(April 2006) The well-being of communities from Manila to villages in coastal Tanzania is being compromised as cities become more crowded and polluted and as the reliability of food and water supplies in rural areas becomes more uncertain. But policymakers have a unique opportunity to change these dynamics—by deliberately fostering innovation through an integrated approach to development.

An Integrated Approach to Development

An integrated approach to development recognizes that dealing with complex development priorities—such as poverty alleviation, environmental protection, or sustainable livelihoods—requires approaches that simultaneously link these issues. The key to this approach is innovation. Innovation drives stable economic growth, provides the basis for environmental sustainability, and is the key to improving human health and quality of life.

But recognizing the power of innovation is only a first step. Policymakers must be able to harness that power: to encourage innovation where it would otherwise not take place; to direct it to the national advantage; and to solve pressing social issues. Policymakers can implement some practical steps that enhance innovation. Three drivers of innovation are particularly salient: culture, capital, and connectivity.1

Innovative Culture: Entrepreneurial Policymakers

The first driver of innovation is culture. An innovative culture fosters people in all areas of a society who think about social problems in a creative and critical way—generating new ideas, accepting uncertainty and risk, and acting as entrepreneurs. Few individuals have all these skills, but all of society’s enterprises—industry, government, academia, arts, and community organizations—should have a ready supply of people to assemble into teams with the appropriate blend of skills.

We know that a culture of innovation can produce results. Teams of innovators have created technological advances that enable more food to be grown in smaller areas, wastewaters to be cleaned, and significant areas of biodiversity to be protected. Similar approaches can be used to address today’s pressing development challenges.

Global initiatives—in countries such as the Philippines, Tanzania, and Madagascar—are already successfully integrating economic growth, environmental management, good governance, social justice, and health service delivery.2 Policymakers facilitate such successes by encouraging a culture of innovation—creative risk taking, ambitious goal-setting, and entrepreneurship—at national and local levels.

Innovative Capital: The Role of Legislative Capital

The second driver of innovation is capital. Such capital includes investments in both specific ventures and in the infrastructure—physical, intellectual, and legislative—that will support innovation. Pioneering funders such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Summit Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have invested venture capital to test this idea of integrated development and have gathered evidence of this approach’s benefits.

Recent assessments have shown that linking population, health, and the environment has quickly and visibly responded to communities’ health, livelihood, and food needs. There have been rapid results in coastal settings, especially with regard to coastal conservation and food security when mangroves can be reforested and fish inventories can show positive results within a couple of years.

Communities have been particularly receptive because of concomitant microcredit initiatives, the involvement of women in environmental management, and men’s involvement in family planning. Program managers and community leaders like the cost-effectiveness that these programs offer because the programs reach more beneficiaries, achieve lower operating costs compared with single-sector interventions, and foster community goodwill and trust.3

Such results augur well for the further application of this approach. Additional investments and interest from policymakers (“legislative capital”) will help replicate these benefits elsewhere. Policymakers need to invest in research and development to demonstrate the comparative advantage of this approach, to intensify existing initiatives, and to determine how this approach can be applied in different settings.

Connectivity: Coalitions and Leadership

The third driver of innovation is connectivity. Institutions and policymakers need to collaborate across different sectors. Coalitions and leaders (including those working in the policy community, the media, the academic community, other NGOs, and individuals with political connections) can mobilize and sustain attention around a particular issue. Coalitions also serve as an effective channel through which to communicate innovation, particularly to peers. Research has shown that most individuals evaluate an innovation on the basis of the experience of peers who have adopted it.4

In the Philippines, the Population Reference Bureau helped form a national coalition for population, health, and the environment to create opportunities where innovative solutions to pressing development problems become politically attractive and feasible. Some of the policymakers in this coalition include mayors and program managers who were unsure of the benefits of integrated approaches at the outset. The evidence presented and dialogue that ensued in the coalition brought them “on board”—not only as partners but as champions of the integrated approach.

The coalition’s efforts contributed to policy change in some municipalities. Its members linked existing problems to policy goals and used their research and program results to offer their peers—other legislators, mayors, and local decisionmakers—a range of solutions. Together, these decisionmakers subsequently placed integrated approaches on their respective policy agendas and encouraged others to do so.

Using Innovation to Set Policy Priorities

The approach of linking population, health, and environment issues illustrates how all three drivers of the innovation equation—culture, capital and connectivity—are interrelated and can be combined to enable policymakers to turn innovative ideas into practical realities. There are specific actions that policymakers can take in each of these areas.

Promote an Innovative Legislative Culture

Support national policies that will facilitate integrated approaches. National policies that clearly articulate a vision for a country in areas such as land use, population and development planning, and reproductive health can contribute to a broad national policy framework within which integrated approaches could benefit the general populace.

In the Philippines, for example, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), Path Foundation Philippines Inc., used a framework for sustainable coastal resource management developed by the country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture to promote reproductive health into coastal resources management efforts in the municipality of Candijay, in the Bohol region.

The municipality sanctioned the integration of family planning into its coastal resource management framework, becoming the first local government unit in the province and the country to approve a five-year coastal plan that incorporates reproductive health as an additional management strategy to ensure food security and sustainability of coastal resources.5 Working with such national level frameworks allows for flexibility at the local level.

