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Examining proto-missions: The models spurring innovation in development today

The world is in a state of climate emergency, a ‘code red’ for humanity. The twin climate and biodiversity crises demand urgent, co-ordinated action to transform existing social-technological systems. Simply accelerating what we are doing now cannot avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. As Secretary-General António Guterres stated in his opening remarks at COP27, we need “a Pact in which developed and emerging economies unite around a common strategy and combine capacities and resources for the benefit of humankind.” The same is true for other ambitious social and development goals. 

Mission-Oriented Innovation Policies (MOIPs) are one approach that can advance the required transformations. As our colleague Philippe Larrue noted in a 2021 paper, MOIPs are “a co-ordinated package of policy and regulatory measures tailored specifically to mobilise science, technology and innovation in order to address well-defined objectives related to a societal challenge, in a defined timeframe”.

As MOIPs gain considerable traction across the European Union, they may also be a key piece of the puzzle that produces thriving economies in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In light of our planet’s boundaries and the need to address social development challenges, the objective cannot be to grow for growth’s sake. Instead, the aim should be to achieve a certain type of economic advancement that simultaneously pursues environmental sustainability and improvements in the standard and quality of people’s lives. In this context, MOIPs create a new paradigm: from governments seeking to simply fix failing markets to one in which the public sector actively encourages the innovation process by shaping and creating technologies, sectors and markets.

Moving towards action

Beyond the hype, how can mission-oriented innovation be put in practice? What works? And what is the potential of this approach in development co-operation?

To bridge existing evidence-gaps related to mission-oriented innovation and its potential, we launched the OECD Mission Action Lab, a joint initiative of the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Directorate, the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI), and our team, the OECD Innovation for Development Facility (INDEF). Our particular interest is to investigate emerging practices in LMICs, broker learning across country contexts and surface better practice.

In high-income countries (HICs), MOIPs are already being implemented on a range of issues – such as Sweden’s Viable Cities coalition pursuing net-zero cities by 2030 or the Vision Zero Cancer initiative activating the health ecosystem. By contrast, research and evidence on MOIPs in LMIC contexts remains scarce, with the exception of research by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Institute of Innovation for Public Purpose on six missions in Chile, Columbia and Mexico. Their main insights mirror our own, namely the importance of creating new or transforming existing policy instruments, financing mechanisms and governance processes to break up institutional inertia and foster state capacity; and the need for collaboration between multiple sectors and diverse stakeholders in implementing the mission.

We are working with partners on questions like: what drives MOIPs in LMICs, how did they emerge (bottom-up via pressure from civil society, top-down as government directives, or outside-in from development partners – or a combination of the three), and what form do they take? How do MOIPs in LMICs compare to those in HICs? How are they being financed and implemented, and what is the role of development co-operation partners? We have set out to better understand the potential of MOIPs for development co-operation, including why is it worth pursuing in light of existing strategies with a time-stamp for achievement.

Over the last several months we have collaborated with partners on three cases: the Government of India’s Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), focused on water access for rural households; Family Planning 2030 (FP2030) in Nepal, providing equitable access to family planning methods for women and girls; and Science Foundation Ireland/Irish Aid’s challenge-based fund. This blog shares some preliminary findings from our ongoing research and is based on an in-depth literature review and interviews with key stakeholders involved in the different missions and instruments.  

The initiatives we investigated were not explicitly designed with reference to MOIPs, though they reflect important dimensions of the deliberately structured missions in HICs. To distinguish the two, we call them proto-missions. Proto-missions share some but not all of the following characteristics of MOIPs as conceptualized by the OECD: a collectively-developed strategic orientation, dedicated governance structures for policy co-ordination and consistent policy implementation.

We recognize and acknowledge that missions (or proto-missions) will look vastly different depending on the context and development challenge. However, to understand why these differences might manifest and whether they are deficiencies or strengths in themselves, we need to look at what form they presently take. Understanding this can also inform development funders looking to adopt a mission-oriented innovation approach to tackling complex development challenges in LMICs.

Based on the proto-missions we analysed and the literature review we conducted, we present the following four observations:

First, proto-missions in development contexts do not feature strategic policy co-ordination mechanisms to accelerate progress towards mission goals.

This is in contrast to MOIPs in HICs. Each of the aforementioned proto-missions has a different governance structure to respond to specific challenges, but neither the JJM nor FP2030 has made an explicit attempt to test novel governance mechanisms such as innovation portfolio management approaches (as with the Viable Cities coalition in Sweden) or mega-project management approaches (as implemented by moonshot programmes in the USA).  

In India, for instance, water is governed at the state level. The current administration’s desire to prioritise rural water access thus required a new centrally based secretariat to manage the federally sponsored and (co-)financed scheme. This arrangement introduced a combination of decentralised governance, shared financing with community contribution and a clear ambitious target, all housed under the JJM. While it involves policy coordination (especially with respect to financing) between center and state, the proto-mission also exists as a standalone entity with a specific mandate, loosely related to but distinct from other water and water-related (e.g. climate) state and/or centrally sponsored schemes.  

