.  Poverty elimination now requires that  vulnerable people be allowed to influence, conceptualize, design and implement the sustainable solutions to their vulnerabilities.

New Approaches With The Poor

What has been missing from the development approach has been the views of poor people who live with vulnerabilities and have the legitimate right to speak up for themselves and on behalf of their communities, and to negotiate and participate in the development process.  Perhaps the time has come for the role of development practitioners to be redefined away from being talkers, implementers and solution generators to being listeners, facilitators and funders of community generated solutions. 
This approach is innovative but could prove a difficult challenge for development professionals as poor people will question many of our conclusions, the accuracy of our “knowledge” and the relevancy of our proposals.  Poor people will raise questions we find uncomfortable, including who has the legitimacy to speak about the needs and priorities of poor people.
The only way to build a future where poverty is rolled back is to invest our time and effort in building a development driven relationship with poor people and their communities. 
Learn more about reverse innovation by viewing these videos.


For as long as I can remember, I have been trying to understand poverty. I have studied it as an academic discipline, observed it through the lives of others, made a career out of it and even lived it.  Yes, I grew up poor and I still don’t fully understand it. We often look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why.  We see situations in our societies; situations of gender violence, delinquency, crime and violence, and ask ourselves, why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?  We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but we almost never ask a poor person to explain it on their own behalf, through their own eyes and thought process.  I thought I could at least explain some of what I have seen from those around me and how those I know, react to the pressures of living on the edge of poverty. 


Abiki (not her real name) is a twenty-two year old mother of four children, the youngest being age 8 months old and the eldest 4 years old.  Abiki says rest, relaxation and entertainment is a luxury for the poor.  She gets up at 4am everyday thinking about how her children will eat on that day. She has no education nor skills and her husband refuses to let her look for a job – out of fear that other men will be attracted to her and she will leave him.  Her husband works odd jobs occasionally when he can, but refuses to become a security guard because he feels night mek fuh sleep.  He too has no education or skills.  Abiki says she depends mostly on neighbors for basics such as food and clothes for the children. She feels a loss of dignity if she has to approach a neighbor for assistance but her husband often forces the children to go and solicit the neighbors for food. If she objects, he threatens her with violence or even beats her. Such is living on the edge of poverty.

The nurses at the community health center says her 8 month old baby is mal-nourished and supplied her with “sprinkles” from an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funded basic nutrition project to help with his nutrition. But Abiki instead dumps the sprinkles because “it will open my children’s appetite for food, and when they hungry, I have no food to give them”.  The children’s basic diet is made up of biscuits and flavored cool aid without sugar for school.  Meals are mostly plan rice with whatever vegetables or gravy she can make at the time.  Abiki says someone reported the condition of the children to the Ministry of Social Protection and Social Workers turned up at her home to inspect it.  Luckily, they placed her on a register for regular cash voucher support for her children.  But this too has its own problems, since her husband often confiscates the already little money for his own use and leaves the rest of the family to live on the edge of poverty.   

Abiki says some persons have offered to take her for free contraception from a local organisation so that she will not become pregnant with a 5th child. When her husband found out, he beat her claiming it will get her too fat. Abiki says life is a daily struggle for survival, and things like planning a future, styling her hair, wearing fragrance creams or even owning decent underwear is a luxury.  She says the last time she purchased four panties for herself; her husband accused her of “looking for a man”.  

I asked my wife about Abiki a few days ago only to learn that a “big man” gentleman saw her condition and bought her some new clothes and encouraged her to style her hair. Mr. Gentleman has also been encouraging Abiki to take better care of her children and was making regular food & clothing donations to her. Mr. Big Man gentleman recently invited Abiki to a nice restaurant at Georgetown’s seawall for drinks and she was excited since she has never gone to a cozy restaurant. I learnt the Abiki has since moved out from her husband to live with her mother. She has left her 3 sons with their father but took her 8 month old baby with her.  She says, “le he feel how it hard fu tek care a children”.  For her 3 young sons, the vicious cycle of living on the edge of poverty continues. 


Poverty forces peoples to live in a permanent now. Worrying about tomorrow can be a luxury if you don’t know how you’ll survive today. People who grow up in poverty quickly learn that it doesn’t pay off to save for an uncertain future if the reward they are waiting for sometimes isn’t there after the wait. It would be foolish to spend precious mental resources thinking about solving a problem that won’t occur for a month when you can’t afford dinner tonight, so it’s hard to think when conditions around you aren’t good. Working out of poverty is an uphill struggle for many. Poverty has powerful harmful effects on people, and helps explain why it’s so hard to escape. Their choices are much more a product of their situation, rather than a lack of self-control. We social scientist tend to think that focusing on long-term goals is always a good way out of poverty and satisfying short-term needs is always a poverty trap and cycle. This definition works well only for people who have the luxury of time and money to meet their basic needs and have resources left over to plan for the future.   I have come to learn that you cannot ever use the word poverty without the word inequality being far behind.

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