Research Grants During a Recession: Putting Innovation Front and Center

Research Grants During a Recession: Putting Innovation Front and Center

To cite an all too familiar reality, Concern, like many NGOs and other charitable organizations across the globe, is feeling the pinch of the economic downturn. Foundations' financial portfolios have shrunk significantly, companies have less capacity to fund charitable initiatives, and donors are hard-pressed to maintain their generosity. At the same time, governments throughout the developed world are turning their attention inward. None of this is news.

Yet, in this ever changing and uncertain world, there are constants. Among the poorest of the poor, the most frequent victims of preventable catastrophe are children: each year, more than 9.5 million of them die before age five. Among the poor, nine in ten lack adequate shelter, and the vast majority face a relentless, daily barrage of challenges to their livelihood, health, and education needs.

At Concern, our challenge is to ensure that the programs we have developed to tackle some of the major causes of poverty don't start rolling backward. We must continue to meet the needs of people today, while investing time and resources to find more effective, sustainable ways to respond to and help mitigate the impact of conflicts and the fresh disasters that happen in our twenty-eight target countries on a regular basis.

As CEO, I have to watch our "bottom line" the impact the organization has in changing people's lives for the long term and our ability to find new, creative solutions. It is not enough to have a good idea; the idea must be effectively implemented with an impact on communities that can be measured.

But it's a huge challenge for NGOs to do both, and in the current environment it's almost impossible. For the most part, funds are simply not available for anything other than the "here and now." And, as the past several months have demonstrated, such funds may indeed be unavailable. Organizationally, we've had to make the tough choices of closing down field operations overseas including the closing of schools, health clinics, and training programs for the poorest, most vulnerable families.

So when it was announced recently that Concern Worldwide US would receive a five-year, $41 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a wave of excitement surged through the organization. The Gates Foundation is unique in its willingness to invest in research to find new and innovative ways to tackle the problem of child mortality in some of the poorest countries in the world, where almost 26,000 children die every day from preventable diseases. Worldwide, more than 500,000 women die during childbirth each year. We have not yet solved these problems and we need to think outside the box to explore and develop new solutions. Too many lives are at stake.

Throughout its forty-one year history, Concern has insisted on engaging communities in finding locally appropriate solutions to problems an approach that may have seemed revolutionary in the past but is now widely imitated. Thirty years ago, we established child day care centers in Bangladesh so mothers could receive credit and job skills training and created food-for-work programs that fed thousands of people, who then built hundreds of miles of roads and rehabilitated thousands of acres through forestry and hillside erosion initiatives. At the same time, in refugee camps along the Thailand-Cambodia border, we provided youth skills training in everything from typing to sewing to radio repair.

We must continue to adapt and change. Ten years ago, in urban Bangladesh, we recognized that citizens' inability to access health care was too large a problem for us to resolve sustainably through our existing Child Survival Program (CSP), so we moved the program from direct-service delivery to more of a "hands-off approach," investing time in building the capacity of local government, community leaders and volunteers, women's associations, imams, alternative medicine providers, and birth attendants to take joint responsibility for the health and well-being of the most vulnerable members of the community. It was, by design, a transportable philosophy dependent on the smallest possible core CSP staff in each service area and only for a limited period of time. Over the next ten years, we went from reaching 150,000 people to reaching one million. And today we're replicating this model in Rwanda, Haiti, Burundi, and Niger.

We also recognize the important role technology now plays in our work. In Kenya in 2008, thousands of families were affected by post-election violence. Their livelihoods and homes destroyed, many were unable to afford food that was available in local markets. The traditional humanitarian option would have been to consider food distributions, but instead we distributed food and cash, giving people the freedom to buy food as well as the basic supplies they desperately needed. We partnered with SafariCom, the cell phone provider, and devised a program that used cell phones (along with solar-powered chargers) to transmit codes to registered recipients, who could then collect the cash at outlets operated by our technology partner.

The lesson: Innovation is crucial in finding ways to do more with less. Ground-breaking achievements in global health hinge only in part on proven treatments and ways of doing things. It will be critical to break with tradition, calling on new voices and new alliances, including private-public sector partnerships, community-managed healthcare, and close engagement with local and national state officials.

By the same token, a research grant is very different from a grant earmarked for a specific project, such as building new homes for victims of a cyclone in India or handing out emergency supplies to Pakistani families fleeing military operations. We have the responsibility to explain to our many donors that research funds are earmarked for specific objectives that do not immediately translate into concrete help for people suffering from hunger or those who have survived a major disaster.

That life-saving work still depends on the support of our partners, our generous donors, pensioners, students, and CEOs who all want to make our world a better place and help those in need. Innovation and research cannot be considered a luxury, especially in lean times. Too many men, women, and children are still suffering and dying. It is time for corporations, governments, and the nonprofit sector to join forces in ways not seen before to serve the bottom line helping the world's poorest citizens.

Prior to becoming CEO of Concern Worldwide in 2001, Tom Arnold served as assistant secretary general and chief economist with the Irish Department of Agriculture and Food. While at Concern, he has also served on the UN Millennium Project Hunger Task Force (2003-2004) and the Irish Hunger Task Force (2007-2008).