Encourage the integration of population considerations in development planning. The investigation of a range of population considerations—such as population growth, migration, fertility, and age structure—can help managers develop informed strategies for development planning that includes income generation, community health, disaster mitigation, community empowerment, environmental sustainability, and food security.

For instance, the Institute of Resource Assessment at the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania is working with policymakers to incorporate population and environment interactions into development planning tools—such as mapping the impacts of population growth and settlement patterns on natural resources or incorporating population dynamics into environmental impact assessments. These tools help evaluate the environmental, social, and economic impact of proposed governmental projects.

Participation in such efforts from a wider group of government agencies and organizations could allow for greater expansion of integrated programming into new geographic areas—including urban centers, where issues such as basic social services provision, pollution, garbage collection, and youth employment could be addressed in a more integrated manner.

Provide Legislative Capital

Invest in training innovative leaders. Policymakers can invest in a new generation of innovative leaders by establishing training programs for NGOs and community representatives such as mayors and governors. Training should be based upon concepts of leadership, teamwork, scenario planning, communication, and project management to empower participants to lead national initiatives more effectively. The training should utilize approaches that have been used and tested in existing projects.

Supporting capital investment for new satellite projects. Funds can be invested as small-scale capital for the promotion of innovation for new projects. Priority should be given to projects in economically depressed regions. National environmental priorities—such as areas of high biodiversity, coastal resource management, and urban slums—should also play a part in the selection evaluation process. Each project should be required to demonstrate its anticipated effect and how it will apply an integrated approach. Each project should also achieve specific results that improve the lives of community residents, empower residents, and involve policymakers.

One example comes from the United States, where Congress in 2002 directed USAID to include in its allocation of family-planning assistance money “areas where population growth threatens biodiversity and endangered species.” Such legislative capital led to the founding in 2002 of a population-health-environment program within USAID to fund projects providing reproductive health services in and around biodiversity hotspots—areas of high biological diversity under direct human threat.6

Recognize the Value of Connectivity and Work with Local and International Partners

Foster cooperative, cross-sectoral relationships among NGOs, academia, and government agencies. Policies that encourage collaboration across the population, health, and environment sectors allow for coordinated action on priority development issues such as poverty alleviation, sustainable development, food security, environmental management, and disaster mitigation.

These programs can yield quick wins (such as reductions in illegal fishing) as well as build steadily toward longer-term goals (such as empowering families to achieve their desired family size and engage in stable livelihood activities). The participation of a wide range of participants from government agencies, local and national legislatures, NGOs, and the private sector can promote information sharing, activity coordination, and the formation of partnerships that can facilitate effective integrated programming.

Herald successes and create centers of innovation. Policymakers should support centers of excellence that have successfully implemented integrated population, health, and environment programs. These sites will help train others in lessons of innovation, generating income for the local communities and encouraging visitors from other regions to learn first-hand about the programs they implemented. Such centers of excellence and learning could serve as “living universities” to educate future leaders on how to design, promote, and sustain linked approaches to poverty alleviation. These centers could be linked to local and global technical experts and mentors.

In Madagascar, for example, social marketing is used to encourage “champion communities”—leaders and innovators who set and meet their own population, health, and environment goals.7 This approach uses an innovator model that promotes early adopters of positive practices in the community as role models. The model recognizes that early adopters are instrumental in moving an innovation to the point where its rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining.8

Sustained Natural Resources and a Healthy Population Lead to Poverty Reduction

The messages are clear. Natural resources provide the foundation of the economy. And without health, the economy, no matter how strong, does people no good. A sustained natural-resource base, along with a healthy population, brings the goal of poverty reduction within sight, not just now but into the future.

When we link population, health, and the environment, we improve our health, our economy, and our children’s future. Human inventiveness has provided some technological solutions, but the drivers of innovation—culture, capital and connectivity—can be combined to enable creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, researchers, donors, and policymakers to join forces to turn innovative ideas into practical realities.

Informed policymakers can harness the power of innovation to address the complex long-term issue of poverty alleviation and to empower local communities to find creative solutions. Ultimately, by deliberately using the levers of innovation, we will develop policies and approaches to reduce poverty and provide for sustainable development in a rapidly changing world.

Roger-Mark De Souza is the technical director of the Population, Health, and Environment Program at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. The ideas expressed here about these three components of innovation are adapted from Charles Allen, Culture, Capital and Connectivity Are the Keys to Successful Innovation (2000), accessed online at www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=1366, on Jan. 21, 2006.
  2. Roger-Mark De Souza et al., “Critical Links: Population, Health, and the Environment,” Population Bulletin 58, no. 3 (2003).
  3. John Pielemeier, Review of Population-Health-Environment Programs Supported by the Packard Foundation and USAID (unpublished paper, 2005).
  4. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Commentary Resulting from a Workshop on the Diffusion and Adoption of Innovations in Environmental Protection: A Commentary by the EPA Science Advisory Board (2000), accessed online at www.epa.gov/sab, on January 21, 2006.
  5. Population Reference Bureau, From Roadblock to Champion: PHE Advocacy and Local Government Executives (forthcoming).
  6. Population Action International, Finding Balance: Forests and Family Planning in Madagascar (2005), accessed online at www.populationaction.org/resources/factsheets/factsheet_28.htm, on January 21, 2006.
  7. Environment Health Project, Integrating Health, Population, and the Environment in Madagascar, accessed online at www.ehproject.org, on January 21, 2006.
  8. Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 1995).