Innovating for pro-poor services: Why politics matter

Nathaniel Mason, Clare Cummings, and Julian Doczi


This paper argues that politics is a major factor that can interact with innovations, with positive or negative implications for services for poor people and achievement of related sustainable development goals targets. The key question it seeks to address is, ‘How do innovation and politics interrelate when it comes to providing services for poor people, and what are the implications for action?’

The paper includes a review of the literature on technological innovation, pro-poor service delivery and political science. The authors used this review to generate a list of research questions and potential case studies of interesting innovations emerging in certain country or regional contexts. They then undertook written, telephone and in-person interviews with the entrepreneurs and NGOs championing these focal innovations, relevant sector and country experts and staff from development agencies and foundations supporting these innovations. In all, the authors consulted 33 individuals in 22 organisations. The authors assured their subjects of confidentiality to encourage them to speak freely about the political risks and opportunities they face. The paper does not attribute specific quotes to specific individuals or organisations.

Because of the complexity of causal chains, the report does not get to the level of quantifying the ‘pro-poorness’ of service delivery outcomes (e.g. sustained use over time) or impacts (better health, welfare, opportunity). As such, this paper generally offers anecdotal evidence of how politics have affected intermediate service delivery outcomes for poor people – such as affordability of drinking water, time to receive medical advice or continuity of energy supply. An important direction for further research in this area is to combine quantitative methods with deeper political economy analysis to understand better the relationships between innovation, politics and poverty.

The paper has three main findings, each of which builds to a recommendation on how politics can be better incorporated into efforts to foster and support innovation with the goal of better basic services for poor people.

These are:

  1. Innovation around pro-poor services is inherently political. Backers of innovation need to shift their perspectives to understand how and why.
  2. A politically informed, problem-driven approach can help those backing innovations to focus on why failures in pro-poor services persist, and what sorts of innovation could help.
  3. Those backing innovations for pro-poor services can help navigate challenging politics as they go to scale, by suggesting adaptations to the innovation itself or using influence to help resolve political bottlenecks.

Alongside the full report, ODI has published an 8 page policy brief outlining policy recommendations based on the research.


Mason, N., Cummings, C., & Doczi, J. (2016). Innovating for pro-poor services: Why politics matter (ODI Insights). London: ODI.