On her first day of work at USAID, disaster struck. Maura O’Neill ’05 (EMBA) was immediately drafted onto the U.S. government’s executive response team to respond to the earthquake in Haiti. The agency quickly opened an operations center, and under the leadership of its new director, Dr. Raj Shah, a team was deployed to provide disaster relief. As senior counselor to the administrator and director of innovation for the agency, O’Neill had no time to waste.
O’Neill had previously worked with Shah at USDA, where she was an adviser until the beginning of 2010. For the past 25 years, she has worked in the public, private and academic sectors with a focus on two areas: sustainable energy development and innovation. President Obama and Congress have pushed to make USAID the most effective foreign aid agency in the world. To that end, they have recruited talent such as O’Neill to introduce an entrepreneurial zeitgeist to the agency’s development work. “My role is to help the agency think outside of the box,” O’Neill says. “We want to be the premiere agency looking forward — unleashing the creativity inside and outside the agency — rather than just doing business as usual.”
What is driving the push to innovate at USAID?
We have a whole new set of partners, foundations and private companies that didn’t exist a decade ago. Our agency has the opportunity to partner with them while working with our traditional partners of country governments and NGOs. We are thinking about how to best work with these new partners — how we can best leverage each other’s talents.
How do you explain the recent boom in development-focused foundations and start-ups?
The reasons are two-fold. First, we live in a much more globally connected world, and we’re much more aware of what’s happening in other parts of the world. Visually we can see what’s happening in a way that we were not able to in the past. It took 40 years for televisions to have a penetration of 50 million people; it took Facebook two years to reach that number. The visual interest and interconnectedness of our technology has given people an awareness and opportunity to say “I can help” in new and meaningful ways. There is a whole new generation of significant foundations that are keenly interested in having an impact on the issues that USAID cares deeply about like governance, civil society, poverty, global health, food security and entrepreneurship.
What do you look for in creating successful innovation?
We want to look broadly not just at development projects but catalytic events. For example, a 19-year-old farmer in Malawi who was very worried about the drought and its effects on his family went to a library that was supported by USAID. He found an old eighth-grade-level textbook called Using Energy. From that, he figured out how to build a windmill with scrap material that allowed for both water pumping and electricity generation. Having that lending library was needed to spark and leverage the imagination and provided a person in a developing country with the know-how to fundamentally make a difference for his extended family.
What challenges do you see to implementing more of these types of events?
In the United States, President Obama has made universal broadband access a priority. That movement is much like the one we had in the 1940s to move everyone onto the electric grid. However, the challenge of getting broadband access across the United States is not unlike the one felt globally. How do you get tools and development platforms in health, food security and economic growth to people in dispersed areas? In cases where poverty is extreme, how do you keep prices low enough so that people can access resources? Our two challenges are financial access and geographical access.
Maura O’Neill ’05 (EMBA) is a senior lecturer in the Berkeley-Columbia EMBA Program. She served as the chief of staff for Senator Maria Cantwell from 2008–09 and has founded several education- and energy-focused start-up companies.