Back to top

Is there a role for social innovation in tackling global poverty?

Jeremy Millard, Danish Technological Institute

What is the role social innovation can play in tackling global poverty and supporting sustainable development? This was the guiding question addressed during a two-day workshop held in London in February 2017 by Social Innovation Community Partner DTI, together with the European Commission project, SI-DRIVE (Social Innovation, Driving Force of Social Change). The thirty participants set out to tackle this question from a diversity of perspectives, and were made up of social innovators and representatives from the third, public and private sectors, and a number of regions including South America, South and East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The workshop comprised presentations, case studies, group and panel discussions, as well as a final round-up plenary focused on policy recommendations which social innovation activists and researchers could pass on to policymakers at all levels.

Tackling global poverty is one of the most pressing challenges the world faces today, despite the significant global falls in absolute poverty over the last fifteen years. In contrast, over the same timescale, relative poverty – which is measured as being below 60% of the median income - has risen threefold in Europe and other so-called ‘developed countries’. Alongside this income and social inequality have risen dramatically over the last fifteen years in almost all countries. This explains the sharp rise in relative poverty in Europe as the top 5% of the population pull increasingly away from the other 95%, in terms of their financial assets and in their quality of life and security. The new UN Sustainable Development Goals from 2016 to 2030, agreed by virtually all countries around the world, have been designed to address these and related issues through intense cooperation between governments, businesses and civil society organisations.

In this context, social innovation is already playing an important role in meeting the needs of those in poverty, but the impact could be even greater. For example, although the international development community often deploys social innovation methods, as illustrated in the examples below, they rarely recognise social innovation as a distinctive and coherent approach.


Learning from global examples of social innovation for poverty reduction and sustainable development

The workshop examined a number of case studies from three themes: income support, community capacity building and displacement and refugees. These themes had been previously selected by participants as representing some of the main types of social innovation initiatives addressing poverty and sustainable development around the world, as demonstrated by three case examples:

  1. Income support: Strengthening Popular Finances (Ecuador) aims to provide alternative financial services to rural populations without commercial bank credit access, and promotes local development through the use of small remittances and savings. This responds to a need identified by the Ecuadorian Populorum Progressio Fund (FEPP) for new financial structures in which poorer communities could place their savings and receive credits. The only credit channel previously available was the agiotista (loan sharks) who charge very high interest rates (up to 50%). Accessing credit outside the agiotista system was therefore a latent demand from vulnerable communities, and also acted as a barrier for the strengthening of productive activities and the creation of new micro-enterprises.
  2. Community capacity building: Dignity and Design (India) started after policy changes at national level gave rise to some structural changes, and drew attention to the existence of excluded communities and the problems of manual scavenging for a living. This was undertaken through skills development for decent livelihoods and social entrepreneurship, legal aid and intervention in cases of atrocity and violence against lower caste, tribal people and women. Support is also provided in accessing education, offering food and nutrition security and the promotion of basic rights and entitlements. The latter was achieved by training a cadre of so-called ‘barefoot lawyers’: local inhabitants lightly trained in awareness-raising amongst poor people of their rights and in assisting and empowering communities though capacity and organisation building.
  3. Displacement and refugees: Scattered Hospitality (Italy) is characterised by lots of experiments through informal networks across Italy by civil society organisations, spreading and comparing ideas, in order to help both refugees in situ and increase awareness amongst local host families and communities. The initiatives are typically small scale and require government or large donor support to scale. The goal is to support refugees to transition from asylum hospitality to start an independent life in European society. This family hospitality approach lasts from 6 to 12 months, and creates opportunities for newcomers to build a network, improve knowledge and capacities and find a job. For the host families, it is an opportunity to experience multiculturalism and solidarity at home and appreciate the problems and cultures of displaced people.



