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James Habyarimana joins the GIF Board

By Zach Johnstone, Senior Advisor  |   Posted 18th November 2020

We are delighted to announce that James Habyarimana has joined the GIF Board of Directors.

James is the Provost Distinguished Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, where his research is focused on identifying low-cost strategies to address barriers to better health and education outcomes in developing countries. He serves on an Independent Technical Review Panel for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). He is a founding member and former co-Director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Innovation, Development and Evaluation (gui2de), and an affiliate of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).

Meet James Habyarimana

What most interests you about GIF’s mission?

A lot of my own research is motivated by the broad question of why some countries are poor and others are rich, and how programs and policies can improve very poor people’s lives. Of particular interest is the gap between the ideas that are generated by universities and other institutions, and implementing the resulting solutions at a scale that can make a substantial difference in the real world.

A compelling attribute of GIF is the way that it not only primes the pump for powerful ideas, but it also creates the pathways through which these ideas can then reach the people whose lives they are designed to improve. University professors aren’t set up to do this: GIF gives potential solutions a chance to establish themselves and signal to governments and/or the market that they are viable. This is a huge, and important, gap that GIF is filling.

GIF is open to fund innovations from any region and any sector where our capital can be catalytic. Are there investments you find particularly inspiring?

There are so many innovations in the GIF portfolio that are exciting – ranging from those which focus on gender empowerment like No Means No Worldwide, to innovations like CityTaps which are creating new and vital markets. So I answer this question with the caveat that I’d would talk about all of them if I could!

However, given my research focus on health and education, I am particularly inspired by the innovations in the GIF portfolio which focus on early childhood education. If we know anything about learning outcomes, it is that a lot of children start school when they are not ready to master foundational competencies. Teaching foundational skills to children between the ages of three and six may be the highest return investment in development available today, and organisations like Lively Minds and SmartStart are great examples of how GIF is supporting crucial innovations in this space.

What motivated you to join the GIF Board?

I grew up in a developing country where people face the problems and challenges that GIF addresses. I’ve always been motivated and driven by the idea that I want to be involved in generating and supporting solutions to those problems, so my values feel well aligned with the work that GIF is taking forward.

Focusing on the poorest people who have the least power to get the things they need is something that I really value, and I love that GIF has an explicit focus on people earning less than $2 a day. The idea that drives much of my research is “to understand the challenges facing the poor and designing programs to address the constituent constraints” – to inform the translation, by other actors including GIF, of insights from research into durable solutions. GIF feels like a great home for me and it is a privilege and honor to have the opportunity to support this important work.

What, in your view, makes GIF’s approach to impact investment different?

I think that there are three main things that GIF does which, taken together, make its approach unique. Firstly, GIF finds and incubates important solutions to major development challenges. It then combines this with a focus on rigorous evidence, and only funds innovations that can demonstrate their potential to reach millions of the world’s poorest people. GIF also has a strong commitment and a unique expertise to scale innovation. This is a combination of objectives and capacity that is missing from many of the non-government actors including university platforms. The goals of identifying, incubating, and using rigorous evidence to produce solutions that reach as many people as possible makes the GIF approach unique.

You mention GIF’s strong commitment and expertise to scale innovation. Why do you feel this important? 

Throughout history, human beings have always sought solutions to the constraints that make it harder for us to survive. This quest is about discovering ideas, and following a process in which we translate, test and adopt the resulting solutions.

In the long run, developing countries will get richer. In the short run, we need to support urgent innovations to catalyse this process so that we address problems tomorrow, or in five years, rather than decades or even centuries from now. Innovation means finding solutions to problems so that we can bring prosperity to people in their lifetime, and in their children’s lifetime, and for it not to be just a distant dream.

GIF is exciting because it has a mandate to find and support this urgent innovation. It makes it possible for innovators and entrepreneurs to test their ideas out, prove their, and indicate to commercial investors or governments that they are worth implementing.

Partnership is key to GIF’s model – who would you like to see GIF partnering with in the future?

What GIF is doing is not just finding great ideas and supporting them, but thinking about how to measure benefits through its Practical Impact methodology.

In some ways GIF brings to the table a lot of what people in the world of venture capital and private equity do. A lot of ideas from the private sector are already being used creatively at GIF, and we need more of this in the development community. For a long time, development has been dominated by economists and bureaucrats, but scale is a domain where actors in the private sector have an excellent track record. I would suggest more interaction with the world of private venture capital both for ideas and the capital to support the innovations that address the challenges of the poor.

The most important partner, though, would be one with the ability to fund GIF to continue to grow what it is already doing: taking smart risks on evidence-based innovations in pursuit of social impact, with the aim of improving the lives of millions of people throughout the developing world.