Acumen Blog


Louis Boorstin Responds to Acumen Fund’s Lesson #8 – Governments rarely invent solutions, but they can scale what works

Acumen Fund is committed to sharing the learnings we have collected over our past 10 years. In this spirit, we have published  a document called “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.” Each week on the Acumen Fund Blog, we will be posting the next lesson in this series of “10 Things,” along with a guest response from a valued member of our community.

8. Governments rarely invent solutions, but they can scale what works

I certainly agree that governments can be essential to scaling what works, but governments also have to be innovative in how they help scale successful programs.

Governments play a critical role in achieving scale given the scope of their reach and their permanence.  My preference is similar to Acumen’s, which is to scale through the private sector where possible, as incentives in the market system promote scale, sustainability, cost reduction and on-going innovation.   However, that’s not always possible when you’re trying to deliver goods or services that have high social benefits but are unaffordable to the poor or generate low willingness to pay.  Now we’re in the territory of bednets, pre-natal healthcare, sanitation and other ‘public goods’ where government can be an important partner.

So, what’s the right role for the government in these situations?  Start with the least intrusive, most catalytic approach and move towards direct implementation only if clearly needed.  First, make sure the policy environment provides the right incentives and penalties.  Second, keep a healthy distance between the government agencies overseeing a sector and the service providers, whether private or public, as that promotes accountability and good performance.  Third, if needed, provide targeted funding, such as giving vouchers to poor households to subsidize their purchase of specific goods or contracting to buy desired ‘outcomes’ such as payments to villages that have stopped defecating in the open (instead of the traditional subsidy per toilet installed).  Finally, and only if needed, use government to implement programs, but again focus on the outcomes you’re seeking instead of just funding activities.

An oft-cited example of a successful government scale-up is the Oportunidades program in Mexico, which reduces poverty by providing conditional cash transfers to families in exchange for regular school attendance, health clinic visits, and nutritional support.  The trick in this and other public sector programs is not whether to involve the government, but how to do so in the most effective way.

Louis Boorstin is Deputy Director of Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a former Acumen Fund Advisor. Louis was also formerly the Manager of Environmental Projects Unit at the International Finance Corporation.

Click here for the full “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.”


Four Emerging Leaders Building the Future of Pakistan

With 60% of Pakistan’s population living under less than a dollar a day, the external narrative of Pakistan is characterised by what the country lacks; a lack of security, a lack of women’s rights, a lack of access to education, and the list goes on. What this narrative ignores are the individuals who work tirelessly to plug those gaps. From human rights to education to food security, Acumen Pakistan Fellows are affecting change through organizations committed to tackling poverty. Their work is truly inspiring, promising a hopeful future for Pakistan. Here are four fellows that are building this future for Pakistan and come together periodically to share learning experiences and grow as leaders. Through five seminars, the fellows have strengthened skills of adaptability, communication, empathy and problem solving through listening. If you are committed to creating change in your community, apply now to be an Acumen Pakistan Fellow. The deadline is 29 September. [Read More]

Acumen Partners with AlphaSights to Better Access Global Expertise

In our work investing in social enterprises that deliver critical goods to the poor, there is a substantial amount of work to evaluate each investment opportunity. A critical part of the diligence process, particularly when it comes to emerging markets, is speaking with industry experts who can provide reliable information about sector trends, market dynamics and public policy – all of which affect our evaluation of potential investment opportunities. [Read More]


Our manifesto begins, “it starts by standing with the poor.” Yet for good reasons, the sector has found it challenging to measure which customers are actually being served through social impact investments – getting accurate data on incomes is notoriously difficult and the logistical challenge and cost of conducting surveys in person prohibitive. [Read More]

Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]

Give Impact Investing Time and Space to Develop

Impact investing has captured the world’s imagination. Just six years after the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term, the sector is booming. An estimated 250 funds are actively raising capital in a market that the Global Impact Investing Network estimates at $25 billion. Giving Pledge members described impact investing as the “hottest topic” at their May 2012 meeting, and Prime Minister David Cameron extolled the potential of the sector at the most recent G8 summit.  Sir Ronald Cohen and HBS Professor William A. Sahlman describe impact investing as the new venture capital, implying that it will, in the next 5 to 10 years, make its way into mainstream financial portfolios, unlocking billions or trillions of dollars in new capital. [Read More]

10 Books We’re Reading This Summer

What are you reading? It is a common question here at Acumen, an organization full of avid readers constantly trading favorite book titles that discuss leadership, impact, development and branding. Here are 10 stellar books we’re reading this summer. These books and others provide a framework of thinking, a spark of new ideas, a platform for debate. So, what are you reading? [Read More]

How Acumen Brought Back my Fire

Eda is an East Africa Regional Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya and is the Founder and Director of Halisi Trust, an organization that seeks to challenge the vices that plague society and encourage transformational development in Kenya’s youth. When Eda applied for the East Africa Fellows Program, she felt disillusioned and stuck. Below, Eda discusses how Acumen’s Regional Fellowship Program brought back her fire. Now, Eda has engaged nearly 6,000 people through outreach events and the Mkenya Halisi movement continues to grow. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of East Africa Fellows. APPLY TODAY! [Read More]

Imagining the world as it could be

Christine Gitau is an East Africa Fellow and an enterprise coach at Craft Afrika, which provides business support services to craft entrepreneurs, enabling them build viable and thriving businesses in Kenya. At Acumen we often use the term “Moral Imagination” when talking about leadership. Christine wrote a reflection on how this concept has shifted her thinking. We could not be more proud of what she is building! [Read More]

How two Acumen Fellows are disrupting the education model in India

Whether its running youth soccer programs, providing vocational training services, or transforming the education system in India, Acumen India Fellows are driving real change in their communities.  Abbas Dadla and Abhilasha Sinha are India Fellows who are addressing the teacher shortage in India through the use of technology and peer collaboration. Find out what they are building below.  If you have grit, resilience and a commitment to creating change in your community in India, East Africa or Pakistan, we encourage you to apply for the Regional Fellowship Program! [Read More]