Highlights from the workshop discussions:

Poor communities possess huge potential, resilience and latent ability to be a big part of their own solution. Actions seeking to address poverty should focus less on ‘quick fixes’ and much more on opening opportunities to the poor in their specific context. Activities related to awareness-raising, advocacy and community-led mobilisation of poor people are critical. From the perspective of governments, funders and civil organisations, this implies a coordinated approach which cuts across administrative silos and links together a range of complementary actors depending on the specific objectives of each initiative.

Civil society organisations can play a special role as ‘trusted third parties’ linking others actors across silos and sectors. Such organisations are typically seen as not having their own commercial or political interests and are thus better able to be neutral mediators. In northern rural Ghana a local NGO partially supported by Danish development funding has successfully managed to mediate and coordinate appropriate all-round solutions in the context of community capacity-building for basic education, gender empowerment and employment. It did this by combining the efforts and resources from a range of actors (e.g. central and local governments, trades unions, local micro-enterprises, radio and TV outlets, village chiefs and councils, as well as international donors and experts).


The workshop also recommended a number of important messages for policy makers at all levels

  1. Using appropriate policy approaches. The kind of policy challenge being tackled, context, scale and actors involved will determine whether policymakers should opt for enabling and permissive policy on the one hand, or active/interventionist policy on the other. For instance, the following policy challenges can arise: 1) immediate humanitarian, crisis or relief (including disaster response); 2) addressing basic needs like social inclusion and employment; 3) addressing longer term needs like education and health, etc. In the first stage, civil society organisations often only need an enabling policy and legal environment, that allows them to deliver essential services (providing they are good quality and not exploitative). However, if they wish to scale in the second stage, an active policy approach might be needed to directly support social innovation through funding, establishing support structures and networks, public sector partnerships, or directly addressing the lack of suitable people, etc.
  2. Understand the role policy can play in developing social innovations in this context. There is value therefore in recognising that the development trajectory of a typical social innovation initiative tackling poverty looks something like this: Start with envisioning and describing desired outcomes, derived directly from a perceived/experienced societal need or challenge or from existing capacities and desires about the poor’s own vision of their future. Use social innovation to develop the capacities and skills of poor people from the bottom-up to support the outcomes in i) Do this within the existing structural context. Then attempt to change the structure so the social problems do not arise in first place, for example through legal and regulatory changes, fiscal adjustments, providing physical and/or digital one-stop shops and advice services, and working with non-government actors to simplify the lives of poor people, etc.
  3. Address the causes and symptoms of poverty. Policy should attempt to support social innovations which both tackle the symptoms of poverty and vulnerability, like lack of finance access, work, accommodation, education and good health, but also the root causes of these symptoms. In tackling symptoms it is clear that direct support should be given as well as efforts to increase the capacities and skills of poor people to solve their own problems. In terms of tackling root causes, however, policymakers need to address the wider societal structures which produce these symptoms in the first place. An example of the latter is the recent employment tribunal in the UK, which ruled that Uber can no longer classify drivers as self-employed. Now drivers must be given the legal status and benefits of employees. Rulings like this can have huge implications for poor people struggling to earn a living - by providing them with greater security. In India the world’s largest bio-metric ID system is being used to promote financial inclusion of the poor by simplifying and linking up contextual structures and supports. The formerly complex system of subsidies and benefits for the poor through a one-stop shop with simple identification, which raises awareness of what the poor are entitled to and makes it easier to access their rightful benefits.
  4. Policymakers should align social innovation policy directly to welfare policies as well as policies for social protection, social impact investment and the currently developing re-vamp of the ‘Social Europe’ strategy. For example, the European Commission’s IESI project is examining how ICT-enabled social innovation can support the implementation of the EU Social Investment Package[1]
  5. Policies at the local, municipality and city levels often have most impact, as they are close to the beneficiaries and know their actual contextual situation.


We’re interested in keeping the conversation going about how social innovation can tackle poverty and support sustainable development. If you’re exploring similar topics or would like to work with us, please get in touch with us at or on Twitter using the hashtag #socinnpolicy