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May 9, 2018

Employee Spotlight: Regional Engagement Analyst Rebecca Obrock

Rebecca Obrock is a Regional Engagement Analyst who has been employed by CAMRIS since 2014. She currently supports the Global Development Lab (the Lab) at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). We conducted the below interview with Ms. Obrock in April 2018.

Q/S: Please describe your role at CAMRIS and tell us about your work for USAID’s Global Development Lab (the Lab).

A/R: For the past few years, my primary function has been serving as the Lab’s team lead for the Uganda and Zambia Missions. The Lab created priority Missions to focus and catalyze our work in hopes of empowering the Mission to do even more innovative work on their own. We chose Uganda as our priority in 2015 since the Mission leadership was very enthusiastic and requested our assistance in creating a strategy that did not look like any one that had been created before. Through my participation as team lead, I helped coordinate Lab activities for the Mission as well as influence sections of their Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS). One of their guiding principles ended up concentrating on science, technology, and innovation, and another on private sector partnerships. I was able to take what I learned with this partnership and apply it to my team lead position for Zambia the following year. We have maintained amazing relationships with the two Missions and have been able to influence them to create more data-driven and innovative programming strategically.

I was named Lead Coordinator for the annual Science, Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (STIP) Summit. The first one I led was held in Peru in 2015 and the following was in South Africa in 2016. We invited Missions from all over the world with representation ranging from Mission leadership and program and technical offices to external organizations from various countries. We had over 100 participants for the South Africa Summit! Throughout the week we concentrated on introducing sessions that showed the participants how to integrate STIP into their work programmatically, strategically, and organizationally as well as look through an adaptive management lens for learning and research. It was inspiring to see the great work that is being done all over the world and the collaboration that took place amongst the participants.

Recently, I was named the STIP Assessment Coordinator to oversee the assessment process and ensure we are creating a valuable and action-oriented product. We have completed seven assessments to this point, and I have now brought what we have learned from the previous assessments to help create a SOP (standard operating procedure) to standardize and streamline the work.

I have since spoken with numerous Missions on moving forward with STIP Assessments this year and will help bring that work to fruition. I am formulating the teams that will go into the field, managing the communications with the Mission, and traveling on temporary duty assignments (TDAs) to Missions to conduct the assessment.

Q: What drove your interest in innovation and global development, and how has your background prepared you for your current role?

A: When the position description came out in 2013, I learned there was this bureau focusing on science, technology, innovation and partnerships that I had to learn more about. I recently finished my MPH (Master of Public Health) in global health and was hoping to do more in this area. To see that the Lab was doing this in new and interesting ways sparked my interest. 

I believe that as one of the most prosperous countries in the world it is part of our responsibility to bring to bear our resources to lower income countries. We have been doing this work for decades, and although we may have moved the needle on some amazing programs, I think it is time to find new ways of doing business that can leap frog current development goals and create more effective and efficient approaches to development.

Q: The Lab takes smart risks to test innovative ideas and leverage technology to help end poverty. Could you give us an example of a smart risk?

A: The Lab has created grand challenges, prizes, and grant programs that offer small grants to test out new, innovative ideas from new voices all around the world. We do this through a tiered approach and ensure the activity is meeting their short-term goals before releasing additional increments of funding. This allows us to take smart risks, fail fast, and pivot as needed depending on how each grantee performs.

One of our grant programs is called Development Innovation Ventures (DIV). DIV is a year-round, open competition supporting breakthrough solutions to development challenges around the world. DIV’s tiered-funding model, inspired by the venture capital experience, invests limited funds in relatively unproven ideas. USAID continues to support only those ideas/inventions that prove effective. DIV’s goal is to source, test, and scale innovative development ideas that are evidence-based, are cost-effective, and have the potential to scale to impact millions of people around the world.

Q: How does the Lab determine what projects have the best potential?

A: New ideas are solving critical development problems and improving lives around the world at an unprecedented rate. But very few solutions end up scaling significantly enough to achieve impact in low-income communities. To deepen and accelerate access to cutting-edge interventions, USAID applies market-driven approaches to the design, application, and expansion of the most promising solutions. The Lab’s Applied Innovation and Acceleration team manages high-performing innovators, comparing approaches to create efficiencies and supporting results-oriented solutions through high-touch, customized support that helps innovators overcome barriers to scale and maximize the potential of each innovation.

Q: What are some barriers that innovators face, and how does the Lab help them overcome challenges?

A: The number one barrier is financing and proper business education. With the grants we provide, we can support those innovators who usually don’t have institutions that will listen. It’s hard for some innovators to go to a bank because they don’t have a history to support their application and once they do receive the money they may not have the business plan to make their venture successful. These grants, and subsequent relationship, however, give them the opportunity to reach that next level and maximize their potential.

We don’t only support innovators, but also researchers who look into our development challenges. We have helped researchers communicate to different audiences so that they can better pitch how their research can transform the studied problem. During the PEER (Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research) forum in Peru in 2015, the team brought together a diverse group of researchers and stakeholders to network and form new collaborations, offering a unique set of skill building sessions, such as communicating with non-scientists, negotiating, reaching out to funders, and engaging with USG (U.S. Government) agencies that support applied scientific research.  

The Lab also has created an interactive platform called the Global Innovation Exchange. This site offers a database of innovations and funding, seeking to accelerate development through a collaborative approach. The platform connects entrepreneurs and small businesses worldwide with organizations offering funding opportunities, ranging from awards and prizes to grants, in hopes to accelerate their vision.

Q: We are interested in your expertise. Is there something important you would like to bring attention to/highlight?

A: One of the most critical elements of my work at USAID is communicating with Missions. There are teams here in DC that do some amazing and out of this world work, but without proper communication with those colleagues who are on the ground, they may never have the opportunity to reach the intended recipients. I have found it very rewarding establishing these relationships and visiting the Missions, thus creating connections that last longer than the few weeks I am there.

I think the work that the Lab has done is extremely important in the global development sphere. The United States has been the lead international development agency for decades and through the work of the Global Development Lab we can harness the power of innovative approaches to accelerate development impact as we have never seen before.