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UNICEF Executive Board

Willing to fail: Innovating for positive change

"Now is the time to take innovation to the next level": United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon


By Kristin Taylor

NEW YORK, United States of America, 3 February 2015 – The 2015 Joint Meeting of the Executive Boards of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)/the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)/the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the World Food Programme (WFP) was held yesterday at United Nations Headquarters.

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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gives the keynote address at a joint meeting of the UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS, UNICEF, UN-Women and WFP Executive Boards, at UN Headquarters in New York.

The event provided members of the Boards, agency heads and other stakeholders with an opportunity to discuss the role of innovation in carrying out the mandates of the represented United Nations bodies. Together, the six UN organizations deliver US$15 billion each year in development and humanitarian assistance.

Risks worth taking

In his first time addressing the Joint Meeting of the Executive Boards, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, “A United Nations that is properly serving the world’s people is one that is always reflecting on its work, learning from realities on the ground and finding improved ways to respond to the world’s needs and opportunities.” Mr. Ban emphasized four key points about innovation:

  • “Innovation is not an end in itself”: Rather, it is a means to achieve and augment results for the people the United Nations serves.
  • “Partnerships are vital”: Strategic partnerships help ensure that best practice and maximum knowledge guide work on innovation, and that such work is carried out with sufficient funding.
  • “Innovation needs an enabling environment”: The United Nations stands to gain from the model, often used in the private sector, of researching, testing and nurturing new ideas, taking successful solutions to scale and then monitoring and measuring results.
  • “UN funds and programmes need to be able to expand the space for innovation, and at times to fail”: Cultivating an environment in which innovation can thrive means acknowledging that, like any opportunity, it carries risks.
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UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Ethiopia Hannah Godefa (left) moderates the ‘Fail Fair: Learning from Risk-taking’ panel discussion, at the joint meeting of Executive Boards.

Innovators dare to fail

The importance of failure as a learning opportunity was explored in greater depth in the segment that followed, ‘Fail Fair: Learning from Risk-taking’. The session was moderated by UNICEF National Ambassador for Ethiopia Hannah Godefa.

In his remarks, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake acknowledged the trepidation that goes hand-in-hand with risks and potential failure: “Innovation implies doing something new and different. It means change. ‘New’, ‘different’, ‘change’: three scary words in any organization, the UN included. These words imply risk, potential failure and blame.” But, he emphasized, without risk and failure, we would not have innovations that make a positive difference for the world’s children.

During the panel discussion, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, Executive Director of UNFPA Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNOPS Grete Faremo, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Lakshmi Puri and Deputy Executive Director of WFP Amir Mahmoud Abdulla all spoke about the role innovation is playing in enhancing the work of their organizations.

Taking innovation to the next level

The discussion made it clear that a willingness to innovate is the only successful path forward for United Nations agencies as they work with Member States to build a better future for all.

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UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake speaks at the panel discussion ‘In partnership with others: Lessons learned on scaling up innovation to reach people in need’, at the joint meeting of Executive Boards.

“The United Nations is far more innovative than we are usually given credit for – but we are still not innovative enough,” said Mr. Ban. “With a new era of work soon to be upon us, now is the time to take innovation to the next level.”

Throughout his remarks, Mr. Lake stressed that innovation need not always refer to technological inventions, but can include using new approaches and rethinking procedures and policy, the underpinnings of programmes that go on to effect real change in the lives of children and families.

But, in order for real change to be possible, these same children and families – and their particular circumstances – need to be integral to the process of innovation.



UNICEF Photography: UNICEF's Executive Board

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