As for Nepal, there have been attempts to develop and implement different governance and policy coordination mechanisms to advance the FP2030 proto-mission. However, they remain sporadic with weak inter-divisional linkages. The Family Welfare Division (FWD) under the Ministry of Health and Population is the central body driving family planning interventions and policies in the country. After Nepal federalized in 2015, the FWD has been more focused on more effective coordination amongst all three tiers of governments and capacity development of local health institutions. Other activities have been led by the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens. Alongside funding partners, they have launched a social and financial package to empower adolescent girls. Innovative efforts to manage programme delivery with support from donors, such as building a social franchising network or digitising logistics systems for managing family planning commodity supply (eLMIS) are in progress. None of these efforts are part of a coordinated policy package on family planning though.

In both instances, a stronger shared strategic orientation – whether on water-related goals in India or on governance mechanisms that address unmet family planning needs in Nepal – could avoid redundancies and provide a more coordinated steering mechanism to achieve the mission objectives. This is relevant not only for those managing proto-missions, but also for development funders who wish to support such efforts.

Second, proto-missions have not emerged from government entities dedicated to science, technology and innovation (STI).

Across the EU, missions are led and governed by STI ministries. In the case of the two proto-missions above, it is the Ministry of Jal Shakti’s department of water resources and Nepal’s Ministry of Health and Population. The limited involvement of national innovation departments partly explains why there is little focus on innovation and related investments in either of these cases.

Assessing the mission-readiness of respective regions or countries is increasingly becoming established practice in EU member states. In our research, by contrast, we found that prior to launching the proto-missions, neither government entities nor development co-operation organisations invested in analysing the strengths of local innovation ecosystems. Both the JJM and FP2030 feature little dedicated investment in strengthening local innovation ecosystems and tech production capabilities. In the case of FP2030, we saw a heavy reliance on north-south or south-south technology and product transfers – such as implants, injectables or even condoms due to lack of domestic production capabilities. Missions should not only achieve their stated objectives, but also be able to sustain these achievements. In the case of the JJM, where water supply infrastructure development is paramount to the achievement of the mission objectives, we found no indication that the mission was investing in or coordinating to strengthen the manufacturing capacities of national industries. A weak focus on the ability of local systems to match the desired pace of change, as well as ignoring critical dependencies, threatens the sustainability of mission outcomes.

This observation is crucial for development funders to consider when looking to advance missions or proto-missions in LMICs. Silos within funders themselves mirrors the disconnect between STI functions and those leading growth, industrial or innovation policies. The development experts and teams within funding organisations focus heavily on incubating new projects and providing project-level innovation advice. There is minimal collaboration that can inform macro-policies, particularly industrial growth strategies with dedicated inputs on inclusive innovation.

Third, like missions in HICs, proto-missions have collaborated with a wide range of public, private, and third-sector organisations.

The difference lies in the distinct stages of the mission lifecycle. In the JJM, stakeholder consultations and cross-sectoral partnerships have been the key to implementation within the existing mission framework, whereas for FP2030 the consultations and partnerships helped frame the mission objectives itself. Stakeholder representatives – including government, funders, CSOs, youth-led organisations and the private sector – contributed to the consultations and jointly agreed on the strategic agenda and goals for FP2030 in Nepal. The JJM also inadvertently catalysed innovation support from an adjacent private-sector challenge fund, The/Nudge Prize’s Ashirvad Water Challenge. Nonetheless, stakeholder engagement for designing novel financing and governance mechanisms was lacking in both proto-missions.

For development funders, this observation is important as it can provide valuable insights on the strategic orientation of a mission and help determine the legitimacy and directionality of its objectives. The ability of the JJM to catalyse private-sector commitment is also an example that could help development funders evaluate the viability of a proto-mission and, to some extent, the additionality of their investments.

Fourth, the proto-missions exist in somewhat tenuous and limited enabling environments.

The two we examined are grounded in national government priorities, systems, and processes, which is not where most development innovation spending is centred. The water and family planning missions are driven by political will: consequently, the investments and enabling environment are subject to the promises of politicians and the governing parties. Missions need an enabling environment that includes reliable financing, long-term institutional commitment, dedicated investments in proven interventions and a portfolio of innovations. In our review of the proto-mission approaches in the development sector, we found all four to be lacking on the funder’s side in significant ways.

What next?

There is a real risk that a concept such as mission-oriented innovation will simply be used as a label to rebrand ongoing work. We are keen to mitigate this risk, invest in a better understanding what works and where, and help partners generate interventions that include a “whole of government” and a “whole of society” approach.

Neither in high-, nor in middle- or low-income country contexts do we currently have established practice on what drives missions or proto-missions to success. Governance and funding mechanisms vary depending on context. As a result, many public sector entities across the globe are struggling to make missions work in practice. Our work at the OECD Mission Action Lab seeks to connect with practitioners and partners to develop and apply practical guidance on missions. Our work ahead dives into the governance of missions; monitoring, evaluation and learning; stakeholder coordination; and portfolio management.

If you are interested in learning more about the OECD Mission Action Lab or have interesting examples of MOIPs in LMICs, please write to us at [email protected]