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#182 Innovation Tourette’s

November 19, 2012

Et tu, Hillary? (Image from

Submitted by “R”

Expat Aid Workers, first and foremost, are ardent agents of change. The whole reason they’re expats, after all, is that they clearly understand how to do something better than in collaboration with the locals. The EAW’s technical expertise is the reason that governments pay to export them to all of the world’s most despondent locales to pilot their ideas for social, economic, and cultural transformation.

One only has to look around any EAW meeting to see the increasingly young, fresh-faced future of international development, the young Turks who are replacing their older colleagues by abandoning obsolete baggage like “experience” and “skills” in favor of “ideas,” “moral clarity,” and (gasp) “technology.”

And real recognizes real. Young EAWs are doing to older EAWs what older EAWs have been doing to beneficiaries for years: bringing in all kinds of newfangled shit that is, perhaps, not entirely relevant to their context. For decades, EAWs have excused themselves from understanding technology by either sheepishly looking down at Teva-clad socks and reminding us that they’ve been in “the field” forEVER or by firing back with sarcastic mea culpas about lives they’ve saved (“Sorry man, I’m too busy feeding starving babies to learn to Twit about it.”)

But somehow, while the career EAW was attending important life-saving meetings, his kid’s Atari turned into the Interwebs. And then the Arab Spring happened and being a technophobe suddenly became a liability.  The young geek EAWs brought out their shiny toys and their silver bullets and paraded them in front of Secretary Clinton (et tu, Hillary?) to the point that video games are now officially “the nervous system for our planet.” All of a sudden, donors are using words like Twitter, Facebook, disruption and crowd sourcing.

These days, playing the innovation card is critical, and if you are not “being innovative,” chances are you are not “getting funded.”  The unholy union of young people and established institutions has started bearing down on our well-intentioned, middle-aged EAW with all the bewildering familiarity of a bar fight in Klingon. It has created, as so many unholy unions have before, a disease:  Innovation Tourette’s.

Definition: Innovation Tourette’s:  

1)   the sporadic, often contextless, name-dropping of technology platforms and concepts

2)   use of the word ‘innovation’ itself as an approach, process, or, dare we say it, an outcome.


“We will innovate a platform that enables crowdsourcing of election monitoring data to sustainably hold the government transparently accountable.”  

“Our social enterprise builds local innovation capacity through scalable technology, market based solutions, and multi-sector engagement.”

“Please pass the innovateinnovateinnovate SCALE!!!… soy sauce?”

Although it is difficult to trace the origins of Innovation Tourette’s, a few telltale signs warn of impending outbreaks:

  • The Presence of Hubs. Innovation Tourette’s most commonly takes root in “hubs.”  These hubs can sprout out of nearly any building. All they require is consistent access to one of three things: coffee, electricity, or the Internet. Consistent access to two or more of these appears to eradicate innovation completely, significantly reducing the outbreak threat. Hubs are most commonly found after a donor or government expresses the urge to “re-create Silicon Valley right here in….” Any EAW would, of course, understand this to mean pour billions of dollars in defense engineering funding into a socially and narcotically progressive suburban culture. What usually happens instead, however, is that an NGO overpays to rent a building, install comparatively good Internet, seed a stand-up coffee shop, and host a lot of itinerant local grad students.
  • Grad Students. Innovation Tourette’s is particularly prevalent among EAWs of all ages, but patient zero was definitely a grad student with a solid academic background from a well-respected university, who noticed a problem in the developing world while volunteering or backpacking. This specimen then also noticed a technology that made that problem less bad and INNOVATEd! a solution. There’s no question that patient zero was an EAW-to-be. (He is now a social entrepreneur).
  • Bloomin’ Flowers. Another early onset symptom of Innovation Tourette’s consists of people around an EAW using the phrase, “let a thousand flowers bloom.” This not only predicts an upcoming outbreak of the disease; it warns of lots of soon-to-be-dead flowers. Here, of course, flowers are the dreams of social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs who were once, in their hearts, EAWs.

The truth is, we know far too little about Innovation Tourette’s, only that it’s growing faster than we can contain. There is perhaps no disease doing more to confuse the elderly, euphemize the work that EAWs do, or make it clear that donors have no idea what they’re doing.

Luckily bright young social entrepreneurs have noted the presence of the Syndrome, and SEAWL is sure one of them will soon innovate a market sustainable cure. Damnit.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    November 19, 2012 9:12 am

    The nail has been hit on the head here, fellas.

  2. Amai permalink
    November 19, 2012 10:29 am

    Thank you for this post. I am a proposal coordinator and sitting in strategy meetings, the middle aged EAWs who’ve amassed field experience greater than the sum of my lifetime always go on about innovation and being innovative with an unmatched level of vagueness. The fun/funny part is when they try to define what innovation means and it always comes back to…mobile phone use in developing countries! To me that is so 2006, but they act like mobile phones just hit developing countries yesterday.

  3. November 19, 2012 12:25 pm

    “R” for the win. Best post in a long time!

  4. Roberta permalink
    December 12, 2012 12:20 am

    And meanwhile the poor look at the young and old EAW, tech savvy and non-tech savvy EAW and wonder what the hell are these folks doing out here.
    And the poor taxpayer who funds the young and old EAW wonders if he has been suckered.
    And the local folks who bear the cost of starting and maintaining the Arab Spring are left high and dry when the going gets too rough for the young and old EAW.

    The EAW sector is for building resumes that can be used to get a cushy yuppie self-satisfied life in a nice rich location and then spend the rest of life attending tech summits and inspiring seminars in sylvan locations such as SF, DC, Oxford, London. And of course it spawns a wonderful flow of tweets and blogs


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