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MIT will receive up to $25 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as one of seven university partners in a newly-launched Higher Education Solutions Network. The network aims to engage institutions of higher education in addressing global development challenges. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah hopes this initiative will “recapture the legacy of science, technology and innovation as core drivers of development — as well as inspire and support the next generation of development leaders.”

MIT’s involvement in the USAID program consists of two initiatives and will feature participation from various departments, centers, and schools around the Institute.

First, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning will lead the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), dedicated to developing a methodology for evaluating technological solutions for the developing world. This enterprise will be supported by D-Lab, Engineering Systems Division, the Sloan School of Management, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Public Service Center.

The CITE project will utilize a three-pronged framework for the assessment of poverty-alleviating technologies, evaluating them according to the criteria of suitability, scalability, and sustainability. The goal of this methodology is to help donors and policy makers identify and invest in the technological innovations that will make the greatest impact.

Second, D-Lab will lead a consortium of higher-education institutions in creating an International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) to “establish and nurture a global network of local innovators using technology to address issues facing people living in poverty.” This project will involve twelve international design summits and the creation of eight “Innovation Hubs” focused on technological development.

With the new USAID support, D-Lab founder Amy Smith said, “We can harness the alumni of IDDS [the International Development Design Summits] as a kind of an extremely diverse and dispersed design consultancy.” By connecting technologists and community partners around the world, IDIN exemplifies the D-Lab mantra of “creative capacity-building,” which advocates the fostering of local innovation. This philosophy characterizes people in the developing world not as passive beneficiaries of new technologies, but as active members of the design process. As a result, the resulting innovations are informed by local knowledge about geographic conditions and cultural factors, and are more sustainable in the long run.­

Moreover, the USAID grant will allow for longer-term maintenance of D-Lab student projects initiated during field trips to developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The new funding will enable students to transition these projects into sustainable organizations by utilizing local talent and entrepreneurship.

At the formal launch event for the Higher Education Solutions Network, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the Obama administration’s commitment “to elevate development alongside diplomacy and defense” as the “three Ds” of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Clinton also posed the challenge to grant recipients, “How can we ensure that this is not just a series of individual grants or one-off accomplishments, but instead we create an integrated network that delivers large scale impact?”

By taking a holistic approach focused on local capacities, the CITE and INIT programs hope to offer an answer to this question — albeit one that breaks the mold of building roads or schools. With the USAID grant, these initiatives may come to redefine the model of